Friday March 16th was World Sleep Day, an annual event, intended to be a celebration of sleep and a call to action on important issues related to sleep, including medicine, education, social aspects and road safety. This post will wake you up with an invigorating discussion on different aspects of sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation in the USA recommends an average of eight hours of sleep per night for adults, but according to sleep scientist Matthew Walker, too many people are falling short of the mark. Being in a chronic state of sleep deficiency can have serious consequences. Sleep deficiency is associated with problems in concentration, memory and the immune system. Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, impaired immunity, increased risk of cancer and heart disease, and may even shorten your lifespan.
Are you getting enough sleep?
Sleeping pills clearly are designed to help you sleep but they present many problems, including dependency. Moreover, they are usually sedatives or hypnotics., Expert bodies have long advised that the use of hypnotics for insomnia should be limited to short courses for acutely distressed patients but despite this, in England alone, for example, around 10 million prescriptions for hypnotics are dispensed every year. Many patients remain on the drugs for months or years. Such prescribing carries many potential hazards for patients, including the risk of dependence, accidents and other adverse effects on health.
Getting less than 8 hours’ sleep will put us into sleep deficit, especially if we don’t sleep between the magic hours of 10pm till 2am, the most yin hours of the night. Can we catch up on sleep the following night? To some degree, we can, but in terms of body function, what is lost, is lost. You can’t sleep for two hours one night and fourteen the next and expect to get the health benefits of two regular nights’ sleep. The body doesn’t work that way!
Perspectives on sleep from traditional medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine when we talk about sleep, we talk about the heart meridian function and shen. Shen is often translated as spirit, sometimes as ‘mind’ and is associated with conscious awareness. In classical theory, one of the jobs of the heart itself is to house the shen. If for some reason, the shen is unable to reside peacefully in the palace, the consciousness will have nowhere to settle and will leave the palace. The result will be insomnia.
A less imperial model of this restless energy state is a hot air balloon without enough ballast. The only way it can get down to earth is by ditching some hot air or by adding more weight to the basket. Acupuncture can have an effect on pulling energy down from the head. This energy state typically presents with cold feet and tight shoulders and a tendency to flush easily. We call this ‘counterflow qi’, because the energy is flowing the wrong way.
Can acupuncture help with sleep?
Most reviews of acupuncture show it to be at least as effective, if not more effective than anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines. This is supported by other research methods such as meta-analysis, looking at many different trials together. Given that acupuncture appears to be at least as effective as existing conventional drugs, without their level of side effects, it should be considered as a viable therapeutic option for insomnia, especially as it can be argued that drug induced sleep might not even be considered sleep at all.
To researchers in the West, burning moxibustion cones on the skin has been considered a little too outlandish an idea to study. Acupuncture research is fashionable in some parts of the medical world but little moxibustion research has been done. Nevertheless, in our experience, it is impossible to treat insomnia without the use of moxibustion, particularly on the feet. Many Japanese practitioners have used moxibustion to pull energy down from the head. What’s more, patients can be taught to treat themselves at home with moxa with simple premanufactured moxa kits.
While acupuncture has received all the attention so far, it is worth mentioning our own observations that Shiatsu or traditional Japanese body work, seems to perform at least as well, if not better for people who find it hard to sleep. What’s more, for people who are not keen to try needles and moxibustion, Shiatsu is a gentle and calming intervention. We have two excellent Shiatsu practitioners who can help you sleep like a baby!
We need sleep! What’s more, we need restful sleep. Sometimes it is obvious when there’s a problem: we can’t get to sleep or we keep waking up in the night but at other times, sleep simply does not feel restful. In all cases, it is better to turn to a natural solution such as acupuncture, moxibustion and shiatsu, then to medications that may cause dependencies.
British Acupuncture Council Research Factsheet: Insomnia