When you think about acupuncture, do you cringe or smile? Having dozens of needles inserted across your body may not be the most appealing way to relax, but as research shows, it can be great for promoting sleep.
In this article, I’ll discuss how acupuncture can help you sleep. First, I’ll explain what acupuncture is before discussing how it can help with sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea.
Note: These general recommendations should not be taken as medical advice. If you have any health-related questions regarding sleep, consult your physician or a trained medical professional.
Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that has been around for over 3,000 years. It originated in China before becoming popular in Europe and the Americas between the 1500s and 1800s. (1) Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac, head Licensed Medical Acupuncturist at Acupuncture Jerusalem says the theory behind acupuncture is that it corrects any imbalances in the flow of a person’s energy, called the Qi (pronounced “chee”).
David Goldstein, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at Acupuncture Healthcare of Leominster explains that the Qi flows in specific, designated channels across the body called meridians. Each of us has 12 meridians that are associated with a specific organ. Needles are placed in specific meridians to help promote the Qi by stimulating these points.
According to Dr. Tom Ingegno, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Charm City Integrative Health, acupuncture can help a wide variety of conditions. For instance, acupuncturists use it to treat nausea, fibromyalgia, asthma, lower back pain, osteoarthritis, sleep issues, and more. (2) In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says acupuncture can be used to treat 64 different conditions. (3)
Types of Acupuncture
Modern medical acupuncture, one of the most common forms of acupuncture, involves inserting hair-thin needles into the skin to stimulate certain parts of the body, known as acupuncture points (or acupoints). Here’s how an acupuncture treatment works:
- Your acupuncturist asks you about your health history.
- They may examine your tongue’s shape, color, and coating.
- They check your pulse.
- If needed, they perform additional physical examinations such as palpating the abdomen or acupuncture points, or range of motion tests.
- Using this information, they recommend a treatment.
- Once the treatment starts, you lay on a treatment table while acupoints are stimulated on specific parts of your body; most folks likely won’t feel the needle insertions.
- The needles remain in place for five to thirty minutes, depending on the severity of the conditions and style of acupuncture your practitioner performs. (4)
According to Jamie Bacharach, there is no one-size-fits-all acupuncture treatment, especially when treating sleep disorders. She says, “Moxibustion, a practice which involves burning dried mugwort on particular acupuncture points on the body, and electroacupuncture, which involves stimulating acupuncture needles with an electrical current, may both be highly effective in improving sleep.”
Dr. Lev Kalika, owner of NYDN Rehab, recommends Japanese acupuncture for sleeping. He says this is because the needles tend to be thinner or smaller and are inserted shallower than some other styles of acupuncture.
Acupuncture for Sleep
According to David Goldstein, traditional Chinese Medicine considers sleep a product of the spirit and mind. These are associated with the heart and the liver, respectively. When there is an imbalance with the heart or liver, you may have trouble falling asleep. Traditional Chinese medicine uses acupuncture to help you sleep by stimulating these areas and correcting this imbalance.
Current medical research affirms that acupuncture can help treat a variety of sleep disorders. Let’s take a look at a few.
Acupuncture for Insomnia
Dr. Kalika says that traditional Chinese medicine views insomnia as an energy imbalance that can be corrected using acupuncture to nourish the spirit. Unlike many sleep medications that treat insomnia, acupuncture has few side effects. (5) For folks with insomnia, acupuncture can help improve their sleep quality and help them stay asleep longer. It does this by increasing the amount of y-aminobutyric acid in your brain to help you sleep. (6)
Acupuncture for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
Folks with OSA risk having their tongue drop back in their mouth and block their airway as they sleep. Research shows that acupuncture can strengthen the tongue, which can help prevent the tongue from blocking airflow. (7) In addition, acupuncture can help reduce respiratory issues folks with OSA may have at night. (8)
Acupuncture for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
RLS causes people’s legs to move uncontrollably, which can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Acupuncture helps folks with RLS sleep better by stimulating the parts of the brain that are involved with RLS and its associated muscles (9), which can reduce the severity of the condition (10).
Acupuncture for Stress / Relaxation
If you’re stressed out, acupuncture may help you relax. (11) Dr. Ingegno says acupuncture can reduce your cortisol levels, which is a hormone found in people who have a lot of stress. Reducing this level helps you unwind and fall asleep.
Acupuncture for Pain
Acupuncturists use the treatment to reduce pain, particularly for folks with osteoarthritis, headaches, or lower back pain. (12) But it’s not guaranteed to help with pain, as the evidence is mixed. (13)
Jamie Bacharach says acupuncture can help reduce your sensitivity to pain and promote relaxation. She says this is because it triggers neural pathways in the brain stem, which release chemicals (such as serotonin) that promote sleep and reduce pain.
Sleep Tips in Addition to Acupuncture
Aside from acupuncture, there are plenty of ways to promote better sleep.
David Goldstein recommends unwinding before bedtime by doing something relaxing, like reading or meditating. He also suggests drinking an herbal tea one hour before bed, since that can promote sleep.
According to Dr. Ingegno, you should stick to a regular sleep/wake time, keep your room dark, and avoid screens at least two hours before bedtime. Jamie Bacharach agrees, adding that it’s important to sleep on a comfortable mattress to get quality rest.
Sleep hygiene can also help improve your sleep quality. Sleep hygiene refers to your sleep environment and the behaviors surrounding your bedtime routine and overall sleep health. Here are some of the best sleep hygiene practices to consider:
- Creating a peaceful sleep environment using a white sound machine (only if there is noise keeping you awake), an aromatherapy diffuser, or an air purifier
- Keeping the bedroom for sleep and sex only, which signals to your brain that this is typically a place reserved for sleeping
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol at least three hours before bedtime
- Exercising regularly so you’re sleepy at bedtime
- Taking a hot bath at night to help you relax
- Avoiding intense conversations before bedtime as this can cause stress
- Washing your bedsheets weekly
Last Word From Sleepopolis
Acupuncture may not be the first treatment that comes to mind for getting better shut-eye, but it’s worth considering, especially if stress, RLS, insomnia, or sleep apnea are preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep.
Please remember that we are not medical experts, so be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if you have any medical questions.
- Zhuang, Y et al. History of acupuncture research. International Review of Neurobiology. 2013.
- “Acupuncture.” John Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture
- Naik, P et al. Acupuncture: An Alternative Therapy in Dentistry and Its Possible Applications. Medical Acupuncture. Dec 1, 2014.
- “How Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain and Improve Sleep, Digestion and Emotional Well-being.” UC San Diego School of Medicine. https://medschool.ucsd.edu/som/fmph/research/cim/clinicalcare/Pages/About-Acupuncture.aspx
- Zhang, M et al. Effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for insomnia. Medicine (Baltimore). Nov 11, 2019.
- Huijuan, C et al. Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Nov 2009.
- “Acupuncture for Sleep Apnea.” American Sleep Apnea Association. https://www.sleepapnea.org/treat/sleep-apnea-treatment-options/acupuncture/
- Wang, L et al. Acupuncture for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. BioMed Research International. Mar 5 2020.
- “Restless Leg Syndrome and Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Pacific College of Health and Science. https://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/09/06/restless-leg-syndrome-and-traditional-chinese-medicine
- Huang, K et al. Acupuncture for restless legs syndrome. Medicine. Jan 2020.
- Sparrow, K et al. Does Acupuncture Reduce Stress Over Time? A Clinical Heart Rate Variability Study in Hypertensive Patients. Medical Acupuncture. Oct 1, 2014.
- Hayhoe, S. Insomnia: can acupuncture help? Pain Management. Aug 31, 2016.
- “Relieving pain with acupuncture.” Harvard Health Publishing. Jun 15, 2016. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/relieving-pain-with-acupuncture