Why do I wake at 3am?

(or whatever time it is for you!)

Sometimes sleep is the main issue that brings people in for acupuncture treatment but often it just comes up in the initial appointment. I ask everyone these questions about sleep:

  • Do you have trouble falling asleep?
  • Do you drop off without issue but wake a lot in the night (especially between 1-3am)?
  • Do you sleep well through the night but wake very early every morning (e.g. 4.30 – 5 am)?

Why is this relevant and how does it help me treat you?

In TCM theory, each organ is believed to have its own time of peak activity and function. These times are represented in this Chinese body clock.

Chinese body clock, different times of day represent different energy peaks

The answers to the questions above give us clues about where there is the most imbalance in your system.

I find it hard to drop off to sleep

If you have trouble falling asleep we look for other signs of Blood deficiency (not quite the same as anaemia, but there are some similarities). You might not be eating enough of the right nutrients or your digestive system may not be absorbing enough of these vital energy builders. It’s likely you’ll have some anxiety, dizziness, very heavy periods, pale face or suffer from cramps. We can improve this by addressing any dietary and digestive issues to allow your blood to be properly nourished. The anxiety related to Blood deficiency might prevent you from dropping off.

I always wake between 1-3am

The time frame between 1-3am is associated with the Liver meridian’s peak energy. The Liver in TCM is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi (energy) and blood throughout the body, as well as the processing of emotions, particularly frustration, anger, and resentment. Waking during this time may indicate the Liver’s ability to maintain smooth Qi flow is compromised.

Any emotional stresses exacerbate the liver disharmony and we might see PMT, irregular menstrual cycle, poor mood, poor digestion, headaches, indigestion, etc. It becomes a vicious cycle as these all make the imbalances worse so the sleep disturbance will be exacerbated. By treating the Liver and improving the smooth flow of Qi  it allows the body to work more effectively and symptoms disappear.

I wake early and never need to set an alarm

In Chinese medicine, the gallbladder is closely associated with the body’s ability to make decisions and take action, as well as with the smooth flow of Qi. The gallbladder’s peak time is between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., and during this time, it is believed to perform important functions related to decision-making and the processing of emotions. An imbalance in the gallbladder’s energy contributes to an inability to smoothly transition from the restorative phase of sleep to the active phase of the day. Which is why trying to get to sleep before 11pm is so important!

I see the link between emotional stress and sleep disturbance all the time in clinic. Sometimes people don’t recognise their stresses because they become so normalised. A typical example would be worrying about your children. It’s seen as normal to worry, which it is to some extent, but it shouldn’t be stopping you sleeping on a regular basis. It’s important to still look for ways to change how you are managing those challenging times. With treatment we can start to see where these imbalances are coming from and help to free up mental space to make different decisions. It’s really hard to do this alone without support and I love helping clients work through these issues.  

If you like the science-y stuff here are 3 ways acupuncture is understood to help sleep disturbance:

  • By altering the production of neurotransmitters involved in sleep, such as serotonin and melatonin acupuncture helps reset the body’s internal clock and promote more restful sleep.
  • Acupuncture has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a state of relaxation and reducing stress levels. By alleviating stress, acupuncture can help improve sleep quality and duration, hot flushes and other symptoms.
  • Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters. This helps to stimulate the body’s natural mechanisms for regulating hormone levels and we know these hormones are responsible for many symptoms, including sleep issues.

A 2015 review included 12 studies on acupuncture for sleep disorders in post-menopausal women. The studies involved a wide range of treatment protocols, interventions, and durations. Overall, 75% reported improvements in sleep complaints following acupuncture treatment.

Acupressure points to help sleep
Acupressure points to help sleep

If you’re reading this just before you go to bed, and are worried about getting a good night sleep tonight, try acupressure on one or more of the points. I’ve linked to some YouTube videos that guide you through how to find the points and treat them.

Kid 1 “Bubbling spring”

Cooling action and brings down heat that can disturb us at night.

Sp 6 “Three Yin Meeting/Crossing”

Helps with worry, overthinking, stuck liver energy and nourishing Blood.

Do not use in pregnancy

Ren 4  “Gate to the original Qi”

Crossing point of 4 channels which are all implicated in poor sleep. This points calls on your deeper reserves of Qi.

Don’t press with a full bladder!

If this sounds like a treatment you need but you really don’t fancy needles, why don’t you try ear seeds? They are literally seeds or tiny crystals on a small plaster that are placed on acupuncture points on the ear. You can leave them on for up to 5 days for continuous gentle acupressure. I recently spoke at the Meno Meet Up run by Helen Moynihan of Venus Nutrition. I offered ear seeds to the ladies who attended the talk and got some great feedback. They can be used alone, but I prefer to use them to extend the benefits of a full body treatment, if necessary.

I am an expert practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element acupuncture. My passion is helping people who are overworked and under resourced to manage their stress and anxiety, as well as other physical health issues, such as poor sleep. As an acupuncturist working in Oxted I love helping teenagers and adults to improve their quality of life through better understanding of how they interact with the world.

If you would like some “wonderful sleep” book now for a free 20 minute consultation to find out how acupuncture or ear seeds could help you.

July 11, 2024