Fans of acupuncture tout the ancient Chinese practice as a cure for multiple ailments — including trouble sleeping. If you’re not familiar with acupuncture, here’s a quick explainer. An acupuncturist will penetrate your skin with hair-thin needles at various pressure points around your body, depending on your ailment. Then the practitioner will “activate” the needles, either by hand or using electrical stimulation.
The Johns Hopkins Medicine website explains: “Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways or meridians. These pathways create an energy flow (Qi, pronounced “chee”) through the body that is responsible for overall health. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease. By applying acupuncture to certain points, it is thought to improve the flow of Qi, thereby improving health.” While acupuncture needles can look intimidating, the process should not be painful.
The British Acupuncture Council website says: “Acupuncture rarely ‘hurts’. The most that people experience is a dull ache around the base of the inserted needle, or a slight tingling feeling when the needle is inserted. Points at the extremities, like toe or finger ends, can sometimes be a little sharp, but the sensation is usually brief.”
Scientific studies show that acupuncture really does help lessen insomnia. For a study published in 2004, 18 anxious adults who had insomnia underwent five weeks of acupuncture treatment. The researchers found that the treatment led to an increase in nocturnal melatonin secretion and improvements in sleep time and sleep efficiency. What’s more, acupuncture decreased the patients’ anxiety.
In a 2001 study, researchers found that their subjects’ “sleep activity and sleep quality significantly improved” after ten acupuncture treatments. And a 2009 review of randomized controlled trials on acupuncture for insomnia looked at data collected from 3,881 participants in 46 studies, concluding that “acupuncture appears to be effective in the treatment of insomnia.”
Overall, experts agree that acupuncture can work — they just aren’t exactly sure why, or how. “Acupuncture is a highly effective form of therapy that can be used to treat a wide variety of conditions,” Scott Weiss, a licensed physical therapist and board certified athletic trainer, said in an interview with SELF. “While extensive research in the field has confirmed that acupuncture helps with multiple ailments, there are still many effects that have not, or cannot be corroborated.”
In other words: Acupuncture may be an incredibly effective placebo, or it may work in ways we can’t yet understand. Regardless, it can and does work — and if you have trouble sleeping, it might be worth trying.
If you are interested in trying acupuncture, it’s incredibly important to work with a licensed practitioner, like someone certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM®). You can use a website like acufunder.com or the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to find acupuncturists in your area.
If you are in California, look for someone verified by the California State Acupuncture Board. And in other states, research your state requirements for acupuncture licensing so you know what to look for in a practitioner. Acupuncture can be expensive, but, depending on your plan, your medical insurance may cover some of the costs.
Currently, all scientific evidence suggests that acupuncture can indeed improve your sleep — and no studies have found that the practice causes any harm. So if you’ve tried other forms of treatment but still aren’t getting sufficient rest, it may be time to consider those hair-thin needles.
What The Experts Say About Acupuncture and Sleep
We spoke with several licensed acupuncturists and experts in the wellness field to learn more about what makes acupuncture such a great tool for fighting insomnia.
Natalie Mich, Family Care Acupuncture and Health Center
Stress can also be the reason a person wakes at 1 or 2 am and can’t fall back asleep again. Acupuncture induces the release of brain chemicals that stop the stress response and lower stress hormones. When our hormones are out of balance, we can experience mood swings, hot flashes, increased stress, and – insomnia. Acupuncture is helpful for balancing hormones and restoring balance – without the use of birth control pills or hormone patches
Tsao Lin-Moy, Integrative Healing Arts
What happens when someone receives acupuncture? The needles stimulate the nervous system and elicit the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system) which is the body’s natural healing ability. There is an increase in blood flow, and lymph and the release of endorphins (the feel good chemicals).
Studies show that acupuncture releases endorphins (brain’s natural opioids) that have a calming effect on the whole body and also relieve pain.
Stress and anxiety are often a trigger for interrupting the body’s nervous system and are a major cause of sleep problems and deprivation. This is because the stress response of the nervous system causes the body to go into sympathetic dominance, known as fight or flight. That interferes with the body being able to go into a parasympathetic state of rest and digest. Acupuncture is extremely safe and effective for relieving stress and anxiety and is used in the military to help treat soldiers with PTSD. Stress and anxiety are triggers for each and cause poor sleep.
Jeanine Duval, Edelwyn
Acupuncture is used in combination with yoga, where a session of acupuncture can be followed by calming yoga to further enhance its effectiveness.
Acupuncture has beneficial effects on insomnia where spiritually it’s believed to regulate the yin and yang, enhancing sleep patterns. Biologically, it’s stated that it works on the nervous system to trigger specific neurotransmitters to reduce stress, relieve anxiety and promote sleep.
After acupuncture, yoga and meditation can aid in its effectiveness.. Although high-intensity poses are not recommended, yoga and meditation further promote the release of tension and anxiety.
Bianca Beldini, Sundala Center for Wellness
Acupuncture has clinical efficacy that targets and modulates the activity of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), our involuntary control system. This system is comprised of a sympathetic “fight or flight” division and a parasympathetic division that controls “rest and digestion”. These two parts need to be in balance in order for all involuntary functions to be in homeostasis and smooth working order.
The ANS controls things like the dilation of pupils when you enter a dark room or when your heart rate increases before you have to speak in front of a group of people. When there is an imbalance and the fight / flight response is overactive, it will create an imbalance in the opposing rest/digestion response therefore causing one to have rest or sleep disturbances.
Jamie Bacharach, Acupuncture Jerusalem
There are a number of ways in which acupuncture can help people sleep better – the makeup of the person in question will determine what acupuncture can do for them.
For example, if someone suffers from sleep apnea, an experienced acupuncturist will draw a course of treatment that focuses on improving breathing and remedying the underlying condition. If someone’s sleep is disrupted due to excess stress, acupuncture will be used to target and relieve that stress. Therein lies the key to acupuncture improving sleep and achieving a permanent fix. Rather than simply addressing the symptoms, acupuncture targets the underlying cause of sleep problems to completely and totally remedy them.
We’re very grateful for these experts for lending their advice to our community. if you’re struggling with insomnia or nighttime pain, we hope acupuncture can bring the relief you need! For mattress recommendations, check out our lists for the best pillow top mattresses and the best online mattresses.
[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult a medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]
Featured image: NiP photography/Shutterstock
Joe Auer is the editor of Mattress Clarity. He mainly focuses on mattress reviews and oversees the content across the site.
He likes things simple and take a straightforward, objective approach to his reviews. Joe has personally tested nearly 250 mattresses and always recommends people do their research before buying a new bed. He has been testing mattresses for over 5 years now, so he knows a thing or two when it comes to mattress selection. He has been cited as an authority in the industry by a number of large publications.
Joe has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and an MBA from Columbia University.