Treating insomnia

by Bart Walton, M.Ac., L.Ac.

This article was originally published in January 2004

Bart Walton, M.Ac., L.Ac.

(January 2004) — There are many possible reasons for insomnia. Stress, emotional upset, indigestion, pain, dysfunction of the organs, hormonal imbalance, internal heat, toxicity or any combination of these can disrupt our sleep. And some people simply have difficulty establishing and maintaining a consistent cyclical sleep pattern — what I refer to as a bio-rhythmic imbalance.

But in all these cases, the one common factor is that insomniacs experience too much activity in the brain at night when they’re trying to sleep. In conventional medical terms, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant over the parasympathetic. In traditional acupuncture terms, heat or energy in the body is not grounded and is rising to the head at night.

Acupuncture and moxibustion work beautifully together in order to balance the autonomic nervous system and help the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together in a harmonious way. Or, put another way, acupuncture and moxibustion help remove blockages so the body’s energy will be distributed in a balanced way. Often this is enough to restore a normal and restful sleep pattern.

If a patient comes to see me shortly after the onset of a sleep disturbance, it’s usually a simple matter to resolve the problem within one or two treatments. But more often, the patient comes after months or years of sleep disturbance and after having tried several other therapies. In cases like this, insomnia is usually more stubborn and, in addition to a number of acupuncture treatments, I will prescribe diet and lifestyle changes. In some cases, herbal medicine may be recommended for a brief period to help correct the imbalance.

Aside from acupuncture and herbal medicine, here are a few home remedies that many of my patients have used successfully to help regain a regular and healthy sleep pattern. These recommendations are very safe and effective 75 percent of the time.

  1. Diet — Most people are unaware of the stimulating effect of many common foods and spices. For insomniacs, it is very important to avoid all stimulants, particularly after the noon meal. Aside from the obvious stimulants such as coffee, tea and soft drinks, certain spices stimulate the nerves or create heat in the body, which can disturb our sleep. Try to avoid spicy foods or at least try to eat them in the middle of the day, so that by bedtime their effect has diminished. In the evening, eat a lighter meal and avoid fried, broiled or greasy foods. Also, in the evening, avoid alcohol (including beer and wine) black pepper, cayenne, ginger, cloves and garlic. And keep salt to a minimum.
  2. Supplements — People with insomnia often have a calcium and/or magnesium imbalance. First, I suggest magnesium citrate (200 mg in the morning and 200 mg before bed). If magnesium alone does not help after a few days, add 200 to 400 mg calcium at bedtime.
  3. Herbs — Avoid herbs that can increase heat in the body. Also, I would not use sedative herbs such as valerian, passionflower and hops — for the same reason that I’d avoid prescription medication. It’s best to allow the brain chemistry to right itself naturally, which it usually will do over time if habitual stimulation is brought under control. If herbs are needed, I recommend formulas specifically designed to tonify and nourish the nervous system. In this case, seek the advice of a professional Ayurvedic or Chinese herbalist.
  4. Exercise — Of all the self-help advice, nothing is more effective than daily exercise in order to balance the body’s energy, improve the circulation and assist in the elimination of toxins. If you have a serious health condition, it is important to exercise carefully and not overdo it.
  5. Hot footbath — Soak the feet and ankles in a bucket or tub of hot water for 20 minutes before bed.
  6. Foot rubbing — Before bed, sit cross-legged or in a chair and stroke one foot at a time (with the opposite hand) lengthwise and with medium to strong pressure, at least 200 strokes. Use a few drops of sesame oil on each foot during this process. Then put on some warm socks and go to bed.
  7. Avoid napping during the day, avoid eating and exercise after 7 p.m. and avoid hot baths. (Warm baths are fine, but hot baths are counter productive)
  8. Above all, if you can’t sleep for a few nights, don’t worry. No one ever died from insomnia. Even if you just lay quietly in a dark room for six to eight hours, you’re getting more rest than you might imagine. The next day, you’ll probably function better than you think.

If you have tried all these suggestions and still can’t sleep, you may have a bio-rhythmic imbalance. In this case, I recommend the book Desperately Seeking Snoozin’ by John Wiedman (Towering Pines Press). This is by far the best book on the market for insomniacs who have a problem maintaining a normal sleep pattern. Mr. Wiedman’s protocol requires some discipline, but it works over the long term and for many people has proven to be a godsend.

Bart Walton, M.Ac., is a Washington-state-licensed acupuncturist with a private practice in the Green Lake area of Seattle. He has a master of acupuncture degree from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and specializes in Japanese style acupuncture and moxibustion. Contact him at 206-527-9672 or

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