Insomnia may arise as a result of hormonal imbalances, depression, stress, breathing issues, behaviors, and a host of other issues. Treating the symptoms of insomnia with sleep drugs will not address the underlying cause. Acupuncture will holistically address both the symptoms as well as the underlying cause of insomnia.
Acupuncture works by normalizing the circulatory, nervous, and endocrine systems to restore balance to the body. This means that acupuncture impacts our blood flow, hormones, and neurons in complex ways that research is only now beginning to tease apart. According to Chinese medicine, insomnia occurs for a variety of reasons, including overwork, stress, chronic illness, emotional issues, dietary choices, and organ pathology. The acupuncturist will determine the underlying cause of the insomnia, and select treatments that encourage sleep while also addressing the root of the insomnia.
Many people who experience insomnia find that their sleep disturbances follow specific patterns. For instance, an individual will sleep fine until exactly 3 am every morning, and then stay wide awake for three more hours before fitfully falling back asleep. This is easily understood in Chinese medicine terms because the organs within our bodies follow patterns that correspond to the times of the day. A person experiencing sleep disturbances that follow time patterns is simply reflecting internal organ disruptions. Acupuncture normalizes these disruptions, and helps the blood return to the interior of the body during nighttime hours.
As a practicing acupuncturist, I’ve seen many insomnia patients experience relief of their symptoms with acupuncture. Herbal treatments have also been extremely effective for addressing insomnia. But honestly, insomnia is tough to treat. Many people want immediate results, but it can take several treatments, possibly in conjunction with herbal therapy and any relevant sleep hygiene changes, until the insomnia is completely addressed. In the initial acupuncture treatments, most people get just a few good nights of sleep before returning to their insomnia pattern, and it’s easy to get discouraged at this stage. But over the course of several acupuncture visits, the body will be retrained and sleep will be normalized. At that point, acupuncture can be used for insomnia maintenance as needed.
There is certainly a need for further research to help elucidate the relationship between acupuncture and insomnia. In 2007, Kalavapalli and Singareddy conducted a large systematic review of studies exploring the role of acupuncture in the treatment of acupuncture.[i] They found that all of the published studies support the concept that acupuncture relieves insomnia. However, most of the acupuncture insomnia studies have limitations. There is a dearth of randomized controlled trials. Many studies do not explain if they are differentiating primary insomnia from other related diseases. And, as a whole, the existing research doesn’t explain how the participants in the studies were selected.
Despite the limitations of the research on acupuncture and insomnia, the fact remains that there are too few treatment options for insomnia. Many doctors prescribe sedative-hypnotic drugs, such as Ambien and Lunesta. These drugs are expensive, have adverse side effects, put the patient at risk for dependency, and will not address the root cause of the insomnia. Acupuncture is a safe treatment option for insomnia, without the side effects and costs of long-term pharmaceutical treatment. After several weeks, months, or years of sleeping poorly, people are amazed at how much better they feel once they start to get good quality rest. And if you’ve tried everything else, and still suffer from insomnia, you have nothing to lose by exploring treatment with acupuncture.
[i] Kalavapalli, Ramprasad, and Singareddy, Ravi. “Role of acupuncture in the treatment of insomnia: A comprehensive review.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 2007: 184–193.