Naptime for grownups

I am obsessed with sleep these days. My family is getting annoyed with me, that’s how obsessed I am. I recently moved our collective bedtimes up by a half an hour and basically refuse to go anywhere that requires my presence after 8:30 PM. I’ve started resisting the usual TV-time naps that used to drag me down hard in the late evening, not wanting to release the valve on the sleep pressure that needs to build up during the day in order to increase chances of a solid eight hours of sleep at night. I have turned my clock away from my pillow so as to ward off night-time anxiety about how much time I have left until the sun rises and the dogs start clamoring for their breakfast. I turn the thermostat down to 65 degrees and wash my face before bed in order to start cooling down my core temperature. All of these things and more, recently, all because of an obsession with sleep that started with this Joe Rogan podcast, whose guest was Matthew Walker (sleep scientist). After listening to that, I had to read his book Why We Sleep, since I couldn’t get enough from a two-hour podcast or this Guardian article that went a little viral this past spring.

Who doesn’t love sleep, right? But basically what Matthew Walker is saying is that sleep is the #1 most important factor in health. More important than what you eat and how you exercise. And that human beings need between 7-9 hours a night — anything less can have irreversible health consequences (I know, I know… there’s not a lot of good news in that sentence, unfortunately). Since I know I regularly get less than seven hours of sleep (and I don’t even want to think about the all-nighters I’ve pulled in the past or the early years when my daughter was still night-nursing), I can classify myself as among the millions of chronically sleep-deprived people on the face of the earth. And all I or anyone can do is try, from now on, to increase the chances of getting a full night’s sleep.

The quote below is a fake ad, but the content is all real:

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative…. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You'll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”

He’s serious — sleep is the best medicine.

Sadly, even for those who are lucky enough have the comfort of a safe and warm bed in a dark and quiet room every night, difficulties with sleep are an all-too common problem. Just because people have the 7-9 hours to spend trying to sleep every night doesn’t guarantee that sleep will happen. Matthew Walker talks about cognitive behavioral sleep therapists for insomniacs, but he doesn’t mention acupuncture.

So here’s the good news: acupuncture can improve both the quantity and the quality of sleep, in my experience. I’ve seen it work that way. And there has been some research about it, too, for those who like to see actual studies:

Acupuncture increases nocturnal melatonin secretion and reduces insomnia and anxiety: a preliminary report.

Acupuncture and insomnia

Acupuncture also helps with pain, a common disruptor of a good night’s sleep.

I can’t tell you how many times patients have come back to their second acupuncture treatment saying things like “Well, that first treatment didn’t really affect my chief complaint, but I had the best night’s sleep of my life that night!” (A lot of times.) And the sleep usually helps their other symptoms get better too…

WHAT ABOUT NAPS? AND ACU-NAPS?

According to Matthew Walker’s book, our genetic code is actually trying to get us to nap in the afternoon. While he dispels the myth that anyone can actually “catch up” on lost sleep, the message is mostly clear that for a chronically sleep-deprived person, a nap is a good thing. I know I’d rather get on an airplane with a pilot who just had a power nap than one who pulled an all-nighter, that’s for sure! (For true insomniacs, naps after 3 PM are not recommended.)

Are you actually sleeping during your acupuncture treatment, though? Obviously, the person in the corner snoring loud enough to be heard at the co-op is conked-out and clearly really needs that nap. But my experience is that what feels like a nap during acupuncture is usually different than real sleep. I’m not a neuroscientist (or any kind of scientist, for that matter), but there is some evidence that what’s happening during an acupuncture treatment is similar to what happens when people meditate or take psychedelics — there is decreased connectivity in the default mode network in the brain. During times of inactive wakefulness, the default mode network (DMN) is usually operating in high gear, doing its usual thing. I like to think of the DMN as the ego — the habitual, pattern- and personality-driven part of our selves. Part of what people gravitate towards when they meditate or use psychedelics is an experience of de-identifying with their ego — and apparently, this may be happening during an acupuncture treatment as well. Bonus! It’s like you go somewhere for a half an hour, and then you come back, wondering where you’ve been. Kind of like when you go to sleep, except in this case you know you weren’t really sleeping. Your brain was still awake, just doing things that it doesn’t normally do. Different parts of your brain were connecting. When you think about acupuncture this way, it makes a lot of sense that the more your brain gets these kinds of breaks from its usual M.O., the better it (and by extension, your body) operates in general. In other words, and within reason, there no such thing as too much acupuncture.

Is there such a thing as too much sleep? According to Matthew Walker, excessive amounts of sleep can be an indication that something else is going on. It could be a red flag — the body is trying to heal itself using sleep. And he points out that sleep, when taken to an extreme, could increase mortality risk the same way that an extreme amount of basically anything would be too much of a good thing. “After all, wakefulness in the correct amount is evolutionary adaptive, as is sleep…”

Long story short, if you’re interested in motivation to try to get more sleep, this book is for you — and I was able to check it out quickly from my local public library. I dare you to read it and not become as sleep-obsessed as I am! But whether you read it or not, please remember: whether you’re short on sleep, just right on sleep, or have something serious going on that warrants a lot of extra sleep, acupuncture will probably help.