If you’re one of the tens of millions of people in the U.S. who suffer from insomnia — which is difficulty falling and/or staying asleep — could acupuncture be an effective treatment?
Overall, 50 to 70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder, according to the American Sleep Association. Thirty percent of U.S. adults suffer from short-term insomnia, which is typically defined as a condition that lasts three months or less, while 10% of adults have chronic insomnia, which lasts longer.
There’s anecdotal evidence — and some research — that suggests that acupuncture can help with insomnia and achieving better sleep, says Gracia Tharp, lead acupuncturist and teaching associate at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Washington.
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What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at specific points of the body. It’s often used to treat pain but can also be used to treat other conditions. There’s more than a dozen different styles of acupuncture, Tharp says.
In her acupuncture practice, on a daily basis, Tharp treats a dozen or so patients for an array of issues, including:
— Acute and chronic pain.
— Digestive disorders.
— Insomnia and/or fatigue.
— Women’s health (irregular menstrual cycles, fertility support, pregnancy-related acid reflux and nausea and menopausal symptoms).
A relatively small percentage of Tharp’s patients come to her because they’re suffering from insomnia or insufficient sleep. Regardless of what ails them, about 80% of all of her patients report sleeping better after a handful of treatments, Tharp says. “Some patients fall asleep on the acupuncture table,” she says.
[See: 8 Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.]
Acupuncture Patients Find Relief from Insomnia
In 2019, Christy Garrard, who lives in the Seattle area, was going through menopause and experiencing hot flashes at night that woke her up about every hour. “I’d have this really intense hot flash, it would wake me up and I’d have anxiety because I knew it would last a little while, and I’d have a hard time getting back to sleep,” she says. The flashes were as intense as a famous scene from the horror movie “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver. “When the hot flashes hit me I felt like I had an alien in my torso and my chest was going to explode. It was getting to the point where I wasn’t functioning. I was close to suicidal. I couldn’t live like this. I was exhausted and emotionally spent in trying to figure out what to do.”
Her primary care physician at the time prescribed depression medication, which didn’t help. Garrard decided to try integrative medicine, including acupuncture. After going to Tharp twice a week for a month, Garrard’s hot flashes started to abate, and she began getting some sleep.
She continued to improve gradually. After a few weeks, she scaled back to maintenance, seeing Tharp once a week, then once a month. A year after she started seeing Tharp, Garrard was no longer experiencing nighttime hot flashes, and was sleeping soundly.
Another of Tharp’s patients, Hillary Bickel, 39, says she was in yoga teacher training around 2014 when she felt a sharp pinch in her shoulder. She was unable to elevate her shoulder, and a chiropractic provider recommended she tried acupuncture. At the time, Bickel was also suffering from insomnia. Bickel went to Tharp, who asked her numerous questions about her lifestyle, including questions about her sleep. “She then treated me for my shoulder, insomnia and stress” by placing needles in her feet. “After the first treatment, I could move my shoulder,” she says. “Also, I slept really well.”
After about three treatments, Bickel says, her shoulder was much better and her insomnia was gone.
What Does Science Say About Acupuncture for Insomnia?
There’s some research suggesting acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for insomnia, but more studies are needed, experts say.
“The evidence is still lacking currently, but it is promising,” says Dr. Marri Horvat, a sleep specialist and neurologist at Cleveland Clinic. “I think more high-quality studies are needed.”
“Although there is promising research showing improvements in insomnia related to acupuncture, more research is needed to be able to draw broad conclusions about its effectiveness,” adds Natalie Dautovich, the National Sleep Foundation’s environmental fellow. She’s also an assistant professor in counseling psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A meta-analysis published in the journal Sleep Medicine in May 2022 suggests that “with a moderate to low certainty of evidence, multiple acupuncture therapies showed impressive insomnia improvement.” Researchers analyzed 57 randomized controlled trials.
Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia can be caused by an array of factors, Horvat says, including:
— Circadian rhythm disorders.
— Poor sleep habits.
— Sleep-disordered breathing.
— Sleeping on a worn-out or low-quality mattress.
Conventional Treatment for Insomnia
For patients with insomnia, Horvat says she believes cognitive behavioral therapy combined with improved sleep hygiene is the best approach. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves working with a licensed psychologist who can target factors that may influence insomnia, such as dysregulation of sleep drive, sleep-related anxiety and behaviors that interfere with sleep, like using electronic devices in bed or watching TV before bedtime.
This approach is typically coupled with recommendations for improved sleep hygiene, which involves not reading electronic device screens in bed, not watching TV one to two hours before bedtime, adhering to a set schedule for going to bed and avoiding caffeine late at night.
Tips for Trying Acupuncture for Insomnia
Horvat says she wouldn’t typically discourage patients from trying acupuncture for insomnia, if a patient is really interested and has no contraindications to treatment.
If you’re suffering from insomnia and are considering trying acupuncture, Tharp recommends these tips:
— Ask your primary health care provider whether acupuncture is a good option for you.
— Search for a licensed, board-certified acupuncturist in your state or district. You can use the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s website to look for licensed, board-certified providers in your region.
— Check with your health insurance provider to see if they cover acupuncture treatments. Both Garrard and Bickel say their health insurance providers covered acupuncture treatments.
— If you don’t have health insurance, check with acupuncturists to ask whether they offer a sliding scale for people without health coverage.
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Acupuncture for Insomnia: How Acupuncture Can Help You Sleep originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 07/20/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.