Getting stuck all over with needles may seem the stuff of voodoo nightmares-but in fact, if you suffer from insomnia, it may be just the fix for your sleepless nights. We're not really suggesting that you volunteer to be a voodoo doll, though it may seem that way to you if you've never tried acupuncture. You just might have to set aside your squeamishness and give it some consideration.
There's a growing amount of real science behind my recommendation. For instance, a meta-analysis of 46 randomized trials found that acupuncture does ease insomnia. And a study published in a recent issue of Asian journal of Psychiatry found that acupuncture may be as effective as the sedative drug zolpidem (Ambien) in alleviating sleeplessness, particularly for women and older patients.
Big advantage: Acupuncture has no serious adverse effects-unlike sleeping pills, which can lead to breathing problems, pounding heartbeat, chest pain, blurred vision and addiction.
Studies aside, you might still wonder how well acupuncture works for real insomniacs in the real world. New York City naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist Pina LoGiudice, ND, LAc, said, "I can confirm that acupuncture has helped many of my patients sleep. I use it on its own for mild insomnia... for chronic cases, I use it in combination with other natural modalities to address underlying conditions that can interfere with sleep."
How it works: From the perspective of Western medicine, acupuncture helps regulate various hormones and neurotransmitters-including melatonin, serotonin, endorphins and many others-that play major roles in sleep regulation, according to a recent study from Emory University School of Medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine, the theory is that various symptoms develop when a patient's qi (vital energy) gets blocked... and acupuncture removes these blockages by stimulating specific acupoints that correspond to different parts of the body. As Dr. LoGiudice explained, ''Acupuncture strengthens the body's ability to heal itself. When tension and pain are removed, you eliminate much of what is causing the insomnia."
What to expect: While the course of treatment is tailored to an individual's needs, typically a patient receives 10 to 20 hypoallergenic needles at a time in a treatment session that lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. Placement of the needles depends on where the qi is blocked and on any underlying health problems that may be contributing to poor sleep. Discomfort is minimal-the needles are extremely thin and only go through the first layer of skin.
Insomnia patients typically go for treatment once per week for six to 12 weeks, then follow up once or twice a year for maintenance, Dr. LoGiudice said. When asked how soon patients can expect results, she said, "Some feel a difference as soon as the third treatment, while others may take up to 12 sessions. If we are not seeing results by the eighth session, I start thinking about adding nutrients or herbs to the treatment plan."
To find a qualified acupuncturist: Visit the website of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at www.nccaom.org and click on "Find a Practitioner." Dr. LoGiudice noted that acupuncture generally is safe for everyone... there are no side effects except for rare cases of slight bruising... and some health insurance policies now cover acupuncture-all facts that may help you sleep better as you consider this treatment option.