What’s all the hype about sleep?
Sleep serves as our body’s restorative function in order for us to operate daily at an optimal level. Many of us are aware that both the quantity and quality of sleep play an important role in healthy brain function and our overall emotional well-being. Not only does the body recover from daily physical strain during sleep but both the immune and cardiovascular system reap the rewards.
Now that we all understand how important sleep is, what can we do to support this natural and necessary bodily function?
Well among the plethora of therapeutic options for addressing sleep disturbances is acupuncture. Acupuncture is an ancient therapeutic method which has been used for centuries in many parts of the world. Originating in China, this healing modality has been used to treat an array of conditions including insomnia. More recently acupuncture has been incorporated into the alternative medical stream given its vastly positive clinical implications.
How does it work?
Acupuncture is often used for its positive effects on inflammation and the central nervous system. Not only has acupuncture been shown to stimulate local circulation and healing but its effect on neuropeptides (chemical messengers) has been demonstrated in research studies since the 1950s.
Mechanotransduction is the body’s mechanism by which a mechanical stimulus (i.e. needle) is converted into electrochemical activity (release of chemicals). Studies have shown that needle manipulation can initiate this mechanical signal to connective tissue cells inducing a chemical response. This process helps explains the local as well as long-term effects of acupuncture. Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the release of the body’s natural opioid endorphins, which are the “feel-good” chemicals that help with pain relief.
Furthermore, acupuncture can stimulate the somato-autonomic reflex and neural response at the level of insula and hypothalamus. Huh? In more simple terms, somatic tissue (i.e. the dermis of the skin) has a direct link to the autonomic nervous system which is in charge or our “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” bodily functions.
How is this all related to sleep?
Chemical messengers are important in the regulation of focus, energy, mood and sleep. Some of the more pertinent messengers related to sleep are serotonin, melatonin, dopamine and GABA.
The final link
Given that acupuncture can effect the mechanical and sensory pathways of the body it may help in the stimulation of chemical messengers like serotonin and dopamine in the limbic system as well.
Is there any proof?
There is a wide array of research studies that have been conducted on the use of acupuncture. Some studies support the use of acupuncture while others remain inconclusive. One study comparing acupuncture and Zolpidem (insomnia medication) showed that evaluated sleep scores improved at a similar rate between the two treatments. Another systematic review of randomized controlled trials showed beneficial results of acupuncture on the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index. Furthermore, acupuncture in combination with medication has been shown to have better effect than medication alone on total sleep duration. Acupuncture in combination with herbs have also been shown to have significantly better results than herbs alone on increasing sleep rate.
So there is evidence available demonstrating that acupuncture can influence sleep in a positive way in patients with sleep-disturbances making acupuncture a suitable add-on treatment.
Through a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) assessment and diagnosis an individualized treatment plan can be formulated for a patient experiencing insomnia. A TCM intake dives deep into determining an individual’s constitution depending on the whole picture. In certain instances acupuncture alone can help regulate sleep patterns however in most cases adjunctive therapies including nutritional and lifestyle counseling should be incorporated for full amelioration of symptoms.
- Huijuan, C., Xingfang P., Hua L., Jianping L. Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15(11): 1171-1186.
- Bosch P., van Luijtelaar G., van de Noort M., Lim S., Egger J. Coenen A. Sleep Ameliorating Effects of Acupuncture in a Psychiatric Population. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013.
- Langevin, H. M., Churchill, D. L., Cipolla, M. J. Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: a mechanism for the therapeutic effect of acupuncture. 2001.
- Sjolund B, Terenius L, Ericsson M: Increased cerebrospinal fluid levels of endorphins after electro-acupuncture. Acta Physiol Scand. 1977, 100: 382-384.
- B. Pomeranz Acupuncture analgesia—basic research G. Stux, R. Hammerschlag (Eds.), Clinical Acupuncture, Scientific Basis, Springer, Berlin (2000), pp. 1-28