Healthy Sleeping Habits

Acupuncture May Help You Have the Absolute Best Sleep of Your Life—Here’s How

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Stocksy/Trinette Reed
If being prodded with needles is your worst nightmare, you’re not alone—but here’s a plot twist you might not have expected: Using acupuncture for sleep may actually offer super-relaxing benefits that lead to dreamy nights, and even a nap mid-acupuncture session. If you’re thinking “huh, napping when you’re a human pincushion sounds hardly relaxing,” I feel you. But according to Eva Zeller, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist who co-runs Philadelphia-based Acupuncture Off Broad, acupuncture for sleep and naps is actually a common application of the Traditional Chinese Medicine practice.

And it’s hardly new: Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years—long before it hit wellness spas. In traditional Chinese medicine, your qi is the energy current that flows through your body via energetic pathways called meridians. Acupressure points are stations, or entry points, that fall along your meridians. The idea is that if the energy is out of balance, it can lead to certain problems or ailments. So these pressure points are what acupuncturists work with—with one possible application being acupuncture for sleep.

How? Well, for one thing, the environment is relaxing, whether you’re partaking in a private session or visiting a community acupuncture studio. The temperature’s generally warm, the lights are dim, and the music’s soothing. Hello, dreamland!

But the treatment itself is also part of what offers those sleep-inducing effects. “We choose specific acupuncture points that allow your body to heal and self-regulate,” says Noah Rubinstein, DACM, doctor of Chinese medicine and clinic director of the Yinova Center in New York City. Once the body settles into its balanced state, deep relaxation—yes, sometimes to the point of falling asleep—is almost inevitable.

What to expect from an acupuncture for sleep session

Before you lay down on the mat, the practitioner assesses whether the issue at hand is falling asleep or staying asleep (or both) and may ask you about other factors, like diet, medications, pain, and stress and the role that each might be playing in your life. From there, the practitioner will create a personalized treatment plan that emphasizes balance, so clients have plenty of energy when they’re awake, but are able to dial it down when it’s time for bed, Rubenstein says.

During the session, a licensed acupuncturist will stick needles in the pressure points that correlate to whatever ails you. Each of these points is connected to specific strengths and effects that can be activated through stimulation, such as relieving anxiety or jaw tension. And if syringes make you squeamish, rest assured that acupuncture doesn’t hurt—the needles function similarly to a massage by loosening tight muscles and producing collagen.

“Acupuncture helps turn off all of the alarm bells for a little while, which reminds your mind and body, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like not to be in emergency mode.'” —Eva Zeller, LAc

Results may vary, but the idea is that the targeted acupuncture points mixed with the soothing environment can help you to doze off. In fact, Zeller says she’s noticed many experience intense mid-acupuncture dreams. She even believes it’s possible to experience deep REM sleep in a relatively brief session, which she says makes sense considering that the practice is known to help lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone. “Acupuncture helps turn off all of the alarm bells for a little while, which reminds your mind and body, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like not to be in emergency mode,'” she says. The effect? A visit to your dreams.

What to know about use acupressure points for sleep

Even if an acupuncture session isn’t accessible to you or in the cards for some other reason, it’s still possible to DIY a similar effect by using pressure points for sleep: by manually targeting acupressure points, using your fingers instead of acupuncture needles. The concept is essentially the same; you’ll just want to recognize what, specifically, might be causing your restlessness, and find the correlating acupressure point.

“Sleep imbalances come from stress and a lack of being able to calm or soothe oneself,” Stefanie Dilibero, MAc, LAc, acupuncturist and founder of Gotham Wellness in NYC previously told Well+Good. “People’s bodies and nervous systems are affected by stress in different physical manifestations. Acupressure points can be used as a way to target the specific ways in which your body needs balance, and when you are balanced in a way specific to your conditions, you will sleep better.”

For example, Pericardium 6 is a favored acupressure point for nausea, but it also soothes anxiety and promotes a deeper snooze. To access it, use a thumb to locate the ropey tendon point on your forearm, a few inches from the wrist. Then, press your thumb into the point and breathe.

Or if anxiety spirals, from doomscrolling or otherwise, keep you awake at night, Heart 7 is what you want to address. Draw a line from the center of the pinky finger tip to the base of the wrist, where your palm and forearm meet. Then, press and hold this area with two fingers as you take five slow and deep breaths. Repeat on your other wrist when you’re done with your breathing.

Ultimately, energy meridians are just one channel to tackle sleep issues, and everyone’s body is different. But if you’re having restless nights or looking for an easier way to unwind before bed, acupressure might help you pinpoint the problem.

Curious about acupuncture-adjacent ear seeds and their benefits? What the Wellness has the scoop:

Originally published February 6, 2018. Updated on March 18, 2021 with additional reporting by Aly Semigran.

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