Be Well: Sleep Relief That’s Worked for Centuries

Move over, melatonin gummies. From the Midwest’s largest herbal dispensary, learn how Chinese medicine has been effectively prescribing rest for millennia—from custom herbs to Qigong.

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine 

In our tireless pursuit of wellness, we tend to focus on how we spend our waking hours, making sure to eat our vegetables, move our bodies, soothe our minds, and nurture our relationships. The irony is that we often neglect the single foundational activity that makes it all possible: getting a good night’s sleep.

If you struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up feeling rested (and who among us doesn’t?), it’s all too easy to reach for an over-the-counter bottle and hope for the best. There are now entire aisles filled with pills, gummies, and syrups promising deep ZZZs. But a mass-produced supplement can’t help you get to the root of the problem.

That’s where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) comes in. The ancient healing practices and holistic principles have been ferrying people to the land of dreams for millennia. In the hands of practitioners at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) they are more than up to the task of our modern midnight woes.

Sleeplessness As a Side Effect

Sleeplessness is usually a side effect rather than a primary cause, says Marley Schaberg, acupuncturist and manager of NWHSU’s herbal dispensary, the largest in the Midwest. “Our acupuncturists are known around town for having one of the longest intake appointments,” she says. “And that’s because we really work to get to the root of the problem.”

Treatment at NWHSU is integrative, meaning it combines the best of TCM practices and Western medicine principles. You’ll start by discussing the symptoms that brought you into the clinic. From there, your provider will ask questions about your medical history, lifestyle, and environment—all of which may provide clues about what’s disrupting your slumber.

If your provider suspects your sleep troubles might be traced to a medical issue, they’ll refer you out for further evaluation, such as imaging or blood work. “We can still help [with complementary therapies], but if there’s a medical issue, that needs to be addressed first,” says Schaberg.

When health concerns have been ruled out or addressed, you’ll work with your provider to develop a personalized treatment plan. This could include any combination of herbal formulas, acupuncture, breathwork, massage, cupping, or tai chi, depending on what’s stopping you from nodding off.

“That’s what I love about herbal medicine: It’s not just going to the store shelf and getting the same medicine as everyone else. You’re getting something designed for you.” Marley Schaberg, Northwestern Health Sciences University

Curious what it looks like in practice? Schaberg shares how she helps patients cope with some of the most common sleep challenges: priming the body, calming the mind, and sleeping through the night.

1) Setting the Stage for Sleep

As kids, we have strict bedtime routines: a warm bath, a story, perhaps a lullaby, and then light’s out. As adults, bedtime routines are skipped in favor of “just one more email” or “just one more episode.” Quickly making that hard shift from stimulation to sleep is almost impossible, says Schaberg. “We still need those signals that it’s time to go to bed.”

Qigong is a good place to start. The practice combines breathing and meditation exercises designed to settle your body and calm your thoughts. Schaberg explains that it’s about retraining your mind—turning off the endless to-do list running inside your retinas. Your new bedtime routine may also include Chinese herbs. The habit of taking them before bed “mentally and physically sets the stage for sleep.”

2) Counting Worries Instead of Sheep

Though an unquiet mind can mean you’re not taking the time to wind down, racing thoughts can also have deeper roots in anxiety. “The majority of people have felt that at some point in their life, permanently or seasonally,” says Schaberg. “Our acupuncturists see a high number of patients with anxiety, whether it’s something experienced during the daytime, nighttime, or all the time.”

Along with regular acupuncture sessions, patients with anxiety are often prescribed a custom herbal formula. What you take home with you will be different than what a friend or even a family member might get. “That’s what I love about herbal medicine,” Schaberg says. “It’s not just going to the store shelf and getting the same medicine as everyone else. You’re getting something designed for you.”

3) Where You Sleep is How You Sleep

What if you’re spending the recommended 7 to 9 hours in bed but still waking up in a fog? “If you’re not getting into that deep REM sleep on your own, even though there aren’t any health concerns, that’s when we look at your sleep environment,” says Schaberg.

Mild discomforts or disturbances may be enough to disrupt your sleep without fully waking you. Common culprits include pets jumping on and off the bed, blue light or sound from a TV left on overnight, a partner’s snoring, or an old pillow contorting your neck.

Schaberg recommends fixing your sleep hygiene before seeking out pharmaceutical or over-the-counter sleep aids. You can evaluate your sleep environment on your own, but “sometimes people need to come in and have a third party asking those questions,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I never thought of that before.’”

Quick Results, Lasting Relief

Whatever your treatment plan, sleep relief should come quickly. The benefits of an acupuncture session, for example, can be immediate. Many patients fall asleep right on the table, a phenomenon Schaberg and her colleagues call “an acu-nap.” Herbal formulas can be either fast- or slow-acting, depending on the patient’s needs and constitution. The goal remains the same regardless of the approach: “We want to see you sleeping better within a week,” she says.

Because Chinese medicine addresses the root cause, benefits last long after you complete your initial course of treatment. If you experience a relapse of symptoms—Schaberg says it’s somewhat inevitable given that life changes, health concerns, and even seasonal weather patterns can disrupt your hard-won rhythm—all it takes is a tune-up with your practitioner to get you back on track.