In the last article (Can Eastern Medicine Treat Insomnia?), we explained in general terms that insomnia may be initiated by either a hyperactive Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or an under-performing Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). Today, we will talk in more detail about SNS initiated insomnia, as well as the treatment for it.
But first, it’s helpful to understand the relationship between the nervous system and insomnia, a connection that most people are confused by. Let’s look at two relatable scenarios to highlight the roles of well-regulated sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in preventing or enabling sleep.
Scenario #1. Imagine that you are hiking, and suddenly come face-to-face with a violent, starving bear. Would you be hungry or able to sleep when your life is at risk? Absolutely not. Your focus would narrow immediately to deciding on how to survive in the situation: fight or take flight. It is your SNS that instantly kicks your body into high performance gear in preparation for both options. It accelerates blood supply to your muscles; thus, increasing your heart rate. As that happens, the volume of blood supply to the less essential gastrointestinal tract drops. That, in turn, suppresses hunger and the digestive function, while your heart and muscles recalibrate to high alert. This SNS activity is vital, as it allows you to physically execute the fight or flight responses needed for survival.
Scenario #2. Now imagine that you have managed to flee to safety from the wild bear. You know that the threat to your survival is gone, and that you can now relax. It is PSNS that steps in to dial down your hyperactive SNS to its normal state. What we experience as we return to the normal state is hunger (digestive tract movement), a slowing of our heartbeat to normal levels, and the desire to sleep again. All healthy and appropriate responses needed for the body to recover from being in the red-alert state while in danger.
In the above situations, the automatic interactions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems raise and lower various body functions to the appropriate levels suitable to the moment. In other words, the SNS and PSNS work together to keep us alive and healthy.
Now let’s turn to what happens with SNS initiated insomnia.
Ordinarily, by the end of our day, if the SNS has become over-excited (e.g. anxious or nervous), the PSNS will work to calm sympathetic nerves, allowing night-time sleep. However, sometimes sympathetic nerves remain hyperactive for prolonged periods, and become beyond the ability of the PSNS to control. When this happens, excessive stress is placed on the body. Insomnia and other symptoms result. Typically, the person experiences chest pounding throughout the night and frequent indigestion. Constipation or loose bowels may be experienced as well, and frequent or uncontrollable anger is common. The face flushes easily, and skin issues may arise. Some patients may even vomit.
Fortunately, Eastern medicine is very effective at treating SNS initiated insomnia.
When the sympathetic nerves are hyperactive to such extreme, Eastern medicine calls for the use of the herb called “HuangLian (Rhizoma Coptidis)”. This herb is so bitter that there is a saying in China: “Life is as bitter as huanglian.” However, it is an excellent medicinal herb for those who carry a lot of stress and anger which, in today’s society, is quite common.
If the diagnosis is hyperactive SNS, the method of treatment depends on the accompanying symptoms.