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Acupuncture vs. Medications for Insomnia

Do you take medications for sleeping, such as Lunesta, Ambien, Rozerem, Halicion or Sonata?

Scientists now know that acupuncture is even more effective for insomnia than drugs like these. Even better, acupuncture does not carry the weight of side-effects such as changes in appetite, digestive issues, trouble with balance, memory and concentration. Other side-effects include tingling or burning in the extremeties, blepharitis (eye twitch) and dry eyes and mouth.

More than 46 research studies have investigated whether or not acupuncture is helpful. Almost 4,000 patients were tested under appropriate research conditions such as placebo-controlled and double-blind studies. The sum result of these studies, evaluated together, is that acupuncture does have a valuable therapeutic effect for those who have trouble sleeping.1

The research indicates that acupuncture is more effective than no treatment, 'sham' acupuncture, or drugs. Acupuncture therapy plus medicine or plus herbs is more effective than those treatments alone. And the benefits tend to be longer lasting. Drugs are great for getting you to sleep immediately but they don't solve the chronic problem.2, 3

Hormones, Glands and Insomnia

Acupuncture is able to directly or indirectly influence the behavior of the pineal, hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, all of which play an important role in regulating our ability to sleep. The pineal gland produces melatonin, the sleep hormone. Production accelerates toward the end of the day and tells us that it is bedtime. But melatonin production can be inhibited by factors such as anxiety, light at night, by jet lag, or computer/smartphone use before bed.

Other hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, nitric oxide and cortisol influence our ability to sleep. They all play important parts in the balanced functioning of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands.

When the endocrine system governing hormones is not balanced, problems begin. Hyperarousal is the term given to feeling wide awake when we would prefer to be asleep.

If you find it difficult to fall asleep or get back to sleep you are experiencing hyperarousal. Some people are hyperaroused much of the time with higher body temperature, heart rate and metabolic rate. Hyperarousal is linked to cortisol level imbalances and imbalances in the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis.

Acupuncture Therapy for Insomnia

Acupuncture can help to restore balance to these functions and thus enhance the onset, quality of and duration of sleep.4,5 It helps to increase melatonin levels and also can help manage pain and anxiety (other causes of insomnia).

Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes that there are different types of insomnia.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The automic nervous system (ANS) controls functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. We can't control the action of the ANS, but the action of our nerves and muscles do influence the ANS.2 Sleep is also regulated by the autonomic nervous system.

Acupuncture is an effective insomnia therapy because it is able to influence nerves and muscles which in turn influence the ANS. Acupuncture can regulate neurological and hormonal balance depending on which specific meridian points are stimulated.

Furthermore, the type of stimulus is specific. Manual acupuncture (and to some extent, electro-acupuncture) versus cupping versus moxa, for example yield different specific results. The variety and combination of these subtleties is what makes acupuncture so effective. For this reason the acupuncture treatment for different patients will always be unique.

Conclusion

Acupuncture's ability to regulate neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphins, melatonin, and serotonin make it an ideal side-effect-free therapy for insomnia. The very diverse and specific effects of acupuncture are superior to use of medications each of which have a single target and effect. Medications can improve a single night's sleep but there are side effects to be considered, especially with long term use. At the same time, it should be noted that acupuncture is not a panacea and cannot treat severe pathological conditions such as heart disease.

Insomnia is usually treated through a series of visits which are more effective and may also result in an improved general feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation.

Footnotes

1. H. Cao, MD, X. Pan, MD, et al, Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, November, 2009.
2. W. Huang, MD, N. Kutner, PhD, et al, Autonomic Activation in Insomnia: The Case for Acupuncture, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, February, 2011.
3. W. Huang, MD, N. Kutner, PhD, et al, A systematic review of the effects of acupuncture in treating insomnia, Sleep Medicine Review, 2009.
4. J. Guo, W. Huang, et al, Effect of acupuncture on sleep quality and hyperarousal state in patients with primary insomnia: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial, BMJ Open, 2016.
5. X. Yin, M. Gou, et al, Efficacy and safety of acupuncture treatment on primary insomnia: a randomized controlled trial, Sleep Medicine, September, 2017.