Understanding the Link Between Sleep Disorders and Long COVID Symptoms

Trouble sleeping is among the most common symptoms of long COVID. Find out what causes sleep disorders and how to get a good night's sleep for speedy recovery.

A young woman feeling somber as she is having sleep disorders due to long COVID symptoms

It’s no secret that sleep quality makes a big difference in how we feel. In fact, our physical and mental health depends on getting high-quality sleep. But many of you aren’t getting a good night’s rest. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that between 50 and 70 million U.S. adults struggle with a sleep disorder. These days, tens of thousands of more folks are struggling with sleep problems as a symptom of long COVID.

What are the most common sleep disorders and what causes them? In this article, we’ll take a look at sleep disorders from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective and what to do about them.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

A young man feeling fatigued as he cannot sleep peacefully in bed
Caffeine, anxiety, and illnesses like COVID-19 can result in sleep disorders.

TCM Physician Anita Pee from Eu Yan Sang clinic explains that according to the TCM philosophy, one of the biggest risk factors for sleep problems is emotional upset. That disharmony in the organs makes it difficult to get a good night’s rest.

For example, stress and anger can cause stagnant liver qi and liver heat. Also, says physician Pee, extreme emotions cause heart fire or extreme fear, which can lead to heart and gallbladder deficiency.

But it’s not just our emotions that can wreak havoc on our sleep cycles. Physician Pee explains, “Caffeine and tea consumption may also affect sleep. In addition, overexertion or overthinking can deplete qi and blood in the body, which makes it difficult to calm the mind. Also, being older or having a prolonged illness depletes blood. Insufficient blood cannot nourish the heart and causes restlessness and sleep difficulties.”

However, the good news is that there are steps you can take to relieve sleep disorders. These steps include making certain lifestyle and dietary changes, plus improving your emotional regulation.

Common sleep disorders

Here are the causes of some common sleep disorders described from a TCM perspective.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can cause a person to stop breathing in their sleep. But, usually, the person will stir or even wake up as the brain sends an alert that oxygen is needed. However, this condition can be deadly and requires serious attention. Signs of sleep apnea include loud snoring and feeling tired the next morning.

From a TCM perspective, sleep apnea is caused by impaired lung, spleen, and kidney function. This impairment then causes an accumulation of phlegm and dampness, which disrupts the flow of qi in the meridians. Excessive phlegm and stagnant blood cause obstruction in the mind and body. Basically, this means the energy in the body is stuck and heavy.

From a Western perspective, lifestyle changes such as weight loss, reduction of alcohol intake, and the use of a continuous positive airway (CPAP) machine are prescribed to help avoid resulting cardiac and cognition problems.

Sleep anxiety

This condition is exactly what it sounds like: fear or anxiety about going to sleep. And there is an important connection between sleep and mental health.

Physician Pee says that from a TCM perspective, sleep anxiety is caused by pathogenic heat. This then disrupts the heart or causes liver heat or stagnant liver qi. This is often due to indigestion that causes excessive phlegm and heat in the body. Pee cautions, “Prolonged insomnia can lead to deficiencies in the heart and spleen, which further worsens sleep anxiety.”

Finding ways to manage stress, such as breathing exercises, meditation, and gentle exercise can help to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep quality.

Insomnia

TCM believes that disharmony in the organs and an imbalance of yin-yang, qi, and blood in the body leads to general insomnia. But, the root cause may be emotional, dietary, or lifestyle. Consult a licensed TCM practitioner to help you find out the cause and get an effective solution.

Excessive daytime sleepiness

If you find your energy is very low during the daytime, it may be due to a yinyang imbalance. Because of this imbalance, there is excessive phlegm and dampness, or yang deficiency, or stagnant blood, which impairs circulation.

Yang energy is about movement and “fire.” When it’s stagnant or there is an imbalance of yin energy, which is slower moving energy, then the body can become sluggish and tired.

Why you need good sleep

As TCM physician Anita Pee explains, “Good sleep is key for body regeneration and recovery from daytime exertion. It is the most important factor for maintaining good health and longevity. Sleep replenishes qi (our vital energy), boosts organ function, and strengthens bones and muscles.”

How can COVID affect sleep?

Physician Pee explains the TCM perspective on how long COVID can cause sleep disorders: “COVID is considered an external pathogenic factor that invades and causes disharmony in the organs, resulting in internal heat, phlegm, and dampness and depletion of qi and blood. This eventually affects the heart and mind and ability to sleep well.”

For people with long COVID symptoms, Physician Pee says it’s important to boost the immune system, replenish qi, yin, and blood to support the recovery process and the body’s self-healing capabilities.

Natural TCM Remedies for Sleep Disorders

A young woman sitting in bed with a cup of herbal tea
There are a variety of herbal remedies that can help relieve sleep disorders such as insomnia.

TCM herbal remedies

Now you understand more about sleep disorders from a TCM perspective, let’s see what can you do to relieve them.

There are a number of TCM herbal remedies available to help manage sleep disorders.

  1. If you’re struggling with sleep problems due to long COVID symptoms, Physician Pee suggests several herbs to try. These include astragalus, codonopsis root, red dates, glehnia root, and schisandra berries. According to physician Pee, two common TCM herbal formulas to consider are Liu Jun Zi Tang and Sha Shen Mai Dong Tang. However, different herbs are recommended depending on your long COVID symptoms and your body constitution. Because of this, it’s important to consult with a registered TCM practitioner for treatment.
  2. Physician Pee also recommends several TCM herbs to help manage general sleep disorders, “One of the commonly used herbs for insomnia is sour jujube seed. It can help nourish the liver and qi, calm the mind, and combat stress. It is one of the main ingredients in the well-known TCM sleep formula called Suan Zao Ren Tang.
  3. “Another common [TCM] herbal formula is Gui Pi Wan,” says physician Pee. It is particularly effective for overworked students with spleen or heart disorders.
  4. Physician Pee also suggests Lily Bulb Lotus Porridge, a unique TCM recipe to help eliminate insomnia. See the recipe below.

Lily bulb lotus porridge recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 oz of dried lily bulbs
  • 1/2 oz lotus seeds
  • 1/5 oz of dried longans
  • 2 oz of rice
  • 2 cups of water

Directions:

  1. Soak the dried lily bulbs and lotus seeds in water for 1 hour.
  2. Place the soaked lily bulbs, soaked lotus seeds, longans, and rice in a pot. Add 500ml of water and bring to a boil.
  3. After boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until you achieve your desired consistency, stirring regularly.
  4. Add salt to taste and serve.

Physician Pee says that the porridge can help clear internal heat, nourish yin, and calm the mind. While these ingredients may be unusual for many Americans, the ingredients can be found online or perhaps at your local specialty or Asian grocery store.

Other TCM practices for healthy sleep

In addition to herbal remedies, there are several other TCM practices that can alleviate sleep disorders. Physician Pee recommends meditation and relaxation techniques: “Incorporate exercises like tai chi and yoga. ” She also suggests dietary changes like consuming less caffeine and sugar, as well as listening to calming music.

Acupuncture and acupressure are two other TCM practices that can help relieve sleep problems. Both of these treatments can help to relieve the underlying condition, calm the mind, and aid sleep.

  • For acupuncture, a licensed acupuncturist inserts needles just beneath the skin at certain locations (acupoints) on the body, depending on the type of disharmony.
  • Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but it involves massaging certain acupoints. No needles are involved, and you can do it yourself any time you have trouble sleeping. Physician Pee recommends massaging the following acupoints for better sleep:

Nei Guan (PC 6)

Nei Guan (PC 6) is located on the arm, three finger widths from the inner wrist between two tendons.

Located on the arm three finger widths from the inner wrist crease and between the two tendons. Massage this point to help calm the heart and mind for better sleep.

Bai Hui (DU 20)

Bai Hui (DU 20) is located on top of the head. Massaging this point can help clear and calm the mind.

Located on the top of the head, at the intersection between the midline of the head and the line joining the tops of the ears. Massage this point to help clear and calm the mind, promote qi and blood circulation to the brain, and help regulate yin-yang balance for better sleep.

Shen Men (HT7)

Shen Men (HT7) is located on the crease of the wrist. Massaging this point can help promote sleep.

Located at the wrist crease on the radial side of the flexor carpi ulnaris tendon. Massage this point to help invigorate heart qi, clear heart fire, and calm the mind to help promote quality sleep.

Healthy sleep habits

To get a better night’s sleep, try the following steps:

  • Go to bed at the same time each night.
  • Limit the use of electronic/digital devices before bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine intake.
  • Avoid going to bed with a full stomach.
  • Cut back on liquids before bedtime.

Without question, your body requires consistent, restful sleep. But, imbalances in the body may lead to sleep disorders if you’re not careful. If you’re struggling with sleep problems, understanding the cause can help you make new choices and find a solution so you can wake up feeling refreshed.

References

  1. American Sleep Association. N.d. Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics. [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  2. Eu Yan Sang. N.d. Tracing the Roots of Insomnia in TCM. [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  3. Eu Yan Sang. N.d. Is Sleep Really for the Weak? [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  4. AASM. N.d. Healthy Sleep Habits. [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  5. National Library of Medicine. 2020. Anxiety and depression in COVID-19 survivors: Role of inflammatory and clinical predictors. [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  6. American Sleep Association. N.d. COVID-19 and Sleep. [Accessed 30 December 2021]

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