Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine for Insomnia

by David Scrimgeour, Licensed Acupuncturist & Practitioner of Chinese Medicine

In my practice, insomnia is one of the most common disorders I see these days. It’s not surprising given that over 40% of adults suffer from sleep disorders with 15 – 25% experiencing chronic insomnia. The rates of insomnia are growing astronomically as more people experience prolonged states of high stress, anxiety, poor diet, over-work and too little exercise. Once sleep, which was the great restorer, is affected, other health issues tend to escalate.

Not only does insomnia rob people of their restorative sleep, but there are some troubling side effects that spill into the waking hours as many people suffer from daytime functional impairment including decreased attention, memory, alertness, executive function and reaction speed. In addition, people often feel tired and drowsy during the day, tense, unmotivated, anxious, and have digestive issues, cardio-vascular disorders and headaches.

What are the causes of insomnia?

Stress appears to be the number one contributing factor to sleep disturbances. When a person is stressed or anxious, the body’s “fight or flight” mechanisms take over even if there is no real threat. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, the heart beats faster, one becomes hyper-vigilant and mentally alert. Unfortunately, this isn’t the time to escape from the tiger – this is the time to sleep. There are other reasons why people don’t sleep well, including:

  • Pain
  • Side effects of medications or surgeries
  • Age
  • Extreme emotions of anger, sorrow, grief or fear
  • Use of caffeine, nicotine or alcohol (particularly in the evening)
  • Poor sleep hygiene (eating before bed, TV or computer work before bed, noises, lights)
  • Inconsistent sleep schedule (night workers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, etc.)
  • Pregnancy, menopause and sleep apnea

Resorting to Sleeping Pills

Sleep medications are often turned to when people cannot sleep, but there are some troubling side effects.  In addition to being addicting, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Clonopin) and even Ambien can lead to residual daytime sedation that can affect a person’s cognitive function, including concentration, memory and alertness.  There is often reduced learning ability, memory as well higher risks of traffic accidents. Given these downsides, many people are turning to Acupuncture and Chinese herbs to treat sleep issues naturally.  In many cases, the results are more effective and longer lasting than the alternatives.

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine address the root cause of insomnia and sleep disorders.

In Chinese Medicine, sleep is part of the natural rhythm of the body, and proper sleep is necessary for the body to repair and regenerate itself. During the day, yang qi dominates as it provides vital energy for the body’s physical and mental activities. It keeps us warm and alert.  As the day turns into night, the cooling, and nourishing yin qi dominates. This helps slow down the activity of the body and mind so that it is relaxed and calm for a good night’s sleep. However, excessive stress, worry or intense emotions disturb the “spirit” -- making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.  If the “kidney” energy (adrenals) and “heart” (mind and brain) are out of balance, you have a restless “spirit” and will not be able to sleep. What is needed is to balance the “kidney”, “heart” and “liver” to calm the “spirit” with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The result is a deep, restful sleep that comes naturally.

Acupuncture helps restore sleep in two ways:

First, it calms the “spirit” when there is an imbalance in the body’s energy system. This enables the body to calm down, relax and fall asleep. Secondly, acupuncture regulates the autonomic nervous system or the involuntary functions of the body. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it controls the body’s responses to a perceived threat and is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Once the sympathetic nervous system is upregulated, it becomes impossible to relax because of the adrenaline and cortisol pumping through your body to keep you alert. Acupuncture has the effect of bringing your body into the parasympathetic mode, which controls homeostasis and is responsible for the body’s digestive, rest and sleep functions. In this mode, you can relax and fall asleep. 

Chinese herbal formulas are very effective for insomnia. 

With herbal medicine, it is a process of first calming down the nervous system with a specific herbal formula that will calm one enough to be able to sleep. Once a person is able to start sleeping better, we work on the underlying imbalances. For chronic insomnia, it is essential to address adrenal deficiency with a Chinese herbal formula that can restore function to the adrenals over time.  Supreme Immune Tonic  by Six Persimmons Apothecary, is an excellent formula for adrenal deficiency.  Once the adrenals are functioning better, sleep is restored and a person’s energy, vitality and mental acuity are also improved.

There has been a great deal of research on acupuncture and sleep disorders solidifying the fact that acupuncture was significantly more effective at improving sleep quality and duration when compared with no treatment, sham acupuncture or medications. And, combining acupuncture with Chinese herbs was even more effective than acupuncture alone.

David Scrimgeour, L.Ac. practices Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in Boulder, Colorado. He is available for phone/zoom or in-person consultations. He can be reached at or 303-413-9596.

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