Anyone who has had a night where they didn’t sleep well can attest to the importance of a good night’s rest. Healthy sleep is a vital component to a healthy lifestyle, and yet it is estimated that 35% of adult Americans have intermittent insomnia, with 15-20% reporting short-term insomnia, and 10% of adults suffering from chronic insomnia (sleep disruptions lasting longer than 3 months). The consequences of poor sleep range from fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and poor memory, to weight gain, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Insomnia can impact work performance, increase the likelihood of accidents, and strain relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.
In 2014, 4% of American adults had a prescription for sleep aids, which have their own host of side effects, including digestive changes, heart burn, dizziness, and fatigue. These medications, while they can give respite to people who are dealing with chronic sleeplessness, are only a band-aid, and do not address the root cause of insomnia. In order to understand how alternative therapies like acupuncture and herbal medicine can benefit sleep, we must first look at the physiology of sleep in our bodies.
Sleep physiology is extremely complex, but fundamentally our sleep and wake cycles are regulated by two neurological processes, process S (which promotes sleep) and process C (which promotes waking and alertness). These processes work together in order to promote a healthy balance of sleep time and wakefulness. Process S is regulated by neurons which help to inhibit arousal and wakefulness. If this process is interrupted, or if an individual exists in a state of so-called ‘nervous system hyperarousal’, process S will be inhibited and sleep will be delayed or interrupted.
Hyperarousal of the nervous system can be due to a number of factors. Often, individuals are overstimulated by stressors of day-to-day life, such as overexposure to screens, life stress, and emotional turmoil or trauma. Hyperarousal of both branches of the nervous system, the autonomic and central nervous systems, have been linked in studies to increased likelihood of insomnia.
Acupuncture has a unique effect on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which helps to promote our ‘rest and digest’ function. It has been shown to impact known markers of the ANS, including blood pressure, pupil dilation, heart rate, and others. Because of these calming and sedating effects, many patients who experience acupuncture either report better sleep as a side effect of treatment, or experience relief from the insomnia that was their primary complaint. Indeed, while medications may work faster for benefitting patient sleep, acupuncture has been shown to have greater long-term efficacy in treating sleep disorders.
In addition to acupuncture, practitioners of traditional East Asian medicine also utilize a number of other modalities. In addition to needling, your practitioner may prescribe herbs, practice moxibustion, gua sha, or cupping, or recommend other lifestyle changes to benefit your sleep cycle. It is because of this holistic way of looking at the body that acupuncture and East Asian medicine can be so beneficial for both the body and the mind.
Andrea Lane is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and certified Pilates instructor in Portland, Oregon. Her practice particularly focuses on treating autoimmune disease and women's health. She is passionate about maintaining good health through a whole-food diet, mindful movement, and meditation. When she is not practicing, she loves to cook, listen to podcasts, read her way out from under the small mountain of books she's accumulated, and cater to her cats' every whim.