Chronic Insomnia: How Acupuncture Can Help

by Mark Whalen, L.Ac. |

Chronic Insomnia: How Acupuncture Can Help

We get so many queries from people whether acupuncture can cure insomnia.  The answer is an emphatic yes! Insomnia is typically characterized as an inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or waking up groggy in the morning.

I’m sure everyone has witnessed this issue now and then. We bet that there isn’t anything more annoying than lying in the bed and waiting to fall asleep desperately.  

While insomnia can be temporary due to changes in schedule or new stresses in your life, hopefully it is not a persistent issue for you. Today I am here to discuss chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia is not only frustrating but also it badly affects your quality of life and health. While sleep is a time of rest for us, our bodies and brain revitalize and restore during this time frame.

Why We Get Sleepy

In humans, sleep is dictated by a series of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In an effort to maintain homeostasis, our bodies are constantly balancing out the levels of these neurotransmitters. The key neurotransmitters that influence sleep are Adenosine, Melatonin and Serotonin (this is not an exhaustive listing).

You have probably heard of this process of balancing our sleep-wake cycles referred to as our Circadian Rhythm or internal clock. . The Circadian Rhythm is majorly mediated by light, particularly natural light.

Prior to the advent of electricity (darn you Edison!), our circadian rhythms were more naturally attuned to the fluctuations of day and night. As the sun would set, our body would begin to release Melatonin to increase our desire to sleep.

In our modern world with artificial light everywhere, it is easier for our internal clocks to be thrown off.Melatonin release is negatively affected through exposure to artificial light after dark, leaving your body into a perplexed state of staying awake later than you should.

Doesn’t matter if it’s dark outside, if you are in a room full of lights watching TV or working on your laptop, it may be really tough for you get restful sleep.

Sleep Patterns: Demystified

Sleep is generally categorized into two divisions known as Rapid Eye movement or REM sleep and Non Rapid eye movement or NREM. The NREM division is further divided into four stages with each stage representing a much deeper state of sleep.

During the night, our body experiences different stages of sleep. For us, sleep is a period of rest but for our body and brains, it is the time for hard work. During NREM sleep our bodies are working hard to repair and regenerate tissues, build bone and muscle and strengthen the immune system.

REM sleep starts about ninety minutes after we sleep. .REM sleep is the deepest state of sleep where dreaming occurs. This stage is often referred to as paradoxical sleep because our brains are very active but our muscles are relaxed.

Chronic insomnia can lead to a myriad of health problems including weight gain, depression, decreased pain tolerance, diabetes, high blood pressure and weakened immune system functioning.

1. Weight Gain

Poor or less sleep affects the hormones Leptin and Grehlin which send a signal to the brain that you are satiated (Leptin) or you are hungry (Grehlin). Without sufficient sleep, Leptin levels drop and Grehlin levels increase, creating a double whammy for increasing our appetites. Our brain sends a message that we feel hungry and doesn’t stop us when we are full.

There are some studies claiming that this effect varies from women to men.  Women don’t feel a lot full whereas men seem to be hungrier. A study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  reviewed articles on the link of poor sleep with weight regulation and discovered “insulin resistance, high levels of ghrelin, and lower levels of leptin in partially sleep-deprived people. Variations in ghrelin and leptin impacted energy intake among the participants in the study.”

Poor sleep makes your glucose metabolism slower. Patients who sleep less than four hours a night are vulnerable to developing diabetes.

2. Depression

I totally understand if you experience mood swings after a poor sleep at night. A chronically sleep deprived person is ten times at higher risk to develop depression than someone who gets sufficient sleep.

3. Pain Tolerance

A recent study illustrated the link between a lack of sleep and a decreased pain tolerance. The exact mechanism is unknown but it is theorized that a lack of sleep causes an increase in inflammation throughout the body. The effect of painkillers may even be blunted for those who are chronically sleep deprived.

How Acupuncture Can Help

In the clinic, I see patients with sleep disorders ranging from difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking, dream disturbed sleep and nightmares. Acupuncture helps you get restful night’s sleep, not matter what spectrum you fall on.
We had a detailed discussed on the role of Melatonin in regulating the sleep-wake cycles earlier in this blog. Acupuncture needle stimulation influences the central nervous system and triggers the release of Serotonin and the beta-endorphins (‘feel good’ chemicals).

Serotonin appears to be the precursor of Melatonin. Pineal Gland releases Serotonin and converts it to Melatonin as natural light dims. Remember that neurotransmitter Adenosine mentioned earlier? Adenosine rises throughout the day when we are awake, increasing our bodies need for sleep. When you sleep at night, Adenosine levels are lowered

Turns out that Acupuncture needling influences Adenosine also. In reality, it may be one of the major mechanisms contributing to Acupuncture’s effect.


In acupuncture we search for the reason YOU are not sleeping. Sleep disturbances varies from one individual to the other and therefore, the treatment differs.

In order to help identify the root cause of your problem, there are many key questions we ask:

  • How long does it take you to fall asleep?
  • Do you wake frequently in the night-if so, is it a consistent time?
  • Do you dream? Do you have nightmares?
  • Do your dreams wake you in a state of panic?
  • Do you get night sweats?
  • Do you talk in your sleep?
  • Are you refreshed in the morning?

These along with several other questions will help us determine the ideal approach to treating you.

Try this acupressure point right now.


Sources: Light Exposure May Cut Production of Melatonin. Hendrick, Bill. January 19, 2011

Webmd. Coping with excessive sleepiness Ghrelin And Leptin Levels Affected During Sleep Deprivation Consistent With Increases In AppetiteOct 25th

Really? Losing Sleep Reduces Your Pain Tolerance By ANAHAD O’CONNOR. December 17, 2012. New York Times.

University of Rochester Medical Center (2010, May 31). Acupuncture’s molecular effects pinned down: New insights spur effort to boost treatment’s impact significantly. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 8, 2013, from­ /releases/2010/05/100530144021.htm

Mark Whalen first became interested in acupuncture as a patient facing unwanted nerve surgery. Acupuncture not only resolved his issue, it changed his life, and today he is a licensed acupuncturist and certified herbalist practicing out of Massachusetts. Mark believes in integrating the traditional Chinese Medical model with a modern neuroscientific view of how acupuncture works in order to get the best results for his patients. You can learn more about Mark at

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