By Esther Hornstein L.Ac., MSAc.
Have you been tossing and turning lately? You are not alone. As many of 50% of Americans have suffered problems sleeping at some time, and 10% of the population suffer from chronic insomnia. While it will come as no surprise that sleeplessness is a frequent byproduct of the many stresses in our daily lives, it is less widely known that 1.6 million Americans use Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) to treat their insomnia, generally with great success.
The Consequence of Sleep Deprivation
One sleepless night can result in lethargy, irritability, disorientation and hypersensitivity. Long term sleep deprivation causes depression, anxiety, disrupts concentration and impairs normal day time functioning. Insomnia is a major cause of absenteeism and poor job performance. Sleepy drivers are blamed for half of all motor vehicle accidents.
Recent research has brought evidence that chronic insomnia increases the risk of Diabetes, Heart Disease and Cancer.
Why Conventional Methods are not Good Enough
The benefits of today’s pharmacological treatments for sleeplessness must be weighed against the drawbacks. These include questions about their long term effectiveness, the potential for abuse, addiction and adverse effects.
Psychological and behavioral therapies for sleeplessness are quite effective, but generally require a considerable investment in both time and patient training.
Because of the limitations of available conventional treatments, the rate of CAM use, and acupuncture in particular, for the treatment of insomnia jumped from 20.6% in 1990 to 26.4 in 1997 in the U.S.
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is based on Oriental Medicine. It consists of the insertion of thin hair-like needles into the skin at locations called acu-points which are located throughout the body, from head to toe, including the ear. Each has one or more specific function and can be used by itself or in combination with other acu-points to achieve a desired effect including the treatment of a specific illness or improving some aspect of the patients wellness.
What Scientific Research Says
Because Acupuncture has been around for over three thousand years, the ability to uniformly and objectively test the results by Western Medical standards is questionable. However, through the increasing acceptance and involvement of Oriental Medicine in the West, some researchers are able to find a balance between the highly subjective medicine that is Acupuncture and evidence based measures which are needed to sustain credibility among the American medical community.
According to study published in Sleep (Vol. 32, No.8 2009) sleep quality, sleep onset, and total sleep time improved in 85% of the 60 subjects of the study. The results continued even one week after the study was completed. 30 of the subjects were administered tri-weekly electro-acupuncture treatments for 3 weeks. The placebo group had the same number of treatments, but with streitberger needles. Both groups reported marked improvement, while the electro-acupuncture group had only slightly better results.
Side effects were reported as mild and both electro-acupuncture and placebo acupuncture were determined to be safe.
Another study published in the Chinese Medical Journal (Vol. 122, No.23 2009) reported results on 47 subjects with out any placebo control group, that electro-acupuncture considerably improved insomniacs_ sleep quality, sleep time and social function during the daytime. Electro-acupuncture also had repairing effects on the disruption of long term sleep patterns. At the same time, electro-acupuncture prolonged slow wave sleep (SWS) time and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep time. There was no hangover, side effects, addiction or decreased alertness during the daytime. However, insomnia return rate was about 23% within one month.
Both of these studies used different acu-points, treatment frequency and length, but their outcomes were quite similar. Acupuncture works for insomnia and it is proven to be safe.
How Acupuncture Works for Insomnia
Acu-points are connected on the body through meridians which are non physical pathways beneath the skin. Through acupuncture, massage and other methods these points and thereby these meridians are stimulated. Each meridian connects to a different organ system.
Stress related insomnia due to outside events like job loss or hospitalization usually go away once the source of the stress is gone. However if daytime sleepiness or fatigue interferes with daytime functioning, acupuncture can be helpful in alleviating these symptoms. The same is true for cases of insomnia due to depression or other mental disorders. Acupuncture has been proven to release endorphins like serotonin (happy hormone) and melatonin (sleepy hormone) from the body’s own system. Not only does acupuncture release these natural hormones, it also balances them. Therefore depressions due to chemical imbalances are relatively easily treated by acupuncture – with out drugs, with out unwanted side effects.
Those who have trouble sleeping due to pain that stops them from getting comfortable e.g.: arthritis, cancer, herniated discs, are in luck to. Among the top ten conditions successfully treated with acupuncture, muscular-skeletal pain is number one! Acupuncture works so well for local pain as well as systemic conditions like insomnia. When an acupuncture needle is inserted, the body instantly sends collagen and elastin to the site to heal the ‘mini trauma’ caused by the needle. As a result the tissues get stronger and more blood flows through the area. In most cases a well established treatment schedule will alleviate the pain and treat the root of the insomnia. As opposed to some medications which will help the patient sleep, but cause other health issues.
Some suffer from self inflicted sleep deprivation by making work or social events a priority over their own sleep needs. The acupuncturist’s role is to get that the patient to take a look at their life and try to re-prioritize lifestyle change and acupuncture. Many acu-points have psycho-emotional functions that won’t only change how the patient sleeps, but also how the patient feels. The overburdening of one’s shoulders with commitments to others is attributed to an imbalance in the “earth” organ system. Just like the earth, these people need to nurture everything and everyone around them, sacrificing their own needs in the process. Acu-points along the ‘earth’ organ meridians rectify the imbalance, and with proper treatment the patient will eventually re-learn to nurture him or herself in harmony with the needs of others around them.
In addition to not causing any adverse effect, acupuncture also mitigates side effects caused by necessary medications. Drug-related sleep disorders can result from chronic use of Central Nervous System stimulants, hypnotics, sedatives, chemotherapy, anticonvulsants, oral contraceptives, alcohol, and thyroid hormones. They can also cause irritability and apathy and reduce mental alertness. Many psychoactive drugs can induce abnormal movements during sleep. By balancing the hormones and sensory input acupuncture can relieve the side effects caused by these medications.
Insomnia can develop during withdrawal of Central Nervous System depressants, tricyclic antidepressants, MAO inhibitors, or illicit drugs. Abrupt withdrawal from hypnotics or sedatives can cause nervousness, tremors, and seizures causing the patient not to sleep, or be fearful of sleeping. While working with the patient’s doctor a Licensed Acupuncturist can safely and effectively ease the experience of withdrawal from these substances while also stimulating healthier sleep.
Weather one chooses to treat insomnia with acupuncture or not, remember that it is important to develop good sleep hygiene. Do not consume stimulants like caffeine near bed time. Do not exercise right before bedtime or watch something exciting late at night. Try to keep regular sleep and wake patterns, getting a good night sleep is one of the best ways to get a new day started on the right foot.