Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are useful treatments for insomnia. Let’s go over what a typical acupuncture insomnia treatment looks like, and then I’ll share some useful tips on sleeping better.
Putting the Pieces Together
The first part of your treatment is the diagnostic process. In Chinese medicine, I do this by getting a thorough health history from you, as well as feeling your wrist pulses and looking at your tongue. Traditional doctors relied on this type of information long before MRI’s were invented, and we can glean some useful information from these ancient methods.
You should also bring any recent (past 2 years) lab work to your first visit. I may recommend additional testing. If you are over age 50, it is especially important to find out if adrenal or thyroid need to be addressed by a medical doctor. When needed, I always refer out to a primary care provider so you can receive any prescription medication you might need.
For chronic insomnia, I generally recommend receiving acupuncture once a week for 4-6 weeks, then we can assess for progress. People often sleep better the night after their first treatment, but the results don’t tend to last that long. Additional treatments will prolong the benefits and can address the underlying issue.
Acupuncture points are chosen for your individual needs. It’s a very relaxing treatment, even for people who don’t like needles. Acupuncture Insomnia Studies: In a meta-analysis of 46 randomized trials, acupuncture was found to be beneficial for insomnia on its own, and increased the effectiveness of both prescription and herbal sleep aids. (See abstract on PubMed)
Chinese herbs can be an excellent help for insomnia, and should only be used when recommended by a qualified herbalist of Chinese medicine. The basic types of insomnia formulas can be catagorized like this:
Anchoring and Settling Herbs-These often contain mineral rich substances such as shells to weigh down a firey over-active mind. These herbs can often have an almost immediate calming effect, and are used more as symptomatic relief in severe stress or overwhelm.
Heart, Liver, and Kidney Yin Tonics- At night, your shen (spirit) comes back into your body and cozies up in your heart for the night. Your heart needs to be calm and nourished to provide a soothing resting place for your spirit. Chronic worry, overwork, and other stress can deplete this nourishing energy, leading you to always feel restless or irritable. Chinese herbs work very well to restore you, but plan on taking them for at least two months for good results.
Fire Clearing Herbs-Sometimes, the problem is not that you are worn out, but that you are worked up! Fire can manifest as insomnia, aggressiveness, mania, fever, thirst, and large appetite. Draining away fire allows the body to come to a restful state.
While Chinese herbs won’t work as quickly as a drug like Ambien, they also don’t have side effects when properly taken. They don’t cover up symptoms, but actually restore your body to a healthier balance.
Time to Reflect and Restore
Our society emphasizes ‘doing’ much more than ‘being.’ The calm, quiet aspect of life is often lacking, because these ‘being’ activities seem indulgent and unproductive. However, we need these activities to learn how to relax our minds and step away from the frantic pace we so often get swept up in. Reflective, meditative time is important because emotions and relationship issues are often a feature in insomnia, and suppressing these issues will cause problems like insomnia. Give yourself time to go inward and tidy up in there! It feels great once you get the hang of it.
Meditation and Deep Breathing
Meditation is a deeply restorative practice and can replicate many of the benefits of sleep. In fact, meditation is often considered to be even more beneficial because it can lead to a state of non-thought, which is said by many spiritual traditions to be the deepest state of relaxation and healing possible for human beings. In sleep, our minds are still processing and dreaming. Spend 15 minutes before bed meditating and it will quite likely allow you to fall asleep faster and to sleep more peacefully.
Practiced for many centuries throughout the Eastern world, yoga has finally made its way to the West with unprecedented popularity. There are many different styles of yoga; I encourage you to experiment until you find a style that meets your needs. I recommend doing 15-20 minutes of restorative poses (child pose, shoulder stand, plow pose, corpse pose, standing forward bend, etc.) before bed. Combine this with your sitting meditation practice and you will take a significant step toward healing your nervous system.
This part is tricky, since you may rely on these stimulants to keep yourself going after a night of bad sleep. However, these might be keeping you locked in an endless cycle of sleepless nights. It’s easier to make lifestyle changes while receiving acupuncture, because you are shifting into a healthier state every treatment.
If you are drinking coffee, I recommend either cutting it out altogether for a period of time, or at least limit yourself to one cup, and only before 10am. Coffee is very heating and stimulating and can be a major obstacle in healing insomnia. Green tea is okay.
People who wake up after 3-4 hours of sleep often have issues with hypoglycemia and sugar handling, and wake up when their blood sugar drops. Eliminate floured/bread products, sugar, and artificial sweeteners to improve your sugar handling. Also, try having a few raw nuts or protein like turkey to keep your blood sugar balanced during sleep.
While some people claim that alcohol helps them sleep better, if you have chronic insomnia and drink regularly, it is certainly worth giving it up for a period of several weeks and see if your sleep improves. It contributes to the hypoglycemia I mentioned above, and it can also interfere with sleep cycles.