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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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13 W 28th St, Suite 5R
New York, NY, 10001
United States

Treating your insomnia with Chinese medicine

Not a totally boring blog about acupuncture, breathwork, energy medicine, and self-healing

At my office in Manhattan (Flatiron / Union Square / Chelsea), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

Treating your insomnia with Chinese medicine

Aimée Derbes

Insomnia has always been among the most common issues that brings people into my office. Recently, though, more and more of my patients have been reporting ongoing sleep disturbances that impact their energy levels, their immunity, and their ability to be fully engaged and effective in their lives. Sleep is the foundation upon which all of our health and potential in life is built, and while sleeping requirements are different for everyone, no one escapes the need for deep rest and renewal each night.

Chinese medicine always considers your personal constitution

If your sleep has been disturbed or troubled, whether for the past 2 weeks or the past 20 years, you are definitely not alone, though, as you’ve probably discovered the (possibly very frustrating) hard way, what helps another person’s insomnia may not be helpful for yours. This is because -- surprise -- you are a unique individual! You are endowed with your own inherent health strengths and challenges, so your constitution is better suited by different solutions than that of your partner, or your co-worker -- or that person on the health blog “who seems to have figured it all out and solved all of her sleeping problems, and why isn’t what she did working for me?!” (<-- actual patient quote from yesterday.) The internet is great for finding health information, but it’s just not able to offer a personalized understanding of your insomnia and how it can best be treated. What I love about Chinese medicine is that there are no signs and symptoms that can’t be connected and understood when looking at the whole person, and there is always a customized solution available, whether in the form of acupuncture treatments or personalized herbal formulas.

Read on for a breakdown of how the most common sleep disturbances are interpreted in Chinese medicine, plus more than a few things that you can try tonight!

Why is sleep important, anyway?

Lack of or irregular sleep can be the driving force behind many health conditions. For example: you’ve been getting sick more often, you’re totally dragging (or, alternately, you have energy but it’s buzzy, inconsistent, and unrooted), your thinking is slow and muddled, you’re kinda irritable and impatient, you feel more anxious and/or depressed, your body aches, you have headaches, you make poor food choices, you can’t stay awake during that afternoon staff meeting, you don’t have the energy to exercise, you’re too tired for sex, and so on.

There is plenty of research and science describing all the physiological processes that are engendered by sleep, and negatively impacted without it -- I’ll let you Google that on your own if you’re interested, while I move on to the Chinese medicine stuff.

The role of sleep in Chinese medical physiology

In Chinese medicine, daytime and being awake are ruled by yang energy, which is all about physical activity and the rational analytical mind; yang energy also dominates our culture of constant striving, doing, and busyness, stressing all the while. Nighttime and sleep are ruled by yin energy, which governs the world of darkness, feelings, intuition, creativity, and being itself. For optimal health, yin and yang energies need to communicate and balance each other in all aspects of our lives, and so we enter the domain of yin each night to process and replenish our inner lives and our qi. The type of qi that protects us and interacts with the outside world during our waking hours is called wei qi, and it’s also it’s also the main component of our immunity in Chinese medicine; wei qi is replenished at night, when it leaves the surface and goes deep inside our bodies to be strengthened.

In Chinese physiology, there are many types of imbalances that can lead to insomnia, but the big picture is that there can be too much qi, not enough qi, or qi not circulating smoothly and getting stuck in the wrong place. There are too many details to describe all possible permutations here, so just remember that in all types of insomnia, the Heart and the Spirit are always affected. Our Spirit can be thought of as our consciousness, and it is said to live in the Heart. Anything that affects our Heart’s ability to house the Spirit can cause sleep disturbances, because our Spirit needs a comfortable home to rest in at night. Just like we do!

Read on for info about 3 common types of insomnia, followed by suggestions that support each type. At the end of this page, you'll find ideas that support almost all of us in our sleep, no matter the type of disordered sleeping we're currently working with. (For the more personalized support with acupuncture, herbs, and Healing Touch, you can make an appointment with me here at any time.)

Issue #1: “It takes me forever to fall asleep.”

The main culprits here are usually the Liver and the Spleen (as well as their effects on the Heart). The Liver processes the activities of our day while we’re sleeping; when the Liver energy is stuck, we start to feel frustrated and angry from all the pent up emotions and experiences, and things may not go so smoothly in our lives. Since the Liver’s special time of day is 11pm-1am, those who aren’t asleep by ~10:30pm are often awake for hours, until Liver time is long over, growing more frustrated and agitated all the while.

Ruminating, worrying, and overthinking while trying to fall asleep are more in the realm of the Spleen, which is the organ in charge of digestion and extracting nutrients and ideas from our food and the world around us. The rumination of digestion mirrors the thinking processes of our mind, so when our Spleens have enough qi to do their job, our thinking is clear. But if our Spleen qi is weak (there are many common causes for this, from too much sweet in our diet to supporting the needs of others at the expense of our own), our thinking can get stuck, becoming repetitive and obsessive. My patients commonly report being kept up at night by this type of thinking.


  • Quit all the caffeines, no exceptions! This is good for everyone, but especially good for those who have challenges with falling asleep, or with staying asleep.

  • Yoga nidra or relaxation meditations -- try the Insight Meditation app for a variety of guided meditations that are designed to help you consciously relax and drift off to sleep.

  • Binaural beats

  • Change up your diet by taking a break from sugar and processed foods. The Spleen likes to eat warm cooked foods (not salads and smoothies) at regular, predictable intervals throughout the day, and it is easily harmed by too much sweet flavor and random eating.

  • Melatonin capsules or valerian root capsules/tea, if there are no interactions with your current medications

  • Calming essential oils, such as lavender

Issue #2: “I fall asleep easily, but then I wake up constantly throughout the night. Sometimes I can fall back asleep, but other times I’m up tossing and turning.”

This type of insomnia is often associated with what we call blood or yin deficiency, and their effects on the Heart. The mind and Spirit can’t quiet down and rest when there’s too little blood or yin to contain it, so we aren’t able to reach a deep, rooted sleep. Yin, in this case, refers to the cooler and more substantive aspects of our physiology, such as our organs and the fluids that surround and moisten them.

Yin deficiency is associated with signs of dryness and heat in the body, and becomes more common as we age, especially for women during and after menopause, or those dealing with long-term illness. Many menopausal women deal with different, I dare say, unwelcome, forms of heat, whether in hot flashes, night sweats, or just in a higher body temperature than usual. Those with yin deficiency tend to have a difficult time getting comfortable in bed, because their temperature is always changing -- the window is open in the middle of winter, there’s a thick blanket but their hot hands and feet need to stay outside the blanket, etc. To many of you, this may sound all too familiar.

This type of insomnia can also involve emotional factors, such as unexpressed anger, which tax our organs, blood, and yin over the long term -- this leads to not having quite enough blood or yin to contain our spirit, and so we can’t stay asleep through the night. Our Liver energy may also just be totally stuck, which can cause abrupt awakenings.


  • Quit all the caffeines, no exceptions! This is good for everyone, but especially good for those who have challenges with falling asleep, or with staying asleep.

  • No alcohol, as it tends to help us fall asleep but then wake us up later on in the night. It also causes heat in the body, which in this case there may already be too much of.

  • Eat red and green foods, which are seen to build both the blood and the Heart in eastern dietary theory.

  • No eating within at least 3 hours of bedtime, especially sugar and processed foods. The effects of dietary sugar on your blood sugar and can cause you to wake up a few hours in.

  • Qi gong exercises that are focused specifically on the Liver energy

Issue #3: “I wake up way before my alarm clock goes off, and I can’t fall back asleep.”

Like Issue #2, this type of insomnia is often associated with what we call blood or yin deficiency, the signs of heat that often accompany these deficiencies, and the ensuing effects on the Heart. If you haven't already, read the section above for some insights.


  • Quit all the caffeines, no exceptions! This is good for everyone, but especially good for those who have challenges with falling asleep, or with staying asleep.

  • No alcohol, as it tends to help us fall asleep but then wake us up later on in the night. It also causes heat in the body, which in this case there may already be too much of.

  • An iron supplement, if you are anemic

Interventions that are good for just about everyone

If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’ve already heard the following suggestions, but, seriously, have you really tried them all? What about trying them all *at the same time*? If that sounds impossibly tough, I’d venture that the stress, exhaustion, and overwhelm you’re feeling throughout every low-energy day is in reality worse, so give these (all?? I dare you) a shot for a couple of weeks -- and if you feel like sharing about your efforts on social media, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at all of the support you’ll receive from both your real life and internet friends!

  • No caffeine in any form, at any time of day (sorry, not sorry!). Dial the adrenal stimulation back one almond milk latte at a time. This is huge, especially if you’re a New Yorker, and it might alone solve your problems if you commit to a caffeine-free future.

  • No screens for 1 hour before you turn out the light

  • Eat dinner at least 3 hours before going to bed

  • Get a regular meditation practice going. It doesn’t matter what type of meditation, or if you only do it for 5 minutes twice a day -- meditation will only help return your body to a relaxed, parasympathetic state, which in turn will help your body access that state before and during sleep.

  • Meditate, then ask yourself, with a spirit of curiosity, the following: “How is my insomnia serving me? Is there anything I am not giving myself in my waking life that is served by insomnia?”

  • Incorporate more self care practices into your everyday life: this is different for everyone, but might include higher quality or home-cooked food, more resting time, more time alone, more quality time with friends and family, massages, baths, or regular exercise.

  • Try EFT/tapping, which can calm your nervous system and allow a deeper sense of acceptance and relaxation.

  • Get a new bed. Especially if you’re sleeping on a 15 year old mattress that you inherited from your ex-boyfriend when he moved out. Start over!

Try one of these practices, or try them all! What’s important is that you create an intention and make a fresh start. And, of course, my support with an individualized treatment plan, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and Healing Touch, is always an option; you can make an appointment here anytime.