Insomnia, Sleep Disorders and Sleeplessness

What do we mean by Insomnia?

Let's start with what we don't mean by insomnia! If you can't sleep because of an existing illness or temporary change in circumstances, then probably that needs to be sorted out first.

For example, if you can't sleep because:

  • you're excited about getting up early to start a journey
  • you have asthma
  • because your skin itches in bed
  • of an impending interview (eg fear or excitement)
  • of anger
  • you're ill with a cold or something worse
  • you're suffering from jetlag, or an accident, or surgical operation, or pain, or over-exertion,

© mediterranean -

  • you can't get warm
  • you're too hot from recent exercise
  • you're hungry
  • you've taken too many stimulants 
  • or ...!

Sorry! All those are excellent reasons for your sleeplessness and Chinese Medicine may be able to help them, but they're not the subject of this page.


Because in some cases it's your own fault - for example you've drunk too much coffee!

In others, once the underlying illness is cured your sleeplessness will go, meaning that your problem is secondary to something else e.g.:

  • Painful joints
  • Bi-polar conditions where you veer wildly between two extremes mentally
  • you have a disease with symptoms that prevent sleep (eg, cough, bladder incontinence)

Chinese Medicine and Insomnia

Willingly or otherwise, you've arrived on a page that explains insomnia and sleep disorders from a different point of view - that of Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine began who knows when, but there are written records going back 3000 years, with a world-view, or rather a universe-view, that modern scientists and philosophers have only recently begun to appreciate.

This way of looking at life and health continues to make a huge impression on those who have seen it in action, and it is used by people and in medical practices and large hospitals round the world.

Adaptations of it include what is called Battlefield Acupuncture, developed by the United States Army Medical Corps.

Further down this page you can read how Chinese medicine fits insomnia into its ideas about Yin and Yang.

But if you are interested in research on acupuncture and insomnia, click here.

Sleep Disorders

Insomnia comes in many forms. Click the links to find out more:

Did you know? 

According to Sleep, ( less than 6 hours of sleep a night makes you more susceptible to catching colds.

A study of 160 people given cold virus nasal drops showed that those averaging under 6 hours sleep were four times as likely to catch a cold as compared with those who got more than 7 hours nightly.

Sleep well and stay well!

The Insomniac's Balloon!

Let me paint you a picture...

Imagine a hot air balloon, held down by a large bucket containing liquids and fuel. If you like, the balloon represents your mind and the bucket your body. The bucket's contents represent your reserves of energy and the liquids in your body.

As it's a hot air balloon, it burns the liquids to heat the air in the balloon to make it rise up.

In Chinese Medicine terms the balloon is Yang (tries to expand and rise) and the bucket and its contents Yin (tries to contract and descend). Click Yin and Yang to read more on this.

When you are awake and feeling good...

When you're awake, the balloon (Yang - your Mind) is hot and it easily floats upwards, untroubled by sleepiness.

This might be after a good night's sleep, when you emerge in a positive frame of mind and looking forward to the day ahead.

Conversely, when you are tired and want to lie down...

...after you've used up the reserves in the tank, the balloon is less hot and sinks downwards.

What Happens if the Bucket is too small?

When the bucket is too small, or doesn't contain enough counterweight, just the fuel, the balloon ascends too easily because there isn't enough to hold it down.

If your bucket is too small, possibly you are a small child or an elderly person.

In both cases, your body can't easily 'contain' enough liquid so it can't outweigh your Yang and Mind energy.

Here even a little heat is enough to raise the balloon. (Babies with small bodies can be hard to settle. Older people have shrunken bodies or depleted liquids that don't contain enough Yin factors to keep them asleep.)

What happens when you can't sleep because the Balloon is too hot?

If your mind is too active, or you're high on excitement (or drugs), or you're too hot perhaps from dancing or exercise, then your Yang is too strong for your Yin, at least until the Yang (your Mind and your heat) has cooled down a bit.

This is not uncommon the night before a big event, a journey, a holiday or a party.

Of course, it also covers when you have a fever or when the weather is too hot.

What Happens when you are sleeping Well?

As mentioned, the balloon is Yang, the bucket is Yin and so are its contents. To get to sleep and to stay sleep, you need enough Yin (an adequately-sized bucket with enough liquid), and reduced Yang (a reducing flame and hence a cooler balloon).

When you are comfortably asleep, Yang rests within Yin: your Mind rests within the body.

Then, in the morning, after a good sleep, your Yang-Mind is reinvigorated from its rest within your Yin-Body, and your Yin-Body energy is refreshed from the presence of your Yang. Up you get, feeling great!

Chinese Medicine has words to describe these 'balloon' analogy conditions, and if your insomnia can be recognised as being due, for instance, to 'excess Yang' or 'deficient Yin' then it can probably be treated. These descriptions are syndromes in Chinese medicine which has developed far beyond these basic ideas and now includes syndromes like Energy ('Qi') deficiency, Heart Blood stasis and Liver Fire to explain different kinds of insomnia and the sleep disorders we experience.

So ... Which Insomnia Treatment to Try Before You See your Doctor?

If you've had insomnia for only a few days, or even just a very few weeks, and there's no obvious reason for it and you aren't aware of any change of habits that preceded the onset of your insomnia, you'll probably resist the idea that making some simple changes to your life and habits will make any difference.

Probably you're right. But just in case ... if you aren't aware of any possible cause for it, I suggest you get someone else to ask you questions. Ideally they would be qualified - an acupuncturist comes to mind - and able to persist and ask you searching questions about your recent life.

That may uncover something you thought was unimportant at the time such as (but this is not an all-inclusive list, just things patients have told me about themselves over the years, not realizing their significance for the start of their insomnia):

  • a recent holiday when he got sunburned
  • a cold she caught returning from a holiday
  • an argument with someone
  • a physical effort that tired her more than normal
  • a period of intense work
  • diarrhoea he got after sitting on hot rocks beside the sea

Girls by the Pool

© Rebecca Abell

Dreamstime Stock Photos

  • a gastronomical adventure when she over-ate
  • a series of parties and raves he attended
  • worry about someone or something
  • an infection he had some months earlier, followed by something similar more recently, reminding him of the original infection
  • commencement of her menopause
  • in a state of physical shock due to unusual level of physical activity moving house: could not sleep despite exhaustion

From this list or from thinking about the question with someone else, you may uncover something that suggests either too much Yang or not enough Yin.

Actually, that's not quite the end of it. You could have too much Yin as well and there are several ways you could have it. 

  • Food Retention causing heat is like a compost heap with new mown grass in it: it sits there and heats up. There the difference ends, because in the compost heap you want it to cook to break down the grass over a period of time so that worms will eat it and produce good earth to put back on the ground. Whereas in your gut, it smoulders away producing burping and other discomforts including insomnia as it wakes you up. So Food Retention is blocked Yin producing too much Yang.
  • Phlegm in your nose, sinus, throat or chest. There are various kinds of phlegm but the ones that prevent sleep are mainly those caused by Damp, Cold or Heat. For much more on this read my book Yuck! Phlegm! (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read.)

To help you make sense of it, read the following on Yin-Yang theory.

First Steps in Using Yin Yang Theory for Insomnia

If you grasped the balloon analogy above, you'll realise that where you sleep should have Yin characteristics.

  • a comfortable bed - big enough for you and any others to sleep without disturbing one another and for you to stretch without banging your head or your feet on the bed-ends;
  • a comfortable mattress: some people like firm mattresses, others prefer soft mattresses but whichever, your mattress should be flat, not concave, and thick enough to prevent you losing warmth (eg to the ground underneath), but not so insulating that you feel like you're lying on hot coals;
  • reduced noise: babies can often sleep through a hurricane but adults can't. Loud or intermittent or varying levels of noise can prevent deep sleep. Some noises help you get to sleep and may help keep you there, such as the noise of rain on leaves, or of gentle sea waves. Nowadays there are sound-tracks that help your brain sink into meditative brainwave patterns similar to those in deep sleep;
  • air that is neither too hot or too cold, and that is not too dry (dry and hot are Yang). Opinions vary on what is best but definitely a cool room is better than a hot room. For some, a warm room that cools gradually is just right. (Open the window when you go to bed?)
  • an absence of invading beasts, including mosquitoes and bed bugs, that inject their pathogens and irritate your skin;
  • darkness: although some people fear darkness, our eyes bring (Yang) light energy into our brains, and at night we want to reduce Yang, so darkness is better. If you need light to calm anxieties while getting to sleep, see if you can arrange a timer to turn it off after say 30 minutes by when you will normally be asleep. Recent research suggests that too much light during sleep induces an increase in BMI and obesity. (Why should this happen? Perhaps because over time the body reacts by creating more Yin-mass in response to the Yang of the light.)

If you are experiencing sleep disorders, before you start taking medication, do consider seeing an acupuncturist! See below.

Click the following links to find out more:

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Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott Books

All the books in the 'Chinese Medicine in English' series should be fully accessible on Kindles and Kindle apps. (Or you can buy the softback print editions, of course.)

('Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine' published 1986, was never available in a Kindle version.)

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Here are some of the books I (Jonathan) have written.

Subscribers to Kindle Unlimited can borrow the first four for 'free'.

Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress

Yin Deficiency - Burnout and Exhaustion

Yang Deficiency - Get Your Fire Burning Again!

Yuck! Phlegm! How to Clear Your Phlegm ...

Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine

Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine! See Reviews.

Seven Reviews so far for Yuck Phlegm. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)

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