By now, most of us realize that acupuncture relieves stress. But do you know how the ancient practice does this? A new study delves into the biological mechanisms behind acupuncture's stress-alleviating abilities.
The research published in the Journal of Endocrinology examined the hormones secreted in the blood stream of rats. The scientists discovered that stress hormones were lower in rats who received electronic acupuncture.
"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.
In the study, Eshkevari and colleagues administered a series of electronic acupuncture tests on the animals. The rats were divided into four groups; the first was a control group with no added stress and no acupuncture, the second group was designed to be stressed for an hour each day but didn't receive acupuncture; the third was designed to feel stressed for an hour each day but received sham acupuncture by their tails; the last group was put into a stressful environment and received genuine acupuncture treatment.
The spot below the knee, called the "zusanli" point, was targeted with a needle. Notably, this area is the same in rats and humans, and it is believed that stimulating the point can reduce anxiety.
It is known that the body secretes an assortment of hormones into the bloodstream as a reaction to stress, which the researchers measured in the rats. They also monitored the blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. Eshkevari evaluated a peptide involved in creatures' fight-or-fight responses, called NPY, which is released by the sympathetic nervous system in rodents and humans. When a creature confronts one of these situations, blood flow consists to all parts of the body except the heart, lungs and brains – the organs most need to react to danger. Chronic stress, however, can lead to elevated blood pressure and cardiac disease.
"We found that electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway," Eshkevari said in a press release.
Unlike the stress and acupuncture group, the rats that received the sham electronic acupuncture had elevated levels of hormones similar to that of the stress-only animals.
A growing body of evidence highlights acupuncture's protective effect against stress response. In day-to-day life, athletes, CEOs, teachers and many others have been known to use the healing treatment for its calming benefits.
Though needles and calming anxiety don't usually go hand in hand, acupuncture has shown time and again to reduce stress, and science is starting to explain why.