Acupuncture and Stress Relief: How Acupuncture Reverses the Unhealthy Consequences of Stress

Infections used to be the number one cause of death. Now, in industrialized nations, they’ve given way to chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. As sanitation and nutrition have improved, other problems take their place, and stress is one of the biggest threats to health that we’re currently facing. Many authors like Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living) and Robert M. Sapolsky (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) have documented the links between high stress levels and all kinds of chronic diseases, as well as the positive effects of relaxation techniques such as meditation. There are lots of ways to reduce stress levels and prevent stress-related illnesses, and acupuncture is one of the most effective.

Why Use Acupuncture for Stress?

Stress-reduction is one of the many ways that acupuncture helps to turn things around for people who are struggling with health concerns. Over and over again I’ve heard the same response from my patients – that, while the stressful circumstances in their lives remain the same, they mysteriously feel less stressed in the days after an acupuncture treatment. They feel better able to cope and less distressed than they did before. Once they’ve experienced this a few times, they know to book in for an appointment during a particularly stressful week, before the stress results in sleepless nights, worsening chronic pain, or a flare-up of digestive symptoms.

So how does acupuncture have this effect? Acupuncture has many effects that contribute to reduced stress, such as relaxing muscle tension and switching the nervous system out of the “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic) and into the “rest and digest” mode (parasympathetic). Part of its benefit is probably simply that it forces us to rest for a while. We’re used to living at breakneck speed, not stopping to relax, or sometimes even to eat. Once the needles are in you have to slow down, at least for half an hour, and your body can get the healing rest it so desperately needs. However, studies have shown that acupuncture does much more than simply make us rest – it also has a real impact on our stress response by regulating our levels of stress hormones.

Acupuncture’s Effect on the Stress Response

One of the ways that acupuncture works to heal the body is by regulating hormone levels, helping to treat all kinds of conditions like chronic pain, thyroid conditions, and many gynecological problems. Hormones are also central to acupuncture’s effect on our feelings of stress. Researchers have found that certain acupuncture points act on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to prevent the dysfunctional levels of stress hormones that happen with chronic stress [1].

Reducing the levels of chronic stress hormones such as cortisol is helpful for anyone under stress, but it’s especially important for anyone suffering from an inflammatory condition or from low immunity. While cortisol is an essential hormone for survival, living with chronically high stress levels produces sustained high cortisol levels, which has a number of unhealthy effects on the body, explaining why chronic stress is linked to so many different diseases. The ability of acupuncture to reduce stress hormones such as cortisol helps to explain why acupuncture is so effective at treating many chronic diseases.

Auricular Acupuncture – An Effective Intervention for Stress, Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Auricular acupuncture, also known as ear acupuncture, uses tiny needles in the ears. One of the most common ways it is used is a 5-needle protocol known as NADA (National Association of Detox Acupuncture). While this protocol was originally developed to treat addictions, it has been found to be extremely effective to treat stress, PTSD, and emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

For example, a 2014 study investigated the ability of acupuncture to relieve stress in health care workers, and found that ear acupuncture reduced their stress and burnout levels, and significantly increased courage and patience in their jobs [2]. This result echoes what I see in clinic all the time – that ear acupuncture helps people cope better under difficult circumstances, which is exactly why it’s used by organisations like Acupuncturists Without Borders to treat the victims of natural disasters. Because so many people are under stress in our society, there are days when I use this protocol on almost everyone I see.

One of the bonuses of being an acupuncturist is being able to give yourself a quick dose of relaxation at home.

One of the bonuses of being an acupuncturist is being able to give yourself a quick dose of relaxation at home.

Make Acupuncture An Essential Part of Your Stress Reduction Plan

If you lead a high-stress life (and sadly it seems like that’s most of us these days), it’s important to be proactive in coming up with a plan to reduce your stress levels. Unchecked stress levels over time will leave you feeling worn out and irritable at best, and can potentially lead to illness down the road. There are many ways to reduce stress, such as yoga and other forms of exercise, meditation, or even just spending time with friends. The crucial thing is to make sure that you have stress-management practices built into your schedule, because otherwise they won’t happen.

I always recommend that my patients book in for acupuncture when they are under especially high stress, because I know it will help them get through the stressful situation. Making time for stress-reduction treatments gets harder when life is hectic, but it’s when you need it the most. Usually self-care is the last thing on our minds when we’re struggling to make it through a stressful week, but putting it first on the to-do list will make everything else easier.

 

References

  1. Eshkevari, L., et al., Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats. Endocrinology, 2015. 156(10): p. 3649-60.
  2. Reilly, P.M., et al., Auricular acupuncture to relieve health care workers’ stress and anxiety: impact on caring. Dimens Crit Care Nurs, 2014. 33(3): p. 151-9.

 

Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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