Want to smooth out those frayed edges, lower your stress level that natural way or just plain feel good? Good news, acupuncture fans: It really does help relieve stress. And now, a new study is giving a closer look at why. The new study explores the biological mechanisms involved in acupuncture’s stress-relieving abilities, something science has yet to fully understand. The researchers discovered that stress hormones were lower in rats that had received electronic acupuncture. Results were published in the Journal of Endocrinology.
“Many practitioners of acupuncture have observed that this ancient practice can reduce stress in their patients, but there is a lack of biological proof of how or why this happens. We’re starting to understand what’s going on at the molecular level that helps explain acupuncture’s benefit,” study researcher Dr. Ladan Eshkevari, an associate professor of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, said in a statement.
For the study, Eshkevari and colleagues designed a series of tests with electronic acupuncture to ensure that each rat received the exact same dose of pressure. Eshkevari targeted the spot below the knee, or the “Zusanli” point, with the needle. This area is the same in rats and humans and it is reported that stimulating it can alleviate stress and other conditions.
For the 10-day experiment, researchers split the rats into four groups. One group was a control group with no added stress and no acupuncture; one group was made to be stressed out for an hour each day but didn’t receive acupuncture; one group was made to feel stressed for an hour each day but received “sham” acupuncture by their tails; and one group was made to feel stressed and received the genuine acupuncture treatment at the Zusanli area.
The body secretes an assortment of hormones into the bloodstream as a reaction to stress, which the researchers were then able to measure in the rats. They assessed blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland (HPA axis). They also measured a peptide involved in creatures’ “fight or flight” responses, called NPY. Researchers discovered that the “...electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway,” Eshkevari said in the statement.
Few procedures work 100 percent of the time. That includes acupuncture, but it does have benefits that conventional treatments like psychotherapy and medication do not, Eshkevari says. She explains that side effects, such as bruising and dizziness, are minimal and uncommon, whereas some prescription drugs can have serious side effects and can lead to dependency.
Unlike with counseling, people treated with acupuncture often see results after one session, and the results improve with continued treatment. Acupuncture is particularly helpful for people who want to limit or stop drug use — prescription or otherwise. Because it regulates the body’s chemical balance naturally, acupuncture can even prevent people from needing medication at all.
When it comes to trying acupuncture, you have nothing to lose. With a licensed acupuncturist, the risks are almost nonexistent and are far outweighed by the potential benefits. The majority of Eshkevari’s patients have told her they sleep better and have a stronger sense of overall well-being after just a few sessions.