Hormones and the autonomic nervous system have to be balanced in order to initiate and maintain sleep. Many studies have shown that acupuncture treatments can help maintain the balance of biological chemicals in the central nervous system and promote the recovery of homeostasis.

1. Acupuncture can help your body produce more melatonin:
In an article published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, Spence et al. explored the relationship between melatonin and acupuncture treatments. They observed a significant increase in endogenous melatonin secretion in all of the 18 patients suffering from severe insomnia who were given acupuncture treatments twice a week for 5 weeks. Records of electrical and muscular states during the entire sleeping time indicated that, after acupuncture treatments, the patients took less time to fall asleep, had fewer occasions of waking up during sleep, and experienced increased total sleep time and deep sleep time. Anxiety, depression, and fatigue were also decreased. Interestingly, alertness in the morning was reduced as well.

2. Acupuncture can improve blood flow to improve sleep quality:
Hecht and his colleagues studied the relationship between the blood flow to the brain and insomnia. They noted that an insufficient blood flow to the brain could lead to low sugar levels and spontaneous waking from sleep. Dr. Omura explored the effects of blood flow to the brain on the dysfunctions of various organs. When blood pressure in the head was very low (less than 30 mmHg on both sides), a majority of the subjects experienced sleep disturbances: mainly insomnia but sometimes excessive sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness of recent events, and various degrees of irritability. Even with normal or higher arm blood pressure, one can still have low blood pressure in one’s head. It has been reported that electroacupuncture stimulation of the points ST36 and GB20 (just inferior to occipital bone, between the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid attachments) can treat insomnia by increasing the blood flow to the brain.

3. Acupuncture can decrease effects of aging :
The weakening of parasympathetic function results in the familiar signs of aging, including increased and irregular heartbeats, constipation, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, fluid retention, and systemic inflammation. These consequences may in turn contribute to many of the common diseases associated with aging, including Type-II diabetes, Alzheimer's, arteriosclerosis, and cancer. The maintenance and restoration of parasympathetic function may boost the functions of the internal organs and slow the aging process. Acupuncture generally enhances the parasympathetic nervous system.

4. Acupuncture can reduce pain:
Meltzer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia studied the effects of chronic pain on the sleep patterns of adolescents. He found no difference between the pain group and the healthy control group in total sleep time and bedtime. However, the group with chronic pain reported significantly longer sleep onset latency, more frequent night waking, later wake times in the morning, and more symptoms of daytime sleepiness. Acupuncture has a very good analgesic effect and can thereby help people with pain improve their sleep quality.

5. Acupuncture can reduce stress hormones to treat insomnia:
When we are under chronic stress, such as over-thinking and overworking, our body produces more cortisol to keep us alert during the daytime. When we are under acute stress, such as a fight-or-flight condition, our body produces more epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These two stress hormones deeply affect our sleep quality. Vgontzas and colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University assessed the association of chronic insomnia with the activity of the stress system. They measured the levels of free cortisol, norepinephrine, and growth hormone in the urine of the participants and found that free cortisol levels correlated positively with total wake time; norepinephrine levels correlated positively with the duration of stage 1 sleep but negatively with the duration of stage 3 and 4 (deep) sleep. Both branches of the stress system (the adrenal gland and the sympathetic nervous system) are accountable for the sleep disturbances in chronic insomnia. When we are stressed, our sleep is much lighter, so we wake up more frequently. Acupuncture can lower stress hormone levels, thereby reducing wake time and increasing deep sleep time. It is well known that cortisone can influence sleep when we receive a hydrocortisone shot.

In conclusion, by optimizing the production and metabolism of chemicals that affect sleep and balancing our nervous systems, acupuncture can maintain the appropriate sleep pattern and duration.

Author's Bio: 

Li Zheng is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, a graduate of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine with 24 years of clinical and research experiences, including 6 years of residency, a Ph.D. degree holder in medical sciences from the US, a Harvard Medical School trained researcher and a professor at the New England School of Acupuncture. Her website is www.acumagic.org and her clinic is located at 475 Hillside Avenue, Needham, MA 02494.