A live-in personal assistant named August, an insomnia sufferer I interviewed for my book, was convinced that acupuncture was the path to better sleep. He was an anxious sort of guy whose work was somewhat unstable, and I wouldn’t have pegged him as a person who’d be drawn to alternative treatments like acupuncture. But one day he took his insomnia to an acupuncturist trained in China and, after that, he was hooked.
“It’s very relaxing,” August said. “It’s the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen. With acupuncture, I fall asleep easier and sleep longer.”
Studies of acupuncture as a treatment for insomnia have produced mixed results. Some have found that it improves sleep quality while others have not. A survey of medical literature through 2011 concludes that there’s not enough high-quality evidence either to support or refute acupuncture as a treatment for insomnia.
But two very recent studies are encouraging.
- Postmenopausal women in Brazil underwent a series of 10 acupuncture treatments over a period of five weeks. Compared to a similar group of women who underwent a “sham” treatment, the acupuncture subjects reported significantly improved sleep quality and said they felt better during the day. Polysomnogram testing showed that by the end of treatment, the acupuncture group was getting a higher percentage of deep sleep than the sham group.
- Researchers in Taiwan found that the sleep quality of insomniacs treated with acupuncture once a week for four weeks improved significantly and to the same degree as the sleep quality of insomniacs taking 10 mg. of zolpidem (Ambien).
Both studies were small, though, and whether the results would generalize to insomniacs overall is an open question. Also, neither study addresses the question of how long the beneficial effects of acupuncture on sleep might last, with or without continued treatment.
But there don’t seem to be any downsides to acupuncture (though treatment may vary among practitioners trained in different schools). If you’re an insomniac open to experimentation, it might provide just the sort of sleep juice you need.