January 11, 2016

Acupuncture and Insomnia

Insomnia is a  horrid condition and even though it is a common problem, thought to regularly affect around one in every three people in the UK, we seem as a society to be unable to do much about it.  Occasional episodes of insomnia may come and go without causing any serious problems, but for some people it can last for months or even years at a time.

Persistent insomnia can have a significant impact on your quality of life. It can limit what you’re able to do during the day, affect your mood, and lead to relationship problems with friends, family and colleagues. Insomnia is everywhere and you can see people walking around exhausted, coffee dependent, reliant on medication or recreational drugs or acquiesced to the grayed out world of sleeplessness.

One common question is; How much sleep do I actually need?

Thankfully in this area there are no official guidelines as everyone is different.  Some recent research into hunter gather populations in Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia would suggest 5.7 to 7.1 hours and interestingly these societies have no word for insomnia, they just sleep, which suggest that insomnia is a problem of modern society and probably influence by our use of technology.  Click here to read the full article: Natural sleep and its seasonal variants in three pre-industrial societies.

What’s important is whether you feel you get enough sleep, and whether your sleep is of good quality. You’re probably not getting enough good quality sleep if you constantly feel tired throughout the day and it’s affecting your everyday life but, thankfully there are some simple steps to help you sleep and more and more people are turning to acupuncture and other non-drug therapies to treat their insomnia.

I know in my clinic, and anecdotally from my conversations with my peers, insomnia is one of the most common complaints seen by acupuncturists and regular acupuncture treatments can be extremely helpful for combating insomnia.

Insomnia can be broken down into two broad areas:

  • People who have trouble falling asleep
  • People who can’t stay asleep be this to go to the toilet, noise nuisance or just plain waking up

So what time do you wake up at night?

One helpful diagnostic tool used by acupuncturists for insomnia is the Chinese-medicine clock. It assigns a two-hour window to each of the body’s systems and it should be noted that  whilst the ZangFu (Yin/Yang organs) have the names of the anatomical organ they are distinct from the Western medical concept of these organs.

The concept of the ZangFu is more a way of describing a set of interrelated parts than an anatomical organ. In short it is a functionally defined entity and not equivalent to the anatomical organ of the same name.

So the timing and type of your insomnia can give us some clues as to why you are struggling to sleep, its a lot more complicated that the explanation suggests and to get a full picture of your condition we would have to follow the full diagnostic process learning more about your insomnia and taking your pulses.

However as an example, if you consistently wake up at 1:34am, an acupuncturist might suspect a Liver (Qi/Xue) imbalance and we would ask you questions that would help establish if this was an area of difficulty.  It also allows us to see if there are any physiological reasons why sleep is poor or interrupted and if you are waking to go to the toilet we would be thinking of also looking Lung/Bladder/Kidney as these organs are responsible for the water passageways and urination.

Again please don’t confuse the anatomical function of the organ with the Chinese medical view of the organ as they are completely different.

Is there anything I can do to help my insomnia?

Visiting an acupuncturist is a great way to start understanding the imbalances that may be causing your insomnia. Once you have a better sense of what type of insomnia you’re dealing with, you can choose more targeted techniques for addressing it.  If you want to have a chat about your insomnia please give me a call or drop me an email.

If you use a phone, tablet, iPad, computer or laptop get a blue light filter:

This is a no brainier to be honest and a lot of my clients have had great success when they cut/reduce their late night blue light.

The problem with modern technology is the screens are based on LEDs (Light-emitting diodes) and these little things, whilst they may save the planet by reducing our electricity consumption, may well be adding to your insomnia due to the amount of blue/blue-green light they put out.

Dr Czeisler (professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US) has been writing about sleep for 35 years, suggests that since the invention of electric light, there has been a fundamental shift in our sleep patterns and that the recent move from traditional incandescent light bulbs to more energy efficient solid-state LEDs,  that are typically rich in shortwave length blue and blue-green light and which the cells in our retina are more sensitive to, could further disrupt our sleep.

I will say that, whilst I agree with Dr Czeisler, the evidence base is in now way  conclusive and much more research is needed, but from my own use, and that of my clients, of blue light filters it certainly seems to be a realistic possibility that reducing our exposure to shortwave length blue and blue-green light could help with our sleep.

There are many blue light filter applications you can use such as:

Windowsf.lux makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day

If you want to see the different levels of light that different devices put out check the f.luxometer

Get it on Google Play

Apple – You can use the built-in iOS blue light filter – Invert Colour.

Available in the Accessibility settings, this option changes the illumination from black letters on light background to light letters on black background. And it’s very easy to enable on your iPhone and iPad.

Navigate to Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> Invert Colors.
Here press the On/Off button to activate this option.
Plus, whenever you triple-tap your home button, the colors on your device will invert.

Visualise drawing circles in the sand

Massachusetts-based Marisa Fanelli treats a lot of insomnia patients and has them draw mental circles in the sand.

“I have my insomnia patients imagine themselves on a beach, drawing a circle in the sand,” says Fanelli. “After they imagine drawing this circle, I have them visualize drawing the number 1 in the circle. Then I tell them to imagine erasing that number, just wiping it away—and as they do this, they feel themselves relaxing twice as deeply. After the circle is empty, they draw the number 2 in the circle, then erase it, again relaxing twice as deeply. There is no ultimate goal, just the drawing and erasing of numbers until they drift into sleep. For many people—including myself—this works like a charm!”

Try a Mediation App or CD

As discussed above staying away from screens, TVs, laptops, mobile phones, is a good idea when you’re winding down for bedtime but with a blue light filter you might want to try Buddhify a meditation app for Apple and Android.

NHS Online suggests

  • setting regular times for going to bed and waking up
  • relaxing before bed time – try taking a warm bath or listening to calming music
  • using thick curtains or blinds, an eye mask and earplugs to stop you being woken up by light and noise
  • avoiding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, heavy meals and exercise for a few hours before going to bed
  • not watching TV or using phones, tablets or computers shortly before going to bed
  • not napping during the day
  • writing a list of your worries and any ideas about how to solve them before going to bed, to help youforget about them until the morning

You can view all the advice from the NHS here