Many of you have already experienced improved sleep as a result of your Taiji practice. Of course, it’s not unusual for us to sleep like logs at Taiji camp! But I have also heard from some of you that practicing form in the late afternoon or early evening helps you sleep better, and others have told me that lying-down meditation is a real help. So, while many of you know of these benefits you may not know that chronic insomnia has been tied to decrements in physical and cognitive function, increased incidence of depression, chronic conditions and mortality risk. Likewise, there are health risks associated with the use of medication to induce sleep, thus non-pharmacological approaches to improving sleep are a hot topic in the research community.
Recently a number of studies have started looking at the cellular effects of insomnia, and likewise the effects of known treatments for insomnia, such as Tai Chi. Insomnia and sleep disturbances have been linked to increased inflammatory responses within cell and system wide, as well as increases in the expression of inflammatory response genes. Many of these same factors have been found to play a role in cognitive impairment, cardiac disease and immunological dysfunction. A recent study in the journal Biological Psychiatry sought to investigate whether or not two known insomnia treatments, Tai Chi Chih (TCC) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), would induce measurable biological changes at the cellular and systemic level.
Both of the treatment groups (CBT, N=50; TCC, N=48) met for four months of regular practice, totaling 120 minutes each week. The CBT group focused on increasing daytime activity levels and improvement of mood. The TCC group, emphasized the use of moving meditation, similar to the qigong found in Dr. Yang’s Evidence-Based Qigong Curriculum, to relax and reduce arousal.
The study found that both treatments reduced insomnia as well as the genetic expression of inflammation in the immune system. CBT seemed to have a stronger impact on systemic markers of inflammation, where the particular TCC intervention used in this study significantly reduced inflammation at the cellular level.
While both treatments were beneficial the differences between the two, while slight, are not well understood. The researchers believe that such differences may be related to the specific ways in which the interventions affected the participants. For instance, CBT requires participants to be mindful of their thoughts and behaviors, and to make choices that improve mood and wellbeing, whereas, the TCC treatment was thought to have more acute effects, reducing stress and balancing nervous system function. An interesting follow up to this study might include using a more comprehensive Taiji curriculum, one that includes not only moving qigong, but also seated and lying-down meditations aimed at reducing stress and improving recovery throughout the day. Such a curriculum may provide the additional benefits attributed to CBT in this study, but this is something we will need future studies to clarify.
In the meantime, if you are not experiencing improved sleep as a result of your Taiji practice, it may simply be a matter of timing or frequency of practice. Consider how altering your routine could help and check out Chapter 7 of Dr. Yang’s book, Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, for more information on Taiji and sleep.