Reasons to Try Acupuncture for Insomnia

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Acupuncture is a type of holistic medicine that began as an ancient traditional Chinese medicine practice. The practice involves inserting extremely thin needles into the skin at strategic points in the body. These specific areas are known as acupoints. Each needle is inserted into a different area to stimulate symptom relief of various conditions, such as chronic pain and nausea.

Some recent research has looked into acupuncture for insomnia and found that it may be an effective alternative to medications. This article discusses how acupuncture works, its uses for sleep disorders, and any side effects that may occur.

A Black person is lying down with acupuncture needles in acupoints on their face.

Jon Feingersh Photography Inc / Getty Images

Insomnia Quick Facts 

Insomnia causes a person to have trouble falling or staying asleep. People who have insomnia may also wake up much earlier than they intend to in the morning and have difficulties going back to sleep once they are awake.

The sleep disorder is quite common: roughly 10% of people grapple with it at some point in their lives.

There are three categories of insomnia, all of which are characterized by the length of time the issues last. They include:

  • Acute or short-term: Lasting less than three months
  • Episodic: Occurs once in a while for less than three months
  • Chronic: Lasting more than three months

Health Consequences of Insomnia

Insomnia can bring on many other issues because of how important adequate sleep is for overall health. Someone with insomnia can develop mood changes, irritability, fatigue, and issues with memory, impulse control, and concentration. Insomnia has also been shown to increase the risk of heart failure, heart attack, and other chronic health conditions.

Possible Benefits of Acupuncture for Insomnia 

While insomnia is most notably used to help stave off chronic pain, it has been researched widely in regard to other conditions, such as insomnia. Studies looking to prove or disprove the use of acupuncture for insomnia have concluded that it may be able to improve sleep because of the way it influences certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain).

One particular review noted that specific neurotransmitters involved in the sleep-wake cycle, which is the body’s internal clock, are positively affected by acupuncture. These neurotransmitters include:

The review did mention that more research is needed to confirm these findings and the benefits of acupuncture for insomnia.

How Else Can Acupuncture Help Sleep?

Certain conditions can contribute to insomnia, such as mood disorders, chronic pain, or other sleep disorders. Acupuncture may help lower the effects of those disorders, which helps drive away insomnia.

Pain 

Because of the way acupuncture affects certain chemicals within the body, it is also a proven complementary treatment for pain.

In acupuncture, the needles enhance chemicals, such as dynorphins, endorphins, and encephalins. Acupuncture can also release corticosteroids, which are stress hormones. Each of these chemicals plays a role in pain. Thus, tweaking their levels within the body can reduce pain.

Anxiety

Studies have found that people with anxiety could also benefit from acupuncture to help reduce symptoms. However, the studies do have limitations, and more research is needed to determine whether or not it can be used as first-line treatment over other remedies, such as medication or psychotherapy.  

Sleep Apnea 

Sleep apnea is a type of sleep-breathing disorder that causes a person to temporarily stop breathing during the night.

Acupuncture has been shown to help reduce the apnea-hypopnea index, which is the number of times a person stops and starts breathing throughout the night while they are asleep.

How Does Acupuncture Help Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the nose, nasal cavity, mouth, or throat become too relaxed. Acupuncture helps stimulate those muscles and prevent that over-relaxation, thus, preventing apneas throughout the night.

History of Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old method of treatment that originated in China.

By the 19th century, the healing technique was adopted throughout Europe and America. Since then, research has continued to determine what type of acupoints and energy pathways throughout the body (meridians) can be stimulated to reduce symptoms of various health disorders.

Although modern neuroscience views acupuncture as a way to release chemicals along with muscle stimulation, it wasn’t always the case. Ancient practices focused heavily on energy regulation. The needles used were thought to unblock meridians and release energy that causes ailments or disorders to develop.

While research continues, there is still much to learn about how acupuncture evokes biological and physiological responses within the body that lead to healing.  

The FDA and Acupuncture

The use of acupuncture in medical settings in the United States is relatively new. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t recognize acupuncture needles as medical tools until 1997.

What Happens During an Acupuncture Session?

During an acupuncture session, you will first have to discuss your disorders, diseases, or ailments with the licensed acupuncturist. They will then determine what points should be used when inserting the needles for optimal results.

Once the session begins, needles will be inserted into specific points while you lay on a table, face up or down, depending on your complaint and what points need to be accessed.

Typically, there is very little pain when the needle is inserted into the skin. People often experience feelings of pressure where the needle is.  The session, with needles inserted in your body, lasts up to half hour.

Communicating With Your Acupuncturist

As mentioned, you should not feel pain during acupuncture—just a small amount of pressure in the area. If you are feeling pain, it could be because the needles are not inserted into the right spot. It’s essential that you tell your acupuncturist that you are feeling pain because that means that it's not being performed correctly.

Side Effects 

While not everyone who has acupuncture will experience side effects, there is always a possibility that they will occur. Some side effects of the treatment include:

  • Dizziness
  • Bleeding or bruising where the needle was inserted into the body
  • Nausea
  • Fainting
  • Pins and needles
  • Feeling more pain than prior to treatment

Rare But Serious Side Effects

Although acupuncture is relatively safe, it can lead to rare but serious side effects. In extremely rare cases, aphasia, which is a disorder that causes issues with speaking and communicating, has been found to develop following acupuncture. Other rare but serious effects include injuries to other areas of the body, such as the brain, spinal cord, nerves, blood vessels, and organs.

How to Find Licensed Acupuncturist

Prior to getting acupuncture, you should speak to your healthcare provider. They can advise you on how it could help and any side effects that may occur due to your health circumstances. Once you've done that, they may be able to recommend a licensed acupuncturist.

Other resources to find a licensed acupuncturist near you include The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.

Acupuncture Alternatives for Insomnia 

Aside from acupuncture, there are other natural methods that can be used to treat insomnia. They include:

  • Herbal remedies: Herbal remedies involve the use of herbs to help a person fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. Some herbs that have been used for insomnia include ashwagandha, Angelica Sinensis, ginseng, chamomile, and Jamaican dogwood.
  • Meditation: Meditation is the act of mindfulness, which is essentially just focusing the mind on one particular moment or thing. According to research, people who practice meditation regularly can help to improve sleep and symptoms of insomnia. However, the improvement is only mild, and meditation should be considered a complementary form of therapy that can increase how well a primary treatment works.
  • CBD therapy: CBD, or cannabidiol, is found in the cannabis plant. Research shows that using CBD can be beneficial for people with insomnia, because it can improve both sleep quality and reduce the amount of time a person spends awake at night.
  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy is a form of mind-body therapy that causes a person to go into a trance-like state. When in the state, a therapist relays information that is designed to help correct your sleep disorder. Studies have shown that hypnotherapy can work to alleviate insomnia and other sleep disorders. 
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can improve sleep hygiene in many people. Research shows that exercise helps with sleep by changing the body's internal temperature, reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, and realigning the circadian rhythm (the sleep-wake cycle).

CBD and Insomnia

Although CBD shows promise in helping people with insomnia, long-term data is scarce. That is why more research is needed to examine how long-term use of CBD can affect sleep patterns in people with sleep disorders.

Summary

Acupuncture involves the use of thin needles inserted into specific points known as acupoints on the body. It can be used as a complementary therapy for specific health conditions, like chronic pain. Some studies have found that it may be beneficial for insomnia, although there are some research limitations.

Studies have also examined how acupuncture affects other disorders that may drive the onset of insomnia, such as anxiety and chronic pain, and found that it can be effective at reducing symptoms in both of those conditions. Thus, it could be beneficial for people who experience insomnia due to another condition.

Before getting acupuncture, you will want to speak with your healthcare provider and find a reputable licensed acupuncturist. Although the practice is relatively safe, it may come with some side effects.

A Word From Verywell 

Insomnia can feel unmanageable because of how it affects your brain and body. Sleep is so important, and when you can’t or don’t get enough, it can negatively impact your daily functioning in a major way. That is why seeking treatment for insomnia is so important.

If you feel as though you're stuck in a harmful sleep pattern, contact your healthcare provider about an insomnia diagnosis and treatment options. Acupuncture may be a viable option for you, but it can only be explored in discussion with your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you attend multiple acupuncture sessions for insomnia?

    The type of insomnia you have will determine how long you should go to acupuncture therapy. For people with acute insomnia, less than 10 sessions may do the job. However, those with chronic insomnia may need ongoing treatment that involves more than one course.

  • Does acupuncture treatment hurt?

    Acupuncture may cause light pain while the needle is inserted, but it is replaced by a sense of pressure in the area once the needle is in. If the pain is moderate or severe, it's likely that the needle is not inserted correctly, and you will need to let your licensed acupuncturist know right away so they can take it out and reinsert it.

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