I used to be one of those annoying people who can fall asleep anywhere -- on planes, in cars (while a passenger, of course), on other people's couches. But then I developed a disturbing habit of dozing off at 11 only to wake around 3. For hours, I'd lie in bed wide-eyed and exhausted; if I did manage to fall back asleep, it was moments before my alarm rang. I shied away from sleeping pills, fearing dependency, while over-the-counter remedies left me groggy for the 9 a.m. meeting at the magazine where I work. White-noise machines, earplugs, soft music, toast and tea before bed -- nothing helped. As insomnia sufferers know, a lack of sleep means more than a slow start the next morning; it can contribute to problems ranging from weight gain to heart ailments, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). In my case, the consequences were showing up in my relationships. I was cranky with everyone -- writers, other editors, my mother.
Feeling desperate, I decided to explore an alternative to the standard medical and supplement-aisle solutions: acupuncture from a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
TCM theory dictates that the body's energy, or qi, circulates through 12 meridians, which are linked to internal organs and emotions (see chart below). The heart meridian, for instance, relates to anxiety, the liver meridian to stress and anger, the spleen meridian to worry. Too much of any emotion can affect its correlating meridian, creating a disturbance in shen. "Shen is the energy of our emotional body," explains Claudette Baker, L.Ac., president emeritus of the American Association of Oriental Medicine. "If it is affected by work or stress, it can keep us from falling asleep, prevent REM sleep, and cause us to wake easily."
As I set out to restore my shen, I met Weidong Lu, L.Ac., a senior faculty member at the New England School of Acupuncture in Watertown, Massachusetts. During our appointment, he checked my tongue ("slightly filmy," he said) and my pulse ("too fast!"), and asked me about work, my personal life, and the details of my sleep troubles. When I told him I was waking at 3 a.m., he noted that this is when qi peaks in the liver meridian. Along with what he knew of my life, this, said Lu, was a clue that my imbalance originated in my liver meridian.
"Your job-deadlines, running around, lots of unexpected outcomes -- that sort of thing can result in constant emotional stress and a hyperactive shen." It's true, I often found myself forming to-do lists as I woke. Of course, at 3 a.m. I couldn't do anything about the phone call I forgot to make, but I found it upsetting nonetheless.
Lu told me he aimed to improve my body's ability to adapt to stress. With acupuncture (which is ideal for many since it's safe and free of side effects), a minimum of six sessions is typically needed to inspire change. "Acupuncture has a cumulative effect," he explained. He encouraged me to forgo coffee, even on my most tired days, and suggested a diet free of stimulants, tobacco, and sugar as well, which work to deplete yin, the body's inward, feminine energy.
During each treatment, Lu inserted thin, three-inch needles into 16 to 20 points around my body, concentrating mostly on my legs and feet, my forearms and hands, my ears, and the top of my head. "Points in the legs correlate to the liver; arms and hands to the heart; and the top of the head to the brain," Lu said. "Needling them all together has a synergistic effect." The needles didn't hurt going in, but I was quite aware of them once they were in, especially when Lu rotated them to increase their effect. Once they were in place, I cooked beneath low-heat lamps meant to further stimulate the needles' effectiveness. Remarkably, the heat worked to warm me to sleep. A midday nap is a near-miracle for me. (Now, if only I could convince Lu to come home with me, I thought.)
Slowly but surely, my symptoms decreased with each session. At first, I still woke up but started falling back asleep faster as the treatments progressed. Three weeks later, I'm waking up maybe once or twice a week, a vast improvement if not perfection. Following Lu's suggestion, I've started writing out my to-do lists before I go to sleep to "release them from my mind." Since the most significant underlying cause of my sleeplessness seems to be the one thing I'm not willing to change -- that is, a job that's fun and fulfilling and often incredibly stressful -- I'm faced with a challenge. As Lu said, there's no cure for my insomnia, but with some careful effort toward finding time for myself -- a recurring difficulty -- and continued acupuncture, my body can gradually find restful balance. I'm hoping.
Connecting the Dots
TCM links each of the body's meridians to an emotion. Use the following guide to help you figure out the roots of your imbalance. For an accurate diagnosis and treatment, visit a licensed TCM acupuncturist.
Insomnia Characteristics: Waking up easily; difficulty falling asleep
Emotions: Anger, stress, frustration
Insomnia Characteristics: Difficulty falling asleep; waking between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.
Insomnia Characteristics: Waking between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.
Emotions: Worry, obsessiveness.
Insomnia Characteristics: Waking at the same time every night; dream-disturbed sleep.
Text by Alyssa Giacobbe