Sleep. Remember that? It’s that amazing restorative thing we used to do at night before we all got addicted to smartphones and discovered we could stream Netflix in bed.
As a society we’ve never slept worse. The average adult in the UK under sleeps by almost an hour a night – that’s seven hours missed sleep a week.
If missing an hour a night doesn’t sound like much to you, then the following couple of sentences might change your mind. Chronic poor sleep can lead to raised levels of stress, anxiety and depression. In addition to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, heart attack, obesity and diabetes. And the list doesn’t end there by any means, the advantages of a great night’s rest are almost endless.
It’s no wonder then that more and more of us are turning to sleeping pills in order to get the shuteye we need. Unfortunately while popping pills can be very effective at knocking us out cold, sedation is not the same as natural sleep. Putting aside the obvious downside of an individual becoming dependent on drugs just to get some rest, sleeping pills also come with a host of potentially adverse side effects.
So what to do instead? Well, before you go reaching a handful of tablets strong enough to tranquilise a horse why not give a natural alternative a go first. Ever heard of acupuncture?
What is acupuncture?
It’s that crazy thing where you let some stranger turn you into a human hedgehog I hear you cry! Yes, true, kinda but there’s a little bit more to it than that.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding acupuncture. Mention it to your partner or in the office you will likely be sent a meme or three involving the character Pinhead from the film Hellraiser.
So what exactly is it? Well, in simple terms acupuncture is a procedure most often used in conjunction with traditional Chinese medicine. It involves the insertion of very fine needles, sometimes in combination with light electric shocks, into the skin at specifically chosen points of the body believed to have influence over bodily functions.
How does it work?
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is linked to the theory that ill health is caused by disruption in the flow of energy, or qi, throughout the body. By stimulating areas of the body through acupuncture, blockages can be broken and the flow of qi can be released.
Acupuncture has been used for over two millennia in China but has only slowly started to make its way to the West. For many doctors Chinese traditional medicine is seen as occupying that grey area between quackery and evidence-based medicine, as a result caregivers in the West have been slow to recommend the treatment here.
This is beginning to change. More and more academic research is being done into the legitimacy of acupuncture and thus far the studies conducted by researchers in the Europe and the United States have found that acupuncture is at least mildly effective at treating a variety of conditions, including depression, nausea and chronic pain.
For western scientists who have studied the practice, the concept of qi is replaced by a number of other hypotheses. The strongest theory is that acupuncture works by targeting ‘neurohormonal pathways’. That is, by stimulating nerves, messages are send to the brain that triggers the release of hormones such as beta-Endorphins. It’s then the release of these endorphins that improves the patient’s mood or reduces their pain.
What has acupuncture got to do with sleep?
Over in little old China, you know that place where roughly a fifth of the World population lives, acupuncture has been an accepted method of treating insomnia longer than countries in the western world have, well, even existed as countries.
Thankfully clinical studies have begun to back up what the Chinese have known for generations, that acupuncture may have a beneficial effect on insomnia compared with pharmacological means of treating your sleeping woes. The thinking behind this is that the stress relieving qualities of the practice means that individuals head to bed less anxious and in an overall better state to sleep. And this sleep is natural, meaning that in the morning there is no medication-induced grogginess.
If you do choose to go down the acupuncture route, it’s highly unlikely that your sleep problems will be cured by a solitary trip to see the acupuncturist, traditional Eastern medicine doesn’t really work that way. The chances are high that your therapist will require you to return for a series of visits so they can better get to grips with the nature of your energy imbalance.
They will spend time getting to know you and your personality and will adapt the therapy to match. Now that sounds a little different to the 5 minutes you get with your GP before he writes out the same prescription as your last visit and then hits the big ‘next patient’ button under his desk doesn’t it?