The role of Acupuncture in treating sleep disorders

February 8, 2008 at 11:10 am

by Brendagh O’Sullivan, LicAc, MBAcC

Usually, patients complain of too little sleep. This may present as:

  • Waking in the night
  • Restless or dream disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty in falling asleep
  • Waking early

Firstly it is important to explore whether the insomnia is due to an imbalance within the constitution or has an external or temporary cause. Being too hot or cold, eating late, drinking excess stimulants (caffeine and alcohol may have different effects according to your constitution) can drastically affect the quality of your sleep.

Sometimes there are other underlying health conditions that lead to sleep difficulties. These include stress, hormonal imbalances, cardiovascular conditions, asthma, digestive disorders, bladder problems, neurological conditions, pain; such as sciatica, frozen shoulder etc. These are also amenable to acupuncture treatment and your sleep will improve as they are resolved.

Sleep comes readily when we have sufficient circulating quantities of endorphins, serotonin and melatonin. Research studies have shown that acupuncture’s efficacy in boosting levels of these brain chemicals, to restore the natural balance of our sleeping/ waking cycle.

Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnoses many cases of insomnia in terms of deficiencies of our Yin and/or Blood, as these govern our state of rest and quality of sleep.

Yin, our cooling, restful and restorative function declines with age and is eroded by stress. This is why our sleep is disturbed when we have a fever, approach the menopause, and work (or play) too hard. Typically, a bout of insomnia may follow a minor cold, flu or similar infection where we failed to take sufficient rest and recovery time before returning to work. This is exacerbated if, in our keenness to return, we have taken over-the-counter cold remedies or antibiotics as they generally fail to clear dead pathogens from our system, resulting in stagnation or agitation of vital Qi.

In this case we have not allowed our stores of Yin to adequately recover. Restless sleep or nocturnal waking are the body’s way of drawing this to our attention. Acupuncture is an effective way to re-harmonise our natural Yin/Yang balance to restore our healthy sleep pattern.

In TCM, Blood is rather exotically described as the ‘residence of the spirit’ and anchors our mind, consciousness and emotional well being.

This is a ‘chicken and egg’ relationship. If the mind is happy and peaceful, the blood will be strong and vice versa. Therefore emotional problems can affect the quality of the blood.

Blood deficiency insomnia, usually manifests as a difficulty in falling asleep, can be due to anaemia or sudden heavy blood loss (perhaps following an accident, childbirth, miscarriage or menstrual bleeding which is too heavy or frequent). Again, it is important to find and treat the underlying cause.

Some psychiatric disorders, including certain types of dementia and psychological conditions including depression and anxiety can result in night -time agitation. These may need a longer course of treatment according to the severity of the symptoms.

Dreams are a normal component of sleeping, yet we may or may not remember them. Only when we wake with vivid dreams or nightmares that rob us of vitality are they deemed a problem. Telling your acupuncturist the content of any significant or recurring dreams can help with your diagnosis.

Some patients complain of too much sleep or feeling constantly dopey and lethargic. They may also experience dizziness and disorientation, as if the head is filled with cotton wool. This condition of somnolence occurs when there is excess damp or phlegm, (usually from Kidney Yang or Spleen deficiency) and responds well to acupuncture treatment, restoring clarity and vitality to the mind and body. We may also look to see if some changes in diet or lifestyle will help.

Allopathic remedies for sleep disorders are aimed at symptomatic treatment. Regrettably their long term effects often injure our ability to fall asleep naturally or deeply. Acupuncture provides a safe alternative for those hesitant to take to medication, as it re harmonises a disturbed sleep/ waking cycle through its calming and regulating effects on the nervous system.

A word on snoring:-

A patient once claimed ‘my husband didn’t snore after his last acupuncture treatment, I wish he’d come more often!’ Since this was the first I’d heard of this issue, I could go back to his notes and refine his diagnosis. Snoring is usually a phlegm problem; changes to diet or lifestyle can help, but some patients find it constitutionally more difficult to process phlegm and dampness within the body. Acupuncture can assist this transformation.


Entry filed under: Acupuncture.

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