Acupuncture for Insomnia: 4 Health Hazards It May Help Treat

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Insomnia hazards and acupuncture treatment

If you're struggling with insomnia, acupuncture may help improve your sleep quality. In fact, a 2017 study suggests that it could be an effective alternative to sleeping pills. Because insomnia is associated with negative health issues, researchers set out to determine how acupuncture affected four common insomnia health hazards. Their findings were published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine in 2016. Read on to learn what they found.

Woman with depression.

The first insomnia health hazard: Negative emotions

The study identified anxiety and depression as the primary negative emotions connected to insomnia and pointed to previous studies that found one-third of individuals with depression and/or anxiety disorders had insomnia symptoms (compared with 16.5 percent of those without sleep issues). Researchers also found that women with sleep problems were more likely to deal with insomnia and depression than men.

Woman with insomnia unable to sleep at night.

Why does insomnia lead to negative emotions?

The authors stated that the biological processes connecting negative emotions with insomnia are unclear. Previous research has found that individuals with insomnia may have fragmented rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — and this can disturb emotional regulation. Furthermore, the worry and fear about sleep that many people with insomnia experience may have negative long-term implications for mental health.

Man receiving acupuncture treatment in his foot.

Can acupuncture improve depression and anxiety?

The study found that acupuncture can promote calm and may help regulate melatonin production — and this can improve insomnia symptoms and reduce anxiety symptoms. The Shenmen (HT7), Baihui (DU20), Hegu (LI4), and Taichong (LR3) acupuncture points were identified as the most commonly used for treating negative emotions linked to insomnia.

Woman with insomnia sitting up in bed while in pain.

The second insomnia health hazard: Decreased immunity

Sleep deprivation and insomnia weakens the immune system and increases inflammation. The authors highlighted one study which found that after two nights of prolonged wakefulness and one night of sleep recovery, more than 500 genes were affected, including genes associated with the immune system.

Woman receiving acupuncture treatment in her face.

Can acupuncture improve immune system health?

The researchers determined that acupuncture can be beneficial because studies have found it can help protect the immune system from damage caused by chemotherapy and it may help regulate cytokine levels (proteins that influence the body’s inflammatory response). Acupuncture may also promote an immune response by boosting the release of endorphins and other endogenous opioids.

Damaged strands of DNA.

The third insomnia health hazard: Increased oxyradicals

Studies have found that insomnia may result in increased oxyradicals — and this can damage DNA and increase cancer risk. Researchers suggested that increased glucose metabolism may play a role in the production of free radicals in the brain and that oxidative stress appears to be an underlying condition related to insomnia.

Acupuncture treatment on the legs and knees.

Can acupuncture decrease oxyradicals?

Research suggests that acupuncture can reduce the production of free radicals, with stimulation of the Sanyinjiao (SP6) and Zusanli (ST36) acupuncture points being found to have antioxidative effects. The authors suggested that acupuncture may also reduce oxidative stress by stimulating production of antibodies that can destroy free radicals and protect against oxidative damage.

Man experiencing chest pain from heart failure.

The fourth insomnia health hazard: Heart disease

Sleep has a close association with heart heath. Studies have found that sleep problems can make the heart work harder and insomnia has been linked to heart failure. One study identified by researchers found that women with high insomnia scores had a 38 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 27 percent greater risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those with low insomnia scores.

Man with chest pain sitting on the edge of a bed.

Why is insomnia linked to heart disease?

The hyperarousal associated with insomnia and a reduction in melatonin caused by insomnia may contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. As the researchers pointed out, studies have also found a connection between sleep problems and heart rate variability — and this may be caused by a triggering of the body’s "fight-or-flight" response.

Acupuncture treatment in the wrist and hand.

Can acupuncture help treat heart disease?

The review identified a study that found acupuncture reduced the heart rate when the Shenmen (HT7) point was stimulated. The authors suggested that acupuncture can help balance the body's sympathetic (stress response) nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system (which calms the body and mind after a threat has passed), and that acupuncture can also help lower blood pressure.

Woman receiving acupuncture treatment on her head and face.

Treating insomnia with acupuncture

The study suggested that since acupuncture can alleviate insomnia it can also be a complementary way to treat the health hazards associated with insomnia. The Baihui (DU20), Sishencong (EX6), Anmian (Extra), Shenmen (HT7), Zusanli (ST36) and Sanyinjiao (SP6) acupuncture points were the points most often used for treating insomnia.

Doctor giving advice to a senior patient.

Final words of caution

It's worth noting that some of the studies reviewed in this research were from self-diagnosed insomnia sufferers or had no uniform criteria for insomnia diagnosis, and few investigated the link between insomnia and the identified health hazards. Acupuncture should be considered a complementary therapy and is not something that should ever replace a medically-prescribed or recommended treatment plan.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.