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Can acupuncture really cure insomnia? I put the theory to the test

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Acupuncture is one of the world’s oldest forms of healthcare, and it offers a surprising myriad of mental health benefits. But can it help you fall asleep? Stylist checks in for an appointment…

It’s a Monday evening and I’m lying in a London spa, sandwiched between multiple layers of fluffy white towels. The lighting is low and soothing music is being piped into the room. I should feel relaxed, but my brain is thrumming with insistent messages that I’m in danger. After all, there are six needles currently sticking out of my head and neck.

No, I’m not trialling some gruesome new form of therapy or an experimental spa treatment. I’m midway through my first ever session of acupuncture, on a quest to finally, hopefully, get some sleep.

Most people think of acupuncture as a treatment for pain – NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) currently recommends it as a NHS treatment option for chronic headaches or migraines. It is also commonly offered in private practices for the treatment of other ailments such as chronic pain, joint pain or dental pain.

However, the practice is renowned for having numerous mental health benefits, too, and is used to treat conditions such as insomnia, anxiety and depression. And as a chronic insomniac, I am hoping that a session of acupuncture will go some way to helping me finally get some sleep…

Could acupuncture help with insomnia?

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is derived from ancient Chinese medicine, and it is one of the oldest forms of healthcare in the world. The process involves inserting fine needles into specific sites on the body, with different sites representing different ailments.

How does it work?

Acupuncture focuses on you as an individual, rather than your symptoms – in fact, all symptoms are considered in relation to each other.

The needles are inserted into points representing the channels that the body’s energy, known as Qi, run through. Inserting needles into these channels can have a myriad of benefits, including stimulating our healing response and rebalancing our Yin and Yang.

The practise is also thought to boost our immune system, relieve tension and stimulate the flow of energy through our bodies. And, as mental health charity Mind states on its website, “some people feel it helps to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety”.

An acupuncturist inserts needles into a patient

What happens during an appointment?

An appointment typically starts with a consultation, so the acupuncturist can understand what has been bothering you and the various points of your body that they should focus on.

I was surprised at the depth of questions that my brilliant acupuncturist, Ayoko, asked me: anything from what I eat for dinner, to how well I sleep and whether I have any worries weighing on my mind. Once she had thoroughly grilled me on my lifestyle and the workings of my mind, she began a physical examination, pressing on various points of my body and asking if the pressure hurt. 

I was surprised to find that the right side of my stomach felt sore after she had pressed on it, and she told me that that it felt “tight” to her. She then proceeded to press on various points down my right leg and around my right foot, each time pressing back on the right side of my stomach and asking if it hurt less. I was stunned to find that the pain went away as soon as she pressed on a point just above my ankle – and this was this site where Ayoko first inserted the needles into my body.

What does it feel like?

I’m not scared of needles – injections and blood tests have never bothered me, so I was expecting to feel pretty breezy about having acupuncture. However, as Ayoko started explaining about the needles and showed me how big they were (about seven centimetres long), I started to feel unexpectedly queasy. The setting might have had something to do with it. The spa was beautiful and calming, and the needles, encased in their hygienic plastic wraps, felt intimidating because they were so out of place.

I’ve never been scared of needles…

Ayoko explained that there are two main types of needles used in acupuncture – Japanese needles, which she used on me, are traditionally shorter and thinner than Chinese needles. Having seen both, I was relieved to hear I would be experiencing the smaller ones.

As each needle was inserted, I felt a small prick, but it wasn’t painful; more like a quick scratch. The needles in my legs caused a warmth to spread over the whole lower half of my body, and I wasn’t expecting to have such a physical reaction to them, but it wasn’t unpleasant.

Ayoko asked if I was happy to have needles inserted into the top of my head, and surprisingly I didn’t feel these ones at all, although knowing they were there did make me feel panicked. Equally, having needles in my neck made me feel uncomfortable; I tried not to move at all, terrified that taking a deep breath would lead to a needle somehow impaling a significant vein. I also had needles inserted into my back, including one in a ‘sugar point’, as Ayoko wasn’t impressed with my carb-filled evening dinners of pasta and potatoes.

Ayoko used 15 needles in total and each was in for no more than a handful of minutes. It’s worth pointing out that this was my first session – I think acupuncture probably feels much more comfortable once you’ve gotten used to the general concept of having needles in your body.

Ayoko also combined acupuncture with Shiatsu, a traditional form of physical therapy not dissimilar to a massage, which is thought to boost relaxation during a session.

Having needles in my head made me feel decidedly panicked

Does it work?

After my appointment, which took an hour in total including the consultation, I left the spa and headed home for an early night. As Ayoko had promised, I slept deeply for the next few nights, and actually woke up feeling refreshed, which is rare for me. The benefit of having hours of uninterrupted sleep meant my brain worked faster and better at work, and I felt less exhausted than usual.

However, the results lasted less than a week before I was back to my usual insomniac ways. Ayoko had warned me that acupuncture was more effective after a course of treatment, rather than just one session.

It’s a pricey treatment to have, but one that could yield brilliant results if you’re prepared to stick it out for four or five sessions. And since we’re constantly being warned about the apparently detrimental health effects of not getting enough sleep, it might just be worth it…

Acupuncture at London’s COMO Metropolitan Spa costs from £99 for a 45 minute session. You can find out more information here

Images: Getty

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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