This is the most common question I hear from clients, usually after they have had a few treatments and seem amazed at how good they feel with acupuncture! I usually explain how it works from a traditional point of view and a more scientific, biological point of view.
From a Traditional Chinese medical theory perspective, acupuncture works by opening up blocked energy channels called meridians. There are 12 main channels, 8 extraordinary channels and dozens of other channels and collaterals. The channels and collaterals connect the surface of your body to the deepest structures like the bones.
There is a saying in Chinese medicine that says “If the Qi is stagnant, pain and illness will follow”. On every level our health depends on a smooth and abundant flow of Qi and Blood through our channels and collaterals. Blood carries the oxygen and nutrients our bodies and minds and spirits need to feel happy and fully alive!
The free flow of Qi and Blood can be blocked by stress, poor diet, lack of exercise or sleep, unexpressed or unfelt feelings, drugs, physical or emotional trauma, amongst other things. But for many this traditional theory of acupuncture doesn’t go far enough or in enough detail to really satisfy their curiousity, so I also talk about the latest research findings about acupuncture, which often is a little easier to grasp than the concept of Qi and channels and collaterals. We don’t yet know all of the ways acupuncture works, but we know a lot more than in years past.
Acupuncture, like all forms of natural medicine, works by activating our body’s own innate, self-healing mechanisms. This is called homeostasis, which means the body’s ability to regulate its environment and maintain balance. All diseases involve a disruption in our homeostasis, as well as involving a certain degree of pain and inflammation. The latest research suggests that most illnesses are caused by inflammation. Although we do not know all of the ways acupuncture works, there is a lot more information now than even just a few years ago.
Acupuncture increases blood flow and stimulates healing
When a needle is inserted into soft tissue it causes a release of histamine into the bloodstream, as immune cells, called mast cells, burst. Histamine dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow locally. This arterial blood carries oxygen, nutrients, pain-killing opiates, immune cells, hormones, and anti-inflammatory substances to each and every cell in our bodies. The increased blood flow provides a higher level of nutrient and waste exchange, thereby speeding up the healing process! Our bodies are constantly rebuilding and repairing; acupuncture enhances this process.
Acupuncture relieves pain and stress by stimulating the release of homemade opiates
Our bodies make pain relieving opiates that are up to 200 times more powerful than morphine! The achy sensation that often accompanies needle insertion is a message from the acupuncture point to your brain that tells the brain to release endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins, which are all opiates that we naturally make. These opiates circulate throughout the body, bind at the opiate receptor sites in the brain and spinal cord, turning off the pain signals.
Not only does acupuncture relieve pain through this network, but it also helps pharmaceutical opiates and other pain relievers work more effectively if the person has to keep taking those drugs!
Acupuncture also works to relieve pain raising our pain threshold levels, so that a stimulus that was painful before acupuncture is less painful after treatment. This finding is supported with MRI studies of the brain’s reaction to acupuncture.
Acupuncture profoundly reduces stress through it’s effect on the nervous system
We are all subject to enormous amounts of chronic stress on a daily basis, more so than ever before in our history. The effects of this stress, including the stress of chronic pain, anxiety, and depression, on the nervous system is a suppression of the natural calming and homeostatic mechanisms inherent in our brain, nervous system, endocrine and immune systems.
This fight or flight sympathetic response is heightened and tends to dominate our experience. Unabated sympathetic arousal, which used to be a survival mechanism reserved for fleeing the saber toothed tiger, causes increased blood pressure and heart rate, decreased blood flow to digestive and reproductive organs, decreased glucose tolerance and decreased arterial elasticity over time, to name just a few.
Cortisol and Norepinephrine are primary stress hormones. When we spend so much time in sympathetic arousal, these stress hormones become excessive, and they cause poor sleep, low mood and motivation, poor memory, and increased inflammation and pain throughout the body. They even cause portions of the brain to atrophy (hippocampus), and cause other parts to enlarge (amygdala).
Acupuncture helps to regulate the stress response. It calms the hyper-activity of the sympathetic fight or flight response by suppressing cortisol and norepinephrine, and increases the activity of the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, or rest and digest, by releasing oxytocin and other stress reducing substances. Impaired parasympathetic nervous system function is implicated in a wide range of autoimmune illnesses including Rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s and other inflaammatory bowel diseases, osteoathritis, and lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and others.
Acupuncture can lift depression and ease anxiety
For decades it has been that acupuncture out-performs or does just as well as anti-depressant medications like Prozac and Paxil, without the side effects of those drugs. It is assumed acupuncture keeps serotonin and other hormones and neurotransmitters circulating for longer periods of time in the brain.
In addition, more and more research indicates that acupuncture fundamentally recalibrates the primary mood set-points in the brain that control the distributed network functions in the brain, endocrine and immune systems that relate to feelings of well being and elevated moods.
I mentioned earlier the effects that chronic stress has on inhibiting the function of the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. The hippocampus atrophies and is less capable of modulating your emotional response to stress. When we are chronicly stressed, the amygdala enlarges, which deters it’s ability to properly evaluate risk and threat levels to our survival and well being. It’s akin to a car engine, part of which is constantly racing, and another part of the engine is constantly applying the brakes or trying to slow down!
Acupuncture reduces inflammation and boosts immunity
Studies show that acupuncture can help reduce inflammatory chemicals in the bloodstream such as excess cortisol and insulin, as well as Interleukin-10. There are many autoimmune conditions on the increase, largely due to excess inflammation and dysregulation of the immune system, and due to the over activity of the sympathetic fight or flight response and the simultaneous inhibition of the parasympathetic rest and digest response.
Acupuncture, as we have already stated, reverses those tendencies, letting the sympathetic response diminish, enhancing the parasympathetic response, reducing inflammation and stress, and restoring homeostatic balance, all with the insertion of fine needles into selected acupoints. Acupuncture can not only restore you to good health. It also can help you maintain good health and prevent illness.