Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is a traditional form of healthcare with a documented history going back for centuries. As an example, a book entitled Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic was written 2000 years ago, and is considered the oldest book on CHM. Insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep or remain asleep, has been and continues to be treated using CHM to the present day. A recent study in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine evaluated and reviewed the use of CHM for insomnia treatment in Taiwan. The study showed that there were 16,134 subjects who visited traditional Chinese Medicine clinics for insomnia in Taiwan during the year 2002. In addition, several studies have demonstrated that CHM treatments effectively benefit sleep quality, improve sleep duration, and exhibit reduced side effects in comparison to Western medicines.
The most commonly prescribed Chinese herbal formula for insomnia was Suan-zao-ren-tang. This formula consists of 5 individual herbs grouped together for the most beneficial synergistic effect. The primary herb in this formula is Ziziphus spinosa, or Suan-zao-ren (a.k.a., sour jujube seed). This herb has been shown to cause a sedative effect at higher doses and an anxiolytic effect at lower doses. Another study found that the formula Suan-zao-ren-tang produced an increase in non-rapid eye movement sleep, and it is believed that the mechanism was by the stimulation of serotonin receptors. The other herbs in this formula include Chuan-xiong (Szechuan lovage root), Fu-ling (poria), Zhi-mu (anemarrhena rhizome), and Gan-cao (licorice root).
It is important to note that whereas Western medicine attempts to treat insomnia as an isolated symptom, traditional Chinese medicine examines the condition of the body as a whole system, taking into consideration signs and symptoms ranging from appetite, thirst, mood, tongue color, and the quality of the pulse to reach a diagnosis. For this reason, not all patients suffering from insomnia will be given the same formula – some people will receive the Suan-zao-ren-tang formula mentioned above, while others could receive any one of a handful of other herbal formulas more appropriate for treating the underlying imbalance causing their insomnia.
Acupuncture treatments are usually given in conjunction with the herbal medicine mentioned above to enhance the effect of the treatment. Needles are inserted in carefully chosen points on the body depending on the traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis for each patient. Two acupuncture points often used in the treatment of insomnia include Yin-tang, which is located on the forehead between the eyebrows, as well as Shen-men, which is a point located on the ear. Both of these points have the effect of calming and sedating the patient.
The Insomnia study mentioned above concludes that our understanding of the mechanisms of traditional Chinese medicine treatment for insomnia will benefit from further examination through continued clinical studies. However, the long-term application and popularity of this method of treatment in Taiwan and other Asian countries gives a strong indication of the potential benefits Chinese herbal medicine can offer for people throughout the world.
Sources for this article:
Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 3rd edition, by Dan Bensky, et al.
Acupoints & Meridians, edited by Liu Gongwang, et al.