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. It takes 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, while others could receive any one of a handful of other herbal formulas.
According to Wu Hsing theory, the underlying dysfunction in insomnia is the imbalance between yin and yang and the five elements. In traditional Chinese medicine, the heart is not only responsible for blood circulation, it is also considered the “seat of the spirit.” For this reason, if the yin (nourishing aspect) of the heart is depleted, the person experiences anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. This imbalance in heart yin is treated with herbs that are considered to “nourish the heart and calm the spirit (shen).”
Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is a traditional form of health care 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, continues to be treated using CHM to the present day. A recent study in the journal 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.
Traditional herbal formula for insomnia
Traditional Chinese medicine remedies are usually different kinds of combinations rather than specific single herbs. 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).
Chinese formulas for sleep typically include a combination of herbs and legumes, for example:
- Pinellia and millet soup (containing pinelliae rhizome, setaria italica, millet grain)
- Licorice, wheat and jujube soup (containing radix glycyrrhizae, tricicum aestivum, fructus ziziphus)
- Suanzaoren Tang (containing semen ziziphi spinosae, poria, Chuanxiong rhizome, rhizoma anemarrhenea, radix glycyrrhizae)
A number of Chinese herbs have been studied for their effects and chemistry, such as Suanzaoren (the ripe seed of Ziziphus acidojujuba), Fructus Ziziphus (dried fryit of Zizyphus jujube), Arillus longan or Euphoria longan (dried fruit), Ripe seed, Wuweizi (a relative of magnolia), Triticum aestivum (the wheat grain cultivar), Banxia (tuber from Pinealliae ternata), Danshen (dried root of the Salvia miltiorrhiza), Baijianggen (dried root of Patrinia scabiosaefolia), Chaihu (dried root of Bupheurum scorzonerifolium), Danggui (dried tuber of Angelica sinensis). Also Ginger has been used to relieve pains (bigger doses can be stimulating), Fo ti dried stem contains mildly hypnotic effects, Maitake mushrooms also have sedative effects and Poria (mushrooms) has been documented for use in insomnia.
If interested in Chinese medicine and herbs for treating insomnia, read more in Chinese Herbal Medicine Material Medica.