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The Heart of Insomnia

By Sara Calabro

Sleep matters, and yet so many of us struggle to get it. Insomnia is rampant throughout society, leaving many people fatigued and cognitively impaired throughout the day or dependent on sleep medications.

Fortunately, there seems to be a growing recognition that insomnia stems from an underlying imbalance that is impervious to Ambien.

Acupuncture, along with behavioral therapy, is gaining popularity as a non-prescription treatment for insomnia. People crave a natural night’s sleep, making insomnia one of the most common complaints seen by acupuncturists.

Acupuncture Imbalances That Lead to Imsomnia

In acupuncture theory, insomnia is broken down according to each person’s unique constitution and combination of symptoms. Most commonly, sleep disturbances involve an imbalance in the Heart system.

Ted Kaptchuk, in The Web That Has No Weaver, describes insomnia as “the active unable to become passive.” He says, “This usually means that Blood or Yin or both are Deficient and incapable of nourishing the Spirit stored in the Heart. There is therefore a relative excess of Yang, which is not balanced and is unable to quiet down.”

This failing to nourish the Heart can lead to several pathologies that include insomnia.

Heart and Kidney Disharmony

This type of insomnia is characterized by restlessness, frequent waking, and difficulty falling back to sleep. Other signs and symptoms that would tip an acupuncturist in this direction include palpitations, irritability, dizziness, tinnitus, poor memory, back soreness, seminal emission, face flushing, and dry mouth and throat. People who are generally weak constitutionally—they suffer from frequent and chronic illnesses—and those who engage in excessive sexual activity can be prone to this type of insomnia.

Heart and Spleen Disharmony

This type of insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, easily waking during the night, and lots of dreams. Other signs and symptoms include palpitations, poor memory, dizziness, fatigue, poor appetite and pale complexion. People who eat a low-quality or imbalanced diet can tend toward this type of insomnia.

Heart and Gallbladder Qi Deficiency

This type of insomnia is characterized by lots of dreams and easily waking in a fright. Other signs and symptoms include palpitations, breathlessness and fatigue. Often, people who are generally timid fall into this category.

Although a deficiency in the Heart system is most common, some cases of insomnia are characterized as more excessive in nature.

Liver Fire Flaring Upward

This type of insomnia is characterized by sleep that’s disturbed by scary dreams or nightmares. Other signs and symptoms include irritability, thirst, desire to drink, headaches, red eyes, bitter taste in the mouth, dark urine, and constipation. People who suffer from a lot of emotional stress are prone to this pattern.

Phlegm Fire Disturbing the Mind

This type of insomnia is characterized by restless sleep that involves a lot of tossing and turning. Other signs and symptoms include irritability, dizziness, a feeling of heaviness in the head and oppression in the chest, nausea and poor appetite. People who eat a low-quality or imbalanced diet can tend toward this type of insomnia.

When Do You Wake Up?

In addition to the above signs and symptoms, patients with insomnia often mention that they wake up at the same time every night.

In acupuncture theory, each system has an associated time frame (see picture at left), so knowing when sleep is disturbed can be helpful in narrowing down which systems are potentially causing insomnia. To arrive at a final diagnosis, acupuncturists combine verbal clues with information gathered from taking the pulse and looking at the tongue.

Increasingly, acupuncture is being sought for insomnia, even by people who successfully achieve sleep through the use of medications. In addition to concern about dependence and side effects, a common complaint is that medicated sleep is not quality sleep; people wake up feeling unrefreshed.

Artificial sleep may be better than none at all, but it is not as restorative as sleep that is induced and sustained by the body’s innate cycles. Acupuncture, by addressing the root cause of insomnia, allows people to fall peacefully back into their natural rhythm.

Photo by Sara Calabro


Stephen Scholle

I like to use Kiiko’s idea about insomnia. Bring the energy down out of the head, where it’s cycling, through the spine and down to the heels. To do this simply heat the bottom of the heels with something. Add Heart Shen, Ht7 and Kidney 3-6 to soften and calm down.

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