Should You Try Acupuncture for Better Sleep?

You’ve tried meditation to help you sleep, cutting out your 3 p.m. latte, and melatonin. Yet you still can’t seem to doze off in a reasonable amount of time or stay in dream mode and get a good night’s sleep. Maybe it’s time to consider acupuncture.

This ancient practice from traditional Chinese medicine “is a reasonable treatment for various sleep disorders,” says Gary Stanton, MD, a board-certified neurologist with board certifications in sleep medicine, pain medicine, clinical neurophysiology, and medical acupuncture.

For example, in a small 2017 study published in Sleep Medicine, people with insomnia received real or placebo acupuncture treatment. Those who got the real thing increased the quality of their sleep and their psychological health. And in a 2013 study of 180 people with insomnia, acupuncture was more effective at improving sleep quality, total sleep time, sleep efficiency (how much time you spend in bed actually sleeping versus lying there), and daytime functioning compared to placebo acupuncture combined with sedatives. 

Recent reviews support these findings that genuine acupuncture trumps placebo treatment to help with insomnia. As researchers continue to explore this treatment, here’s what you should know if you’re curious about acupuncture for sleep.

How Acupuncture Works

Yin and yang are key concepts in traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. “The sleep state is considered a state of yin energy, while yang energy predominates during the daytime when the sun is out,” Stanton explains. “So if you have trouble sleeping, an acupuncturist may say you have an insufficiency of yin energy.” In turn, the aim of treatment is to bolster yin energy and tone down yang energy.

Yin and yang align with the Western concepts of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode) and the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode), Stanton adds. And researchers believe that acupuncture acts upon these systems. 

“Part of the reason we don’t sleep so well in 21st century culture is because there’s too much stimulation” and therefore our stress response is constantly reacting, says Rosa N. Schnyer, DAOM, IFMCP, Lac, clinical assistant professor of nursing at the University of Texas. “Acupuncture helps to reset the nervous system and stress response system. It down-regulates the fight-or-flight response when it needs to do that and up-regulates your rest-and-digest response.” That may help you relax and fall asleep faster.

Additionally, most acupuncture therapy is not only the needle treatments that many may think of. “It’s not just, [insert a needle into] point two, three, and four, and you go back to sleep,” Schnyer says. The treatment is combined with lifestyle behavior modifications (such as establishing good sleep hygiene) and often herbal interventions, she explains.

Find the Best Treatment

Although the evidence on acupuncture for insomnia and other sleep issues like sleep apnea is promising, “sleep issues are multifactorial; there are a lot of reasons and mechanisms why people don’t sleep well, and often several factors interact at the same time,” Schnyer says. “Acupuncture isn’t beneficial for all those factors.” 

So if you consider using acupuncture, first be sure to work with a licensed acupuncturist. They will help identify the underlying causes of your sleep difficulties and suggest a holistic approach to treatment. 

There are two types of acupuncturists in the United States: traditional acupuncturists spend three to four years taking graduate-level classes, and medical acupuncturists are MDs and DOs who complete additional training in acupuncture. Either can help with sleep issues. To help you find a provider, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has a directory of traditional acupuncturists, while the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture maintains a directory where you can find medical acupuncturists

Once you have a provider, “after your first session, make sure you are comfortable with what they are doing,” Schnyer says. Everyone’s treatment is individualized. In general, sessions last about 20 to 30 minutes, and it may take about six sessions (held about once a week) to see improvements in sleep. However, chronic problems may take longer to treat. Your provider will talk with you along the way to determine how things are going and if it’s time to add other remedies (such as herbs) or to scale down treatment to monthly sessions, as well as when treatment is no longer needed.

And if you’re wondering, you do not need to have acupuncture in the evening to see a benefit in your sleep. “Anytime of the day benefits in addressing the root causes” of sleep problems, Schnyer says.

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