At Black Sheep we’re always looking for natural solutions to improve sleep. While many natural sleep remedies work great as short term solutions, their long-term use can make them less effective, or have undesirable side effects (yes even some of the common go-tos like melatonin!).
So when we heard that acupuncture can actually improve sleep over the long run - and help with the underlying causes of insomnia - we were intrigued!
We asked Alex Judd, a Doctor of Acupuncture here in Calgary, how it works.
First of all, what is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is part of the larger system of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It involves the insertion of extremely thin needles to stimulate points along the surface of the body. These points send messages to our brain, nervous system and other systems (i.e. immune, endocrine) to create desired effects. It can be used for almost any condition, ranging from acute pain (think knee injuries or pinched nerves) to seasonal allergies to chronic conditions such as migraines, heart disease or arthritis.
And the question on everyone’s mind: does it hurt?
Acupuncture is very gentle, in fact, some people don’t even feel the needles going in. Others will feel a pricking sensation that dissipates quickly. Once the needles are placed, it’s actually quite relaxing, and many people even fall asleep during the treatment.
How does acupuncture treat sleep?
People often think of insomnia as just one thing, but it could be that you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or that you’re waking up because of pain, night sweating, stressful dreams, or just hours before your alarm. Your acupuncturist will look at these specifics along with other diagnostic factors to determine the underlying pattern (or causes) of your insomnia.
Acupuncture has a progressive, cumulative effect - so while many people will notice an improvement right away, you’ll often need several regular treatments to experience the full effect. We’ll typically suggest starting with a round of 6-8 treatments, about once a week, depending on your schedule and needs.
How does it work?
There are a few physiological mechanisms that contribute to acupuncture’s effect on sleep. Some help with getting to sleep, while others improve sleep quality, and still others improve conditions that interrupt sleep by, for example, balancing hormones or relieving pain.
Firstly, acupuncture helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” mode), while calming the sympathetic nervous system (“fight, flight or freeze” mode). These two systems are often out of sync in people with chronic sleep issues. It reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), while promoting nighttime melatonin production, which our bodies need to naturally induce sleep. It’s the balanced relationship of these two hormones that help create a healthy circadian rhythm.
Another benefit of acupuncture is it stimulates the release of naturally occurring opioids - which are like your body’s own painkillers - resulting in a soothing, analgesic effect. At the same time, it’s been shown to lower inflammatory markers. Less inflammation means a reduction in the pain and discomfort that often keeps people from getting a good night’s rest.
For those wanting to try acupuncture for insomnia, what can they expect at an appointment?
The appointment is usually 1 hour, and you’ll be asked lots of questions before we start - some that may not seem related to your reason for visiting. TCM is a holistic medicine that works by treating the whole patient - not just the presenting condition - so these questions help us diagnose and further adapt each session to your needs.
We’ll typically use around 12-15 needles, mostly on the hands, feet, forearms and lower legs, and leave them in for about 30 minutes. (For this reason, we recommend wearing comfortable, loose fitting clothing or bringing a pair of shorts to change into). Most acupuncture rooms are equipped with a heat lamp or heated bed, blankets, and soothing music and lights, so you can really relax and enjoy the downtime.
Alex Judd is a Registered Acupuncturist and Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in Calgary, AB. She specializes in pain management, insomnia and anxiety, and autoimmune conditions. She is currently accepting acupuncture and cupping appointments at Spectrum Massage Therapy & Acupuncture.