Restless Sleep? You get off ok but it’s not restful.

Restless sleep? Can’t really settle for long – which means you’re exhausted all day? See what Chinese medicine can tell you.
Qi Stagnation book cover
You can learn more about Qi Stagnation and stress in our book on stress.
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Restless sleep


ID 20141300 © Susiweiss

Restless Sleep? Can’t settle properly? And not because of a fever or a cold, or because you have small children demanding they keep you company? Or because the air or the room is too hot, or there is too much noise?

These, and similar conditions, are very good reasons for not sleeping restfully, but if those irritations were removed, you would sleep well so they aren’t really reasons for restless sleep.


On this page, we assume no such irritations are bothering you, yet still you have restless sleep. In other words, it’s coming from inside you, not from somewhere else.

Also, we have other pages for the following, so click them instead if they seem more relevant:


Chinese Syndromes for Restless Sleep

If restless sleep can be diagnosed as one of the following syndromes in Chinese medicine, then it can almost certainly be helped by seeing, for instance, an acupuncturist trained in Chinese medicine.


Syndromes for restless sleep
  • Food Retention: restless sleep from this syndrome is common. Click the link for a much fuller description, but basically this is because you push food down your throat (or that of your baby – it’s a common syndrome in babies whose sleep is restless) too frequently.

You don’t allow it to work through in time for the next meal, and this creates a traffic jam inside. Like a lot of angry drivers in a traffic jam, tension builds and anger – heat – is expressed.

This ‘heat’ or ‘anger’ prevents restful sleep. You get this in people, often older, whose digestions are growing less flexible, who eat too late at night.

A gentle walk in the open air before bed sometimes ‘settles’ the digestion. Of course, this syndrome can be ameliorated by having good bowel movements, with one of them before bedtime.

  • Heart Qi Stagnation: this is quite different from food retention. With this syndrome, there is a background of emotional tension and worry, which has often lasted for years. Eventually it disturbs the Heart, giving palpitations, depression, breathlessness and a stuffy feeling in the chest – hard to describe. Since the Heart in Chinese medicine ‘governs’ the Blood, and the Blood is where your ‘Shen’ or spirit rests during sleep, the Blood isn’t settled so the spirit cannot settle.  (Bit of Chinese technical stuff there.) It is unlikely that if you have this syndrome you can sort it out yourself. It needs help and treatment. You might also find Counselling beneficial. However, don’t overlook acupuncture which treats it from the energetic point of view and you might find after a few sessions that you don’t need the Counselling.
  • Liver Fire: this is different again. Here the emotional tension hasn’t affected the Heart, as above, creating depression and breathlessness, but produced Heat that dries out your stools, rises up to your head, inflames your eyes, gives you stonking, bursting headaches, and usually makes you highly irascible. (You won’t think so, of course! You’ll think you are being perfectly reasonable and that everyone else is stupid!)
  • Liver Qi Stagnation: this is an earlier stage of frustration than either Heart Qi stagnation or Liver Fire. This is very like what we might call being ‘stressed out’. It’s so common, and such a big subject, that I wrote a book about Qi stagnation, see below. Click the link to find out more about it.
  • Phlegm Heat Harasses the Mind: this syndrome is even further along the spectrum than Heart Qi stagnation, see above. Here you often get a condition not unlike bipolar or manic-depression. You vary between two poles. Click the link to read more about it. Basically it comes from emotional suppression but can appear after continual worry and there are digestive and nutritional factors that influence its onset.
  • Residual Heat in the Diaphragm: this syndrome arises from an old battle that your body has had, and lost. Or if not lost, both sides have retired to recover. In Chinese medical thinking, the invader has taken up residence in the diaphragm area and mounts skirmishes into surrounding territories, like your stomach and heart, upsetting both. Since both Stomach and Heart are vital for calm sleep, with this syndrome you don’t get it because both are unsettled. Please click the link for a fuller explanation.


All these syndromes are what are called ‘excess‘ conditions. When you are asleep Chinese medicine says your body, your metabolism, should be relatively quiescent. Science tells us that even when in this state, there’s plenty going on, repairing the body and resting it. But, even so, relatively speaking, your body’s output of energy is much less at this time.

Of course, as the link above points out, you naturally alternate between deep and light sleep through the night. But in this ‘restless’ sleep’ condition and its syndromes in Chinese medicine, you can’t really properly enter either, although if you sleep at all, it is likely to be the dreaming, rapid-eye-movement sleep.

That means that if an acupuncturist were treating you for restless sleep, he’d almost certainly be moving or clearing food retention, or easing stagnation of Qi, or clearing Heat or resolving Phlegm.

All those actions help your body to get rid of the blockage or excess that is preventing good sleep. The experience of acupuncturists over several millennia is that these kinds of actions, for very carefully diagnosed syndromes, do improve sleep.


Is it possible to have more than one syndrome at a time?

Yes. In fact this is probably more common than just having one syndrome. Diagnosing a mixture of syndromes like this is important because your acupuncturist has to decide where to start treatment to help you get better from restless sleep.

You could also have other syndromes, not mentioned on this page, which upset your health in other areas than sleep.

Some of the other conditions that might be preventing you from sleeping properly are:

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