Acupuncture Better Than Medications for Insomnia

Did you know that acupuncture is considered to be more effective than medications for those who have trouble sleeping? Not only is it more effective, but it has no side effects common to many insomnia medicines (such as Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Rozerem, and Halicion. Some of these side effects include burning/tingling in hands and feet, appetite changes, problems with digestion and balance, daytime drowsiness, concentration and memory, eye twitching, and dry mouth

One review of past research evaluated 46 studies with nearly 4,000 patients who suffered from insomnia. The reviewers concluded that acupuncture has a beneficial effect in treating insomnia compared to medications alone or "sham" acupuncture (in which the practitioner does "acupuncture" on non-meridian points on the body).1 The study makes these conclusions:

  • Acupuncture was better than no treatment.
  • Acupuncture was better than "sham" acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture was superior to medications where total sleep duration increased for less than 3 hours.
  • There was no difference between acupuncture and medications in average sleep duration.
  • Acupuncture plus medications were better than only medications in total sleep duration.
  • Acupuncture plus herbs was better than only herbs in total sleep duration.

While medications produced a more immediate solution to insomnia they do not create long lasting benefits.2

Another review of the research found that 90% of 30 studies showed positive outcomes.3

Why is Acupuncture Effective for Insomnia?

Our pineal gland naturally produces melatonin, the "sleep" hormone. Our circadian rhythm regulates melatonin production. When melatonin production increases at the end of the day (triggered in part by decreasing light) we feel sleepy. Melatonin signals to our bodies that we are ready for sleep.

But melatonin production can be inhibited by extensive travel, health conditions or the blue light from electronic devices and your TV. Acupuncture stimulates the ability of the pineal gland to naturally produce melatonin thus reducing the experience of insomnia.

There are a number of other hormones involved in the ability to sleep. They include endorphins, serotonin, cortisol, nitric oxide, and others, all of which play roles in regulation of sleep, and function of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands.

Factors Inhibiting Sleep

One study found in patients with anxiety that acupuncture increased melatonin levels allowing the patients to fall asleep faster, wake up less at night, and overall feel less anxious. Another study found that acupuncture reduces chronic pain which also improved sleep quality. Overall imbalances in hormones and the glands that produce them are also causes of sleep problems. Acupuncture is able to regulate and modulate such hormone production.

Why Acupuncture is Effective

Interestingly, traditional Chinese acupuncture identifies different types of insomnia -- which makes a lot of sense.

  • Difficulty in falling asleep. (hyperarousal)
  • Hard to get back to sleep when you wake up at night. (hyperarousal)
  • Waking too early in the morning and not able to get back to sleep.
  • Sleep with strong dreams that interfere.
  • General inability to sleep.

The Autonomic Nervous System and Insomnia

Sleep is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) -- which is beyond conscious control. Yet acupuncture can influence indicators of ANS functioning such as blood pressure, heart rate and pupil size.

Acupuncture has a direct effect on nerves and muscles which in turn affect the autonomic nervous system. There are a variety of neurological and hormonal changes that take place during acupuncture treatment. Depending on the meridian points used the effects on the ANS can vary -- acupuncture points are quite specific.

In addition the type of stimulus is also very specific. Traditional acupuncture versus electro-acupuncture versus modalities such as cupping and moxa all have very specific results. The variety and combination of these subtleties is what makes acupuncture so effective.

Because each type of insomnia is due to specific and unique imbalances in energy flow in the body, the possibilities to be very specific in treatment are useful. Therefore, for each acupuncture patient, treatment will be slightly different.

Hyperarousal and Insomnia

People who have trouble falling asleep or falling asleep again after waking at night are experiencing "hyperarousal." They are "more awake" all of the time, with, for example, higher metabolic rates, body temperature and heart rates. These high rates of functioning are associated with imbalances in cortisol levels and the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal gland functioning. Acupuncture can help to restore balance to these functions and thus enhance the onset, quality of and duration of sleep.4


Acupuncture can regulate a number of neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphins, melatonin, serotonin and others which play a significant role in the ability to sleep. The very diverse and specific effects of acupuncture are superior to use of medications each of which have a single target and effect. Medications can improve a single night's sleep but there are side effects to be considered, especially with long term use.

At the same time, it should be noted that acupuncture is not a panacea and cannot treat severe pathological conditions such as heart disease.

It is unlikely that insomnia will be cured with only one treatment. Rather a series will be more effective and may also result in an improved general feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation. One small Italian study reported that 60% of patients experienced improved sleep within two weeks.

1. H. Cao, MD, X. Pan, MD, et al, Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, November, 2009.
2. W. Huang, MD, N. Kutner, PhD, et al, Autonomic Activation in Insomnia: The Case for Acupuncture, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, February, 2011.
3. W. Huang, MD, N. Kutner, PhD, et al, A systematic review of the effects of acupuncture in treating insomnia, Sleep Medicine Review, 2009.
4. J. Guo, W. Huang, et al, Effect of acupuncture on sleep quality and hyperarousal state in patients with primary insomnia: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial, BMJ Open, 2016.