Insomnia and Acupuncture

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia includes inability to fall asleep, waking up at night, restless sleep. Also included, waking up early and dream disturbed sleep as well as being unrefreshed by sleep. Sleep is vital to us as it is the way the body and mind to restore and refresh itself. Sleep helps to restore the immune, nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems. These are vital processes that maintain mood, memory, and cognitive function, and also plays a large role in the function of the endocrine  and immune system.  In TCM terms, good quality sleep as well as a properly functioning digestive system is the way to restore Qi. Insomnia can be caused by psychiatric and medical conditions, unhealthy sleep habits, specific substances, and/or certain biological factors. It’s important to first understand what could be causing your sleep difficulties.

What are the Medical Causes of Insomnia? 

There are many medical conditions (some mild and others more serious) that can lead to sleeplessness. In some cases, a medical condition itself can be the cause. While in other cases, symptoms of the condition cause discomfort that can make it difficult for a person to sleep.

Examples of medical conditions that can cause insomnia are:

  • Allergies/sinus
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as reflux
  • Endocrine problems such as hyperthyroidism
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Low back pain

Medications such as those taken for the common cold and nasal allergies, high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, birth control, asthma, and depression can also cause insomnia.

In addition, insomnia may be a symptom of underlying sleep disorders. For example, restless legs syndrome-a neurological condition in which a person has an uncomfortable sensation of needing to move his or her legs-can lead to insomnia. Sleep apnea is another sleep disorder linked to insomnia. With sleep apnea, a person’s airway becomes partially or completely obstructed during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing and a drop in oxygen levels. This causes a person to wake up briefly but repeatedly throughout the night. People with sleep apnea sometimes report experiencing insomnia.

If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to review your health as a whole and think about whether any underlying medical issues or sleep disorders could be contributing to your sleep problems. In some cases, there are simple steps that can be taken to improve sleep. Like avoiding bright lighting while winding down and trying to limit possible distractions, such as a TV, computer, or pets. Some people experience insomnia when light levels in the bedroom are too high, especially during the period of the full moon. In that case installing black out blinds can help. You should not simply accept poor sleep as a way of life.

Is there a link between Insomnia & Depression?

Insomnia can be caused by psychiatric conditions such as depression. Psychological struggles can make it hard to sleep. Insomnia itself can bring on changes in mood, and shifts in hormones and physiology can lead to both psychiatric issues and sleep issues at the same time.

Sleep problems may represent a symptom of depression, and the risk of severe insomnia is much higher in patients with major depressive disorders. Studies show that insomnia can also trigger or worsen depression.

It’s important to know that symptoms of depression, such as low energy, loss of interest or motivation, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and insomnia can be linked, and one can make the other worse. The good news is that both are treatable with acupuncture and herbal medicine regardless of which came first. Exercise systems like Qigong are a mind/body exercise system and can help with insomnia.

What about Insomnia & Anxiety?

Most adults have had some trouble sleeping because they feel worried or nervous, but for some it’s a pattern that interferes with sleep on a regular basis. Anxiety symptoms that can lead to insomnia include:

  • Tension
  • Getting caught up in thoughts about past events
  • Excessive worrying about future events
  • Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities
  • A general feeling of being revved up or overstimulated

It’s not hard to see why these symptoms of general anxiety can make it difficult to sleep. Anxiety may be associated with onset insomnia (trouble falling asleep), or maintenance insomnia (waking up during the night and not being able to return to sleep). In either case, the quiet and inactivity of the night often brings on stressful thoughts or even fears that keep a person awake.

Increasing work loads can lead to insomnia as the mind begins to process the days work during sleep leading to wakefulness.

Insomnia & Lifestyle

Insomnia can be triggered or perpetuated by your behaviors and sleep patterns. Unhealthy lifestyles and sleep habits can create insomnia on their own (without any underlying psychiatric or medical problem), or they can make insomnia caused by another problem worse.

Examples of how specific lifestyles and sleep habits can lead to insomnia are:

  • You work at home in the evenings. This can make it hard to unwind, and it can also make you feel preoccupied when it comes time to sleep. The light from your computer could also make your brain more alert.
  • You take naps (even if they are short) in the afternoon. Short naps can be helpful for some people, but for others they make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
  • You sometimes sleep in later to make up for lost sleep. This can confuse your body’s clock and make it difficult to fall asleep again the following night.
  • You are a shift worker (meaning that you work irregular hours). Non-traditional hours can confuse your body’s clock, especially if you are trying to sleep during the day, or if your schedule changes periodically.

Simple problem gets worse

Some cases of insomnia start out with an acute episode but turn into a longer-term problem. For example, let’s say a person can’t sleep for a night or two after receiving bad news. In this case, if the person starts to adopt unhealthy sleep habits such as getting up in the middle of the night to work, or drinking alcohol before bed to compensate. The insomnia can continue and potentially turn into a more serious problem. Instead of passing, it can become chronic.

Once this happens, worry and thoughts such as, “I’ll never sleep,” become associated with bedtime, and every time the person can’t sleep, it reinforces the pattern.

This is why it’s important to address insomnia instead of letting it become the norm.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

This varies from person to person. Some people need as little as 4-5 hours of sleep a night while others need 9-10 to function normally. As a general rule look to how much sleep you used to have in the past.

Can Insomnia be linked to certain Foods?

Certain substances and activities, including eating patterns, can contribute to insomnia. If you can’t sleep, review the following lifestyle factors to see if one or more could be affecting you:

Alcohol is a sedative. It can make you fall asleep initially, but may disrupt your sleep later in the night.

Caffeine is a stimulant. Most people understand the alerting power of caffeine and use it in the morning to help them start the day and feel productive. Caffeine in moderation is fine for most people, but excessive caffeine can cause insomnia. Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as eight hours, so the effects are long lasting. If you have insomnia, do not consume food or drinks with caffeine too close to bedtime.

Nicotine is also a stimulant and can cause insomnia. Smoking cigarettes or tobacco products close to bedtime can make it hard to fall asleep and to sleep well through the night. Smoking is damaging to your health. If you smoke, you should stop.

Heavy meals close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. The best practice is to eat lightly before bedtime. When you eat too much in the evening, it can cause discomfort and make it hard for your body to settle and relax. Spicy foods can also cause heartburn and interfere with your sleep.

Insomnia & The Brain 

In some cases, insomnia may be caused by certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are known to be involved with sleep and wakefulness.

There are many possible chemical interactions in the brain that could interfere with sleep and may explain why some people are biologically prone to insomnia and seem to struggle with sleep for many years without any identifiable cause—even when they follow healthy sleep advice.

How can TCM help?

A customised combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas can offer fast and lasting results.

Acupuncture – A TCM practitioner would select specific acupoints depending on the type of disharmony and use stimulating hand techniques to stimulate Qi.

Herbal Medicine –Chinese herbs for insomnia are a very effective treatment for insomnia.

Gui pi wan, for example, is herbal formula in pill form is particularly effective for overworked patients especially if they have digestive issues.

Suan Zao Ren/Sour Jujube Seeds is a herb, which when included in a formula, will help with insomnia, palpitations, anxiety as well as night sweats. Jujubes contain a wide array of different trace elements, including magnesium, potassium, copper, niacin, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron. They contain 20 times more vitamin C than any citrus fruit, strengthening the immune system and fighting infections, which may be why they’ve been used medicinally for millennia in many cultures, as a tea for sore throat, for example.

Medical studies have found that jujube fruits and extracts have the capacity help lower blood pressure, reverse liver disease, treat anemia, and inhibit the growth of tumor cells that can lead to leukemia. Jujube extracts are also used in skin care products used to diminish wrinkles, relieve dry skin, and treat sunburn pain.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep is one of the best things we can do for good health. If you find yourself short of sleep, TCM can help trace the roots of your insomnia and design an effective treatment for you. In TCM, there is no one solution which cures all for everyone. Rather, each patient receives an individualised formula for them to address the symptoms presented. There are a variety of herbal formulae that have been shown to help those with insomnia, that is, to sleep more deeply and achieve a full night’s sleep and wake up refreshed. Pairing a herbal formula with regular acupuncture treatments helps. Also, mindfulness exercises/Qigong, will help. As a result, TCM can be used to improve the quality of sleep without the sluggish side effects of sleeping tablets.

To make an appointment with David Hankey, call Acupuncture Cork on 087 2744735, or email: davidwhankey@gmail.com

David Hankey

Hi, I’m David Hankey and I have been studying and practicing oriental health systems for more than 30 years.