Good sleep is powerful. It resets you, it refuels you, but it doesn’t always come when you need it the most. The effects of chronic sleep loss can impact everything from mood, vitality, mentality, energy, right through to having a dull complexion. Harsh, no? So let’s take a look at what can be done to address some factors that affect sleep, and how Acupuncture could be a great adjunct to reclaiming your R&R.
ACUPUNCTURE & SLEEP
For those of you that have had Acupuncture before, you’ll likely be all too familiar with an Acu-nap; the nap taken during your Acupuncture treatment, where you’re either at a light doze – neither fully awake or asleep, leaving you feeling refreshed. This blissful sensation is attributed to the activation of your parasympathetic system (“rest and restore”).
Acupuncture’s well known for its effect on the nervous system (pain research is the classic example), and having a doze during your session isn’t crucial for kick-starting the repair process, just a nice side-effect.
Research into the area of Acupuncture and sleep continues to develop, but on the whole is really positive when including Acupuncture as a promising and safe option for those looking to improve their sleep quality. A few examples demonstrating its impact include a clinical trial showing Acupuncture’s beneficial effect on insomnia, compared with certain western medications1, which considering the potential side effects and dependency on sleep medications makes Acupuncture an exceptionally promising option. A course of Acupuncture treatment has also been demonstrated to improve sleep quality during pregnancy, which is particularly notable for those during their third trimester, where nearly half of pregnant people suffer from poor sleep2. Another randomized control trial showed that for peri-menopausal women, Acupuncture significantly improved their sleep efficiency and total sleep time, associated with less wake after sleep onset after the treatment3. There are lots of contributing factors to sleep, and identifying what makes up your sleep picture is crucial. There are things within your external environment that play strong roles, including environmental toxins & pollutants, lifestyle, stressors, foods you eat, down to small daily habits. Your internal environment (such as your hormones and chemicals) is the other side of the picture; how your body manages stress, circadian rhythm cycles, and general systems that are overworking or underperforming.
SLEEP & STRESS
Sleep is often impacted by stress (that old chestnut), and while that’s a whole other topic that could be tackled at length (and a favourite of mine), for now let’s focus on mentioning our stress hormone, cortisol. It often gets a bad wrap, but it’s actually important to have in our systems. It’s all about the right amount at the right time of day; Cortisol is meant to be higher in the morning (gets you up out of bed and alert in the morning; best time of day for productivity!) and lower in the evening (calmer and setting you up to sleep). Too much stress in your day and your cortisol stays up working over-time. What does this mean when you can’t wind-down? Your body’s circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) becomes out of whack because high cortisol in the evening equates to zero sleep set up! It’s a big contributor to why your brain can still be whirring at a million miles an hour when you’re tucked in and craving sleep.
SLEEP & HABITS
For many, good quality sleep can feel ever-elusive & it’s hard to unpack where the issues may lie. Overcoming those missed zzz’s doesn’t just begin when your head hits the pillow. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a great slumber, but for many, it’s good to start with assessing whether sleep still gets pushed back (intentionally or otherwise) when we try to fit more into each day. While a course of Acupuncture may see an improvement in sleep quality, optimising these effects means creating long-lasting changes & adjusting some habits at home.
To start: where has sleep been placed on your priority list day-to-day? First thing to rule out is whether you actively put it off to squeeze in one more episode, scroll social media or to get a few more emails sorted. Does it get de-valued when there’s still stuff to do around the house? Do you put it off because you feel it’s “impossible” to get to sleep anyway, regardless of what you do/don’t do?
So many of us are in the habit of closing a screen once we’re already in bed, but this habit tends to amplify the body’s wiring to stay awake. Many patients over the years have voiced this as a habit that’s intended to help distract, switch off and unwind a wired-mind, but unfortunately that same habit creates a longer-term false sense of rest. Sure, you may zone-out, but your brain is being sent a message that it’s on stand-by, because light is still present. You may be lucky & fall asleep soon after everything is officially switched off, but the quality of your sleep can still suffer. How can you tell? A few key factors include how many hours of sleep leave you feeling tired vs. amazing vs. over-slept. We also look at whether you’re waking up refreshed, waking during the night, energy slumping throughout the day, and just rounding back to having difficulty fall asleep in the first place, and the big picture ratio of higher quality sleep week-in, week-out. There are also some who fall into the category of hormonal changes pulling sleep out of whack, or some may find that their sleep feels average (but not necessarily on their radar as problematic) however they have a short-fuse, or feel as though mood has moments of dictating the day. Your body’s stress-responses can leave you managing the same cluster of symptoms over and over. Assisting sleep quality is a simple first step in un-packing where the culprits lye.
BODY HINTS & SLEEP ROUTINE
Our body’s way of telling us it wants better quality rest hides in plain sight. We have the capacity to clock a lot of symptoms down as our version of “normal” & plough along with daily demands. A trick: Make sleep the most important appointment in your day. Make it your biggest priority. If your bed time is 10:30, then screens shut off an hour before-hand, regardless of unfinished emails or episodes. This is more important. This is going to increase your productivity and happiness in the long run, & short-term gains for long-lived burnout really doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi!
That one final magical hour in your day designated to be technology free time isn’t designed for rushing around fixing meals for the next day, or stressing/getting anxious about things due in the following days/weeks/months, or picking up after other people. It’s for you. For those parents or busy-bee’s who are reading this and shaking their heads with a firm hella-no; the busiest people need the most down-time. These people in my experience are the ones that love Acupuncture the most. For those who can start scheduling in nightly downtime, if it’s hard to imagine what to do with that time when you’re used to it feeling full, write out a handful of things you enjoy doing, and may not have had enough time for regularly. It doesn’t have to be the same thing each evening if you’re not big on autonomy, but each of them must contribute in allowing your body to de-load from the stimulus of your day. Some things that I love to recommend include:
- Reading a chapter (or more) of something that isn’t work related,
- Listen. To music, or a podcast (although these often come from your phone you can put them on an automatic timer to switch off after X-amount of time, it’s still a gateway from being visually glued to a screen or running around), or just reflect on the world around you.
- Write notes to debrief from your day; whether it be 10 things your grateful for, or just getting things off your chest to step back and try to see things from a new angle.
- Smell. Put a diffuser on in the background to have a smell that will slowly be associated with rest and relaxation (Lavender is the classic, but there are ones that scents that have been suggested to help your sinuses, mood, or focus).
- Have a bath or a shower. Drastic changes in body temp/ambient temperature help your body fall asleep; when you get out of a hot bath your vessels has vasodilated, so core blood goes to peripheries and because you’re warm, body tries to get heat to escape, resulting in a drop in your body’s temp, and a drop in core temperature makes you drowsy/groggy.
- Meditate. It’s one of the best things you couldever choose to do. Not one has ever regretted getting into meditation! Ever. If anything, the thing people don’t like is trying to get into it in the first place; being alone with your own thoughts can often be really, really uncomfortable. You may sit there thinking how silly it is that you’re sitting there when there are so many other things you could be doing. But if you submit to it, it’ll change your life. If you still feel it’s not your thing & you feel like every time you try it you get agitated or can’t make it work, there are guided ones (such as on the app Insight Timer, which has plenty of free resources). If you want to try giving it a go on your own, start with 5 minutes & just count your breaths. If you find you’ve distracted yourself and lost count, or your mind’s wandered, just start again. It’s no big deal. Each night add one minute on until you get up to 15-20.
If your routine becomes established, you’ll see shifts; you’ll start waking up feeling revitalised, your energy will feel more sustained throughout the day, your mood is less likely to fluctuate. Begin great sleep & make that final hour of your day the most important one.
- Cao H, Pan X, Li H, Liu J. Acupuncture for treatment of insomnia: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15(11):1171-1186. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0041
- Foroughinia S, Hessami K, Asadi N, et al.Effect of acupuncture on pregnancy-related insomnia and melatonin: A single-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Nature Sci Sleep. 2020;12:271-278.
- Cong, Fu & Na, Zhao & Zhen, Liu & Lu-Hua, Yuan & Chen, Xie & Wen-Jia, Yang & Xin-Tong, Yu & Yu, Huan & Yun-Fei, Chen. Acupuncture Improves Peri-menopausal Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Sleep. 2017; 40. 10.1093/sleep/zsx153.