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In pursuit of a good night’s sleep

Can alternative approaches - such as Chinese medicine - help with sleep problems? Dr Karine Nohr gives her story.

As a medical student, I would be quite capable of sleeping 10 hours each night, plus a catnap in the early afternoon.

With the onslaught of junior doctor hours, followed up shortly afterwards by young motherhood, a good night's sleep became increasingly evasive.

Even after my children had started to sleep through the night, and 24 hour on-call had receeded into the welcome distance, it appeared that I had lost the knack of being to grab a good 40 winks, anywhere, anytime.

As patients come to me describing their struggle with sleep, I asked myself how they could possibly think that I was going to provide them with an answer?

Of course there were the obvious recommendations that came under the mantle of 'sleep hygiene', but once these had been explored, where could you go from there? My brain was in a fog and I was too tired to think my way through the problem.

I had already trained in Western acupuncture with the British Medical Acupuncture Society and had been practising for several years when I came across an advert for a course on ‘tongue diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine', being held in Central London.

This was held in a beautiful hotel off the Marylebone Road. There were only three other participants and we proceeded to have a fascinating day, lead by Professor Doctor Schnorrenberger.

He introduced as to some of the basic concepts of TCM and at the end of the day asked us to tell us what ill-health we suffered. As a generally fit and healthy person, the only complaint that I could come up with was that of poor sleep.

We proceeded to examine each other's tongues and make a TCM diagnosis, based on identifying the correct dysharmony. He then wrote a prescription for me of Chinese herbs and I went to a soho Chinese pharmacist to get it dispensed.

For four days I drank the foul-tasting tea decoction. By the end of that time, I was having a full night's sleep.

This bliss continued for the next eight months, but then started to go awry again. I emailed a photograph of my tongue to the learned Professor in Switzerland, where he had his clinic, and he kindly sent me a new prescription (reflecting a different dysharmony). My sleep problems settled once again.

The treatment was quite different to any insomnia prescription that we might offer in Western medicine, insofaras it lasted well beyond the time that the treatment was used.

The reason that this is so is because Chinese medicine doesn't treat a symptom, per se, but looks for the pathology that underlies the symptom. There is no universal panacea, the prescription is person-centred and is directed at the specific dysharmony for that particular individual.

There are many different types of sleep disorders, there is difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, dream-disturbed sleep and premature awakening.

Each one implies a different pathological state. Chinese medicine identifies various imbalances associated with each clinical picture; along with other accompanying symptoms and then tongue and pulse diagnosis, it then seeks to treat by redressing the balance.

I was so impressed by my brief interlude into Chinese medicine that I went on to further training. The more I studied, the more fascinated I became.

It was a huge intellectual challenge, to take on such a different model of medicine - the first year or two was like looking at a pixillated screen that only had a few of the pixillations decoded – but as the studying progressed, I started to have a basic understanding of this wonderfully elaborate and elegant paradigm.

I still feel that I have only just got my feet in the water and that it might take years to really feel fully competent and well versed in this subject. But even if I never get there, the process has been so interesting and enlightening.

And good sleep has been so glorious (as any insomniac will confirm) that it will have been worth it for that reason alone.

Dr Karine Nohr is a GP in Sheffield

Dr Karine Nohr