Acupuncture could be a great, side-effect-free alternative to drugs

Acupuncture is often dismissed by the medical profession despite the growing number of people who extol its benefits for relieving a variety of conditions. Now a new study shows that the ancient Chinese practice mimics the same changes in the body that occur from taking stress-relief drugs.

Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, a nurse anesthetist, licensed acupuncturist and associate professor in the department of nursing and the department of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center, noticed that the acupuncture patients coming to her for pain were reporting improvement of symptoms unrelated to their pain, like chronic stress, depression, sleep and appetite.

“There was nothing in the literature about acupuncture for PTSD and chronic stress,” she says, so she decided to study it. To find out if acupuncture was affecting chronic stress, Eshkevari and a team of researchers looked at what happened in a key pathway in dealing with stress for both humans and rats.

They found that needles placed at just the right parts of the body interrupt the transmission of stress hormones—the most robust evidence yet to indicate that acupuncture’s positive effects go beyond just placebo.

“The benefits of acupuncture are well known by those who use it, but such proof is anecdotal. This research, the culmination of a number of studies, demonstrates how acupuncture might work in the human body to reduce stress and pain, and, potentially, depression,”

In the study, published recently in the journal Endocrinology, the researchers tested the effects of electroacupuncture, in which the needles carry a mild electric current, on stressed-out rats. They were targeting the stomach meridian point 36, which is located on the shin in humans, or behind the hind paw in rats. It’s considered in acupuncture to be one of the most powerful points on the body because it influences a pathway for chronic stress pathway called the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis.

When the researchers inserted needles at this point on rats that were stressed from cold, their stress hormone levels were much lower compared to those who did not receive the acupuncture treatment. Many drugs used to treat anxiety and depression tap into the same systems of hormones, bolstering the legitimacy of the findings.

Interestingly, this works even during the stressful event (in a previous study, Eshkevari successfully tested the application of acupuncture before stress was applied), and the effects of the acupuncture continue for up to four days after treatment is stopped.

If acupuncture works the same way in humans as it does in rats, it would be a promising alternative to medication; acupuncture may have fewer side effects and wouldn’t require so much tinkering with dosage.

“This work provides a framework for future clinical studies on the benefit of acupuncture, both before or during chronic stressful events,”

Obviously, more research into human responses to acupuncture is necessary before we can say for sure how the practice affects the body exactly, but this does indicate that the traditional Chinese medicine technique is more than just the placebo treatment some doctors claim it is.

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