Suffering from chronic anxiety can sometimes be the main reason someone is trying acupuncture but more often it is just an accepted state of being. I have yet to meet a patient who doesn’t at some point in our initial intake tell me that they experience anxiety. Patients who are seeking treatment for pain have anxiety about their pain levels, whether or not it will ever get better or if they will be able to function and do the things they need to do with their kids or at work.
Patients using acupuncture to treat infertility have levels of anxiety that often become oppressive, limiting their social interactions. Patients with autoimmune disorders and digestive complaints usually have a component of anxiety either as a causative factor or as a result of their illness and symptoms.
One of the things we love as practitioners of Chinese Medicine is that we always take into account the whole person: the frustration and anger or stress and anxiety someone experiences is a very important part of their overall health concerns. For those of you who have had acupuncture regularly, you can appreciate how relaxed and centered you feel after treatment. Recently, new research is helping us understand that this relaxation effect is actually a very real and measurable mechanism for how acupuncture works.
A study published in the October 2015 journal Endocrinology used an animal model to experiment on the mechanisms of acupuncture. They found that acupuncture affected chronic stress via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). This is the same pathway targeted by some anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants. This is also the same pathway that is responsible for our reproductive hormones and may offer a glimpse as to why acupuncture is so effective for balancing hormones and treating some types of infertility.
In this study researchers measured levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and saw that the animals that received acupuncture had levels of cortisol comparable to the non-stressed animals. To confirm the acupuncture affected the pathway they suspected, the researchers gave the animals a drug to block the HPA pathway and found the effect went away. The next step is to repeat the experiment in humans. However, based on the relaxation people feel after an acupuncture treatment, there is confidence that this is a promising explanation as to why acupuncture is so helpful for reducing stress and anxiety.
If you suffer from anxiety, please let us know next time you’re in. Our intention is for the acupuncture sessions to treat the whole you, especially if anxiety is a piece of the puzzle.