Acupuncture Modulates the Stress Response

Stress, which includes or can be subdivided into depression and anxiety, affects millions of people daily.  For many college students in particular it is nearly a way of being.  I have experienced this as a college student when I was in grad school, and saw it with my students back when I was teaching at an acupuncture college in Florida. Some students will come to school looking like they had just stuck their finger into the electric socket with their hair sticking up, and clothes wrinkled and dirty like they have wrestled a monkey. This usually happened around midterms and final exams, and these students were usually students that crammed for an exam the night before and were stressed out of their minds if they will do good on their exam or not. Stress can affect many things in the life, from work performance, sleep, sexual performance, can increase pain, or even affect fertility.

How does acupuncture really help with stress and anxiety?

Acupuncture, a major part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has been shown to ease stress, or depression and anxiety with wonderful results. TCM explains that Qi or “energy force” regulates body’s overall health, and if there is an imbalance in the flow of the Qi, which circulate in the pathways called meridians, the health issues will ensue. When acupuncturist inserts tiny acupuncture needles, in certain acupuncture points, it results in balancing body and restoring the balance of Qi and thus health. (1) Modern acupuncturists explain this as an acupuncture stimulating nervous system or nerves and brain; creating a release of “happy hormones” such as serotonin and balancing the emotional state and fostering well-being. (1, 2)

Acupuncture in simple terms balances sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system is responsible for fight or flight  response, as getting attacked by a bear we can fight the bear or scram, where the parasympathetic system is responsible for the rest and digest functions. The sympathetic nervous system is usually overactive in people who are under a lot of stress and with acupuncture we can inhibit sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system . (3)

In a study done by researchers from the Georgetown University Medical Center on rats, researchers measured blood hormone levels secreted by HPA axis or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal glands, and blood levels of neuropeptide Y (NPY) – which is a peptide secreted by the sympathetic nervous system. Treatment included needling the acupuncture point ST 36 with electrical acupuncture. Researchers concluded that: “Electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway.” (4)

Several other acupuncture points have shown similar clinical effects with regards to controlling stress responses and their negative effect on the body.  A few of these are:  PC 6, HT 7, GV 24, GB 13, LV 3, Yin Tang, and CV 17 among others.

Actual treatment would be based on differentiation of syndrome or your diagnosis in TCM terms (see “treating the cause and not the symptoms” for more on that).  Some of the possible patterns and related treatment points can be seen on our acupuncture for depression and our acupuncture for anxiety pages as examples.  The most appropriate treatment overall is the one that is specifically for you as an individual so proper diagnosis in Chinese Medicine terms is critical.  Ultimately, however, acupuncture has been shown in multiple clinical studies and in generations of clinical usage to aid in limiting these strong stress responses that many of us live with.


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