Article | Acupuncture and Stress


In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neuro-chemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body's homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being.

Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically benefit anxiety disorders and symptoms of anxiety by:

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry (Hui 2010; Hui 2009);
  • Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing AchE reactivity in the hippocampus (Kim 2011);
  • Reducing serum levels of corticosterone and the number of tyrosine hydroxylaseimmunoreactive cells (Park 2010);
  • Regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states (Lee 2009; Cheng 2009; Zhou 2008);
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervoussystem (Arranz 2007). 

  • Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response; Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions (Arranz 2007);
  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
  • Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry (Kim 2009).

At one time or another, all of us experience stress. When we are healthy and the stress is short-lived, we are usually able to recover without too much wear and tear to our overall health.  However, when the stress is extreme, or if it lasts a long time, our emotional health and ultimately, our physical health begin to suffer.

Up to half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress every year, which often results in illness.(Health and Safety Executive 2011) Other factors that affect stress levels include alcohol, smoking, exams, pregnancy, divorce, moving, death in family, lifestyle, drugs, poor nutrition and unemployment.

The signs of stress can vary from one individual to the next (NHS Choices 2011).  But the stress mechanism is ultimately a reaction to a stimulus. Where we feel we have responsible or pressure to perform, (whether real or perceived) and have limitations on the control of that demand to produce a result.
This is threat. So our body reacts. Our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, and our digestion temporarily shuts down, directing blood to our extremities, so that if need be, we can either address what is threatening us, or turn and remove ourselves if the threat is too large. Nowadays we do not encounter these extreme situations, so the stress is less acute and more long term.
Over time, the constant state of stress takes its toll.  Cortisol, the body’s stress hormone elevates, blood pressure increases, and our immune function is suppressed.  Over time, these symptoms become worse and can develop into anxiety, depression, fatigue, digestive problems, and tension headaches.
This may manifest physically as an illness, tiredness or lethargy, or as symptoms such as sore, tight muscles, dull skin, lank hair, or erratic sleep patterns. Mental stress can result in depression, mood swings, anger, frustration, confusion, paranoid behaviour, jealousy or withdrawal.

Chinese medical conditions similar to stress related illness

According to Chinese medical theory, energy flows through our body through a network, almost like a road system.  Stress, anger, or any intense emotion acts like a traffic jam, blocking the free flow of energy in the body.

Acupuncture works to alleviate stress by releasing natural pain-killing chemicals in the brain, called endorphins.  In addition, acupuncture improves circulation of blood throughout the body, which oxygenates the tissues and cycles out cortisol and other waste chemicals.  The calming nature of acupuncture also decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles.



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