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Acupuncture and Insomnia: Can This Alternative Therapy Help You Sleep Better?

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

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Acupuncture is the practice of inserting thin needles into targeted areas of your body. Can this ancient therapy help you get a better night’s sleep? Read on to find out how acupuncture and insomnia work, and how your genetics can play a role.

An Introduction to Acupuncture and Insomnia

Every year, 1 in 3 people in the US experience issues getting a good night’s sleep. But thankfully, these problems are short-lived for most [1, 2]. For others, it can be an ongoing problem that can generate a variety of other symptoms. One thing most of these millions of people would NOT consider is getting acupuncture for better sleep.

The world record for going without sleep is 264 hours, done as a stunt for a science fair in 1964, by a 17 year old teenager named Randy Gardner. The record still stands. It still stands because the Guinness Book of World Records no longer recognizes the category due to the dangers to human health [3].

You may think, “Really? How dangerous can going without some sleep be? I’ve done it bunches of times.” Well, it can be very dangerous.

A remarkable statistic that demonstrates this is the bi-annual event of moving our clocks forward or back an hour. A 2014 study at a Michigan health system found that when we lost an hour of sleep, there was a 24% increase in admissions for heart attacks, and a subsequent 21% decrease when we gained an hour of sleep [4].

The point here is that sleep is foundational to your health, and disruptions to that foundation should be a significant concern, enough so that you may want to consider getting stuck with needles to help out with the problem.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. It has a number of possible causes and generates a number of possible symptoms. At its core, insomnia is disrupting your circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythms are any physical, behavioral, and mental changes that occur on a 24 hour cycle, which are predominantly activated by changes in light [5]. We have internal biological clocks that help regulate this system, which much like everything else in our bodies, is controlled by proteins [5].

Acupuncture And Sleep Cycles

How do you know if you have insomnia? Well, it has a number of symptoms that are difficult to deal with [6]:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Waking up too early.
  • Not feeling well-rested, overly tired/sleepy during the day.
  • Irritability, depression or anxiety.
  • Difficulty with attention/focus/memory.
  • Increased errors or accidents at work.

What Causes Insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by a laundry list of things, such as [6]:

  • Stress
  • Travel or work schedule
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Eating too much late in the evening
  • Medical conditions/medications
  • Mental health disorders
  • Sleep-related disorders like sleep apnea
  • Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol

Many of these things are well within your control to take action on. Some other risk factors that are beyond your control are age and gender. Hormonal changes can have a major impact on sleep, and women get those with pregnancy and menopause.

In general though, your stress levels, mental and physical condition, and sleep schedule have the largest impact, and all but your schedule can be affected by a little poke or three.

Another risk factor for insomnia is genetics. In fact, about 40% of differences in people’s chances of getting insomnia may be attributed to genetics.

How Does Acupuncture Help Insomnia?

Acupuncture has been around for centuries as part of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting thin needles at specific points on the body. People use it to [7, 8, 9, 10]:

  • Relieve pain
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Relieve allergies
  • Reduce nausea

It can have a beneficial effect on compounds that make you feel better like dopamine and serotonin, slow down brain activity, reduce cortisol levels, and generally act in a way that soothes your central nervous system [11, 12]. This seems a bit counterintuitive considering it involves inserting needles into your skin, but the needles are extremely thin.

A trained acupuncturist inserts them in such a way that they don’t activate the nerve fibers to signal pain, but your brain thinks something is going on so it releases chemicals to soothe the noxious event.

Feelings of numbness, heaviness, and tingling are common during the practice [13]. Acupuncture helps your stress and relieves your pain by making you feel better for something that doesn’t actually hurt.

How Do Genetics Affect Acupuncture and Insomnia?

Stress and pain are two major sources of insomnia, and those thin, little needles can have an effect. In this case, acupuncture is affecting levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

A particular variant of the COMT gene, which is involved in breaking down these compounds, may help to make acupuncture for insomnia more effective [14]. But this gene is not the only one that can have an effect on sleep.

Because insomnia is such a broad spectrum condition with multiple potential causes, you may find that a number of genetic variants can impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep, whether it be variants related to stress, anxiety, depression, or chronic pain.

You could potentially have variants that directly impact your circadian rhythm, like the CLOCK, PER2, or MTNR1A genes.

So, before you head off to get stuck with needles to help you sleep, which may very well do the trick, take the time to really assess your problem to make sure you are attacking it from the best angle.

Should You Try Acupuncture For Sleep?

Maybe you want to roll the dice and try acupuncture for insomnia to see if it helps you sleep better. But why try your luck when the best strategies to help you sleep may be hidden in your DNA?

As we discussed, there are many genes that can influence your internal clock, and they can play a role in how well you respond to these sleep improvement techniques. Genes that may contribute to insomnia may also influence:

  • Circadian rhythm
  • Brain function
  • Stress response and alertness

The SelfDecode Insomnia DNA Wellness Report analyzes over 800,000 variants to give your genetic risk score and personalized recommendations based on your unique genes.

Acupuncture and sleep recommendations

With one DNA test, you can find out if you have that one variant that can make acupuncture for insomnia even more effective for you. Or, you might learn that other strategies work best for you.

No matter what, SelfDecode gives you the tools you need to know what steps to prioritize to optimize your overall health!

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About the Author

Jim Duncan

MSW
Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.

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