Acupuncture is an amazing medicine that helps keep us in balance and able to deal with the day-to-day stresses that life throws at us. In this series of articles, I aim to explain acupuncture and how it can help treat a variety of common illnesses and conditions – not just pain and fertility, the two most well-known conditions that benefit from it. Today I want to explain why acupuncture is one of the most powerful treatments I know for insomnia and stress. If you would like to catch up with the previous articles in this series you can find them by reading the following:
Acupuncture – What Is It and How Does It Work?
Shingles – What Is It and How Can Acupuncture Help?
Stress – it has become an accepted part of our culture. It’s everywhere, it is ubiquitous. Stress is anything the brain perceives as being stressful; any input that comes in through our sensory nervous system (ears, eyes, nose, touch, taste), any emotional experiences we have and any changes in our physiology all get routed through the hypothalamus in the brain which sets off stress signals. Things the body perceives as stressful include:
Being too hot or too cold
Exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, chemicals or pesticides
Low blood sugar or not eating
Pressure at work
Death or illness in the family
Lack of sleep
These, and many more, are all triggers that tell the brain the body is under stress. When the brain receives this message, the pituitary gland sends the hormone ACTH to the adrenal glands which respond by producing cortisol, the stress hormone. Today I am going to focus on lack of sleep as a symptom of stress but we can’t do that unless we talk about the adrenal glands and cortisol first.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is our major stress hormone and is produced by the adrenals, little glands that sit on top of the kidney in the middle of the back. The adrenal glands produce over 125 different hormones, of which cortisol is one of the most dominant. In addition to cortisol the adrenal glands also produce the hormone epinephrine which is responsible for the racing heart, palpitations and sweaty palms commonly associated with stress. We all know what this feels like. You’re driving down the road and you almost get in an accident; your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, you have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach – these symptoms are all caused by our stress hormone cortisol and its sidekick epinephrine.
There are two kinds of stress – acute and chronic. Acute stress is illustrated by the classic being chased by a bear scenario – in that situation, you need to have enough adrenal hormones to run fast and escape the bear and we have been developed to handle this kind of stress. However, most of our stress is chronic (or long-term) and occurs repeatedly while we are sitting still, not running in the woods. Cortisol’s main function is to put sugar (glucose) in the blood so we have the energy to run away from the bear but, when we are just sitting, we do not burn up that glucose and it wreaks havoc on our bodies.
The damage that cortisol and other stress hormones cause are many, here are some of the most common:
Abdominal weight gain – all that glucose gets deposited as fat on the belly
Elevated blood pressure
Stress is often constant and we often don’t have time to recover from one stressor before the next stressful thing happens.
Insomnia and the Chinese Medicine Patterns
In the western medical model, the mechanism behind stress-induced insomnia is straightforward. Insomnia is described as difficulty falling or staying asleep and is most commonly caused by high night-time cortisol levels.
In Chinese medicine however, the types of insomnia are more detailed and there are many different patterns that cause it. Understanding someone’s specific patterns of insomnia allows for a more effective treatment.
Patterns of Insomnia
Kidney Yin Deficiency
People with this pattern tend to fall asleep easily but find it hard to stay asleep. They can run hot and have night sweats.
With this pattern, people find it hard to fall asleep but once asleep they stay asleep all night however, there is a tendency to feel fatigued, even after a good night’s rest.
Deficiency of Heart and Spleen
This pattern is characterized by chronic stress which causes anxiety. People with this pattern have a tendency to over-working and this damages the heart and spleen. With a spleen qi deficiency the mind will keep racing, going over problems again and again making it difficult to fall asleep. When they do get off to sleep, the quality of that sleep can be disturbed by vivid dreams. This pattern is also characterized by fatigue, food allergies and poor digestion.
Disharmony between Heart and Kidney
People with this pattern have chronic insomnia that goes on for many years. They suffer from restlessness, dizziness, a dry mouth, palpitations or a racing heart. They may also have a burning sensation in the chest, palms and soles of the feet.
Dysfunction of Stomach
This is insomnia with a suffocating feeling. People with this pattern suffer from indigestion and heartburn, food allergies, constipation and a sticky coating on the tongue.
Upward Disturbance of Liver Fire
This pattern is characterized by irritability and dream-disturbed sleep and people may even sleepwalk or talk in their sleep. They may feel frightened and fearful and this may be accompanied by headaches. People with this pattern may also experience pain along the ribs and abdomen.
The beauty in these acupuncture patterns is that they pull together all of the symptoms you are feeling and connects them together. This helps you to understand how the stress at work with your manager is causing both your indigestion and heartburn, and your insomnia.
When treating someone for insomnia, some acupuncture points will be used regardless of the type of pattern the patient is experiencing. For example, heart 7 on the inside of the wrist at the crease on the inside of the tendon is a point that is calming to the mind and spirt. This is important when helping people relax and get sleepy. Another point commonly used in the treatment of insomnia is kidney 3 on the inside of the ankle between the ankle bone and the Achilles tendon. Massaging both of these points yourself can be helpful if you can’t get to sleep.
Balancing the Nervous System
In addition to treating the right acupuncture points for your specific insomnia pattern, another of the benefits of acupuncture is taking the time for relaxation and turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that slows us down and allows us to rest). When you are lying on the treatment table in a quiet, warm, dark room it helps to put the body into a calming parasympathetic state. When we are constantly stressed, we have a hard time finding our ‘off switch’. Acupuncture treatment will do this for you and this is key in treating nighttime insomnia.
Diet and Lifestyle Factors
Since there are many things about stress we cannot control, I like to focus on the things we can so, in addition to acupuncture, I like to look at other ways we can control our stress levels. For example, diet, and specifically balancing our blood sugar, plays a major role in adrenal health. One of the many things that trigger high cortisol is low blood sugar. We get low blood sugar either by not eating or by eating a meal that is too high in sugar. In response to a meal full of sugar and refined carbohydrates our body quickly absorbs the sugar into the cells and our blood sugar will rapidly fall. This will cause us to crave more sugar and the cycle continues. Eating a balanced diet and having 3 meals and 1 or 2 high-protein and healthy fat snacks, like nuts, animal protein or hummus and cucumber will help keep your blood sugar more balanced thus reducing the number of spikes in cortisol.
Stress is caused by many different triggers and it affects everyone differently. The symptoms it causes present differently in each of us but insomnia is one of its most common manifestations. Unfortunately, we cannot run away from stress, instead we need to learn to manage it. The best way I’ve found to do this is to draw from many different techniques and, when it comes to managing stress and resulting insomnia, I think that making changes to your diet and having regular acupuncture are two of the most powerful medicines you can choose. The beauty of acupuncture is that you can treat the root cause of your insomnia and bring your body back into balance without having to rely on strong pharmaceutical sleeping medicines. And, while other stress and insomnia treatments may take weeks or months to help with symptoms, acupuncture has an immediate effect, you feel better straight after a treatment. It is better to prevent insomnia by keeping your adrenals healthy before there is a problem so, if you are having trouble sleeping and are feeling stressed, treat yourself to an acupuncture treatment and feel the relaxation benefits for yourself. If you are in the Seattle area, my clinic is in Issaquah. I also offer naturopathic appointments in person or on the phone. You can book any of these by using the book online tool above.
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