“I thought only new parents looked like that,” I said to my friend Cherie, worrying over her glazed eyes and exhausted stare.
“It’s been like this for months. I’ll wake up after two hours of sleep and just stay awake. And medication just leaves me fuzzy-headed.”
I called Valerie Ning Beckwith, a licensed acupuncturist with clinics downtown and in Kearny Mesa who has trained in China and the U.S. (valeriebeckwith-lac.com; 858-201-9889). She was able to help. “Acupuncture,” said Beckwith, “is a therapy that uses the insertion of tiny needles into specific points on the body along its meridians, or energy channels. The needles stimulate certain points along those meridians in order to draw your chi — your energy — toward those points. It’s very similar to the network of blood vessels in the body. Chi flows freely through the body just as blood flows through the blood vessels. And when there are blockages, the result is pain, disease, or dysfunction — sometimes, it’s something as subtle as low energy level or insomnia.”
But, said Beckwith, it’s not as simple as sticking a needle in the right spot and slipping off to the land of nod. “With Chinese medicine,” she explained, “it’s not a matter of one symptom, one cure. There are many different patterns associated with insomnia. One of the big questions is, is it difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep? The questions help me to figure out the pattern of the dysfunction. Falling asleep and then waking up and not being able to go back to sleep points to a heart-kidney disharmony. If you’re tired all the time and you can’t fall asleep, that may mean a heart-blood deficiency.”
Heart-kidney? Heart-blood? “Your meridians have directions,” said Beckwith. “Some originate in your feet and some in your hands, but they are all correlated to the body’s organs.” Depending on the underlying meridian, “Different positions on the wrist correlate to different organs, and so I’ll take the patient’s pulse at different points on the wrist and look for a pulse dysfunction. The patient’s tongue maps out all the organs as well — a redness at the tip of the tongue correlates with the heart channel and often shows up in relation to insomnia, anxiety, and heart palpitations.” It’s all part of determining a particular dysfunction’s pattern.
“Once I determine the pattern, I’ll give an acupuncture treatment based on that pattern. Say it was just a heart-blood deficiency. Then I would treat the heart channel, which runs from the pinkie finger down the side of the wrist.” But if the pattern is more complicated than that, she might also work on the yintang. “It’s between your eyebrows, and it’s a sedation point. It calms the mind and is great for treating anxiety, headaches, and insomnia.”
Treatments, said Beckwith, involve the patient lying on a table for 30 to 40 minutes. “Your chi cycles through all the meridians every 15 minutes, so you get two cycles of chi during the treatment. During that time, I insert very fine needles — about the thickness of a human hair — into anywhere from 5 to 20 points on the body. I use individually wrapped, sterile needles — one needle for one point. Insertion is relatively painless — we use guide tubes and pop the needles through the sensitive layer of skin so fast that you don’t really feel it. Plus, I use a distraction technique, tapping the skin around the area where I’m going to insert. People can’t tell what’s the needle and what’s my finger.”
Exactly how many needles Beckwith needs depends on the individual pattern. “The needles stimulate that area on the meridian and draw chi. If the chi is not moving in an area, the stimulation says, ‘Come here and heal.’ There’s a lot of theory involved — there’s no textbook solution of ‘Treat insomnia by hitting these five points.’ You treat based on an individual’s symptoms and body constitution.” If Beckwith is treating a heart-kidney disharmony, she might treat “the heart channel, the kidney channel, and the large-intestine channel. I know I’m at the proper depth when I get a chi sensation — a response from the patient or a response that I can feel as the practitioner. It’s not so much a pain as it is a dull ache — a release. It can come just as the needle hits the right point, or it can come over time.”
Beckwith also works with various points on a patient’s ears. “There’s one called shen men; it’s in conjunction with the heart, and it works well for insomnia. Sometimes, I’ll embed needles called ear tacks in the ear itself. I swab the area, put in the needle, and put a little Band-Aid over it. The patient wears them for about a week and can push on it at several points during the day to activate it. For insomnia, people will pulse it toward the evening.” Herbs sometimes help as well: “For insomnia, I might prescribe salvia root, sour jujube seed, and longan fruit. Usually, people will feel a difference after just one treatment, but I advise three or four treatments for people to see if it will work for them.” (Sessions run $80 to $85 and are sometimes covered by insurance. Call for appointment.)
I then spoke with Toni Narins, L.Ac., M.T.O.M., of Mission Valley Acupuncture (missionvalleyacu.com; 619-281-7696). She gave me the following image to describe the process: “There’s a stream of energy flowing, and somebody’s come along and thrown too many rocks into it. So on the upstream side, you’ve got a puddle, and on the downstream, there’s a trickle. We find out where those rocks are, and the acupuncture needles pull them out of the stream — the needles unblock the energy, draining where there’s too much and adding where there’s too little. There are ways of inserting and manipulating the needle that will drain and ways that encourage energy to move to the particular area.” (Phone consultation is free; first visit is $80, follow-ups are $60. Discounts available for seniors, students, and active military.)