Chinese medicine believes in the body’s power to heal itself. As clinicians, we remove the imbalances that are keeping you from being healthy.
Acupuncture research is beginning to show how acupuncture stimulates the body’s own power to heal itself. The acupuncture needle does not inject any medicine, nor is it coated. It is simply reminding the body to be healthy again.
The research is still young and we don’t know everything. It is probably a complex series of events which occur in many systems across the body. But we do know that it works to regulate the nervous, endocrine, and the immune system. We also think that it works on a cellular level to influence intercellular communication and regeneration.
The brain and nervous system
Using a type of brain scanner called an fMRI, scientists have shown that acupuncture regulates pain centers in the brain.1 When there is chronic pain, the brain can get stuck in an unhealthy pattern of pain and illness. For example in back pain, your back can be healed, but the brain remembers the pain and still feels it. The acupuncture helps to reset this pattern as a way of reteaching the body to be healthy.
Although not fully understood, acupuncture also has been shown to affect the release of many neurotransmitters such as opoids, endorphins, and endocannaboids that regulate pain, emotion, and possibly help with addiction.
It has also been suggested that acupuncture can help regulate hormones. This is because we know it works great for conditions like PCOS, hot flashes, diabetes and infertility. In one study, electroacupuncture was shown to increase estradiol and other hormones in rats who had their ovaries removed.2 This suggests that electroacupuncture stimulates the hypothalamus to release the hormones that help to treat infertility.
Healing also occurs at the place where the needle is inserted, on a cellular level. The surrounding connective tissue cells actually grabs hold of the needle and expands.3 Some scientists believe this begins the replication and repair of the cells around the needle.
This needles grasp by the cells also represents the beginning of the communication within the acupuncture channels and may signal that the channels are alternative communication system through the connective tissue.
The immune system is tricky. Without it, we could not live. But often it can overreact and attack ourselves, causing autoimmune conditions like asthma, allergies, and eczema. Acupuncture may help to down regulate the overactive immune system as well as give a boost to those with poor immune systems.
In one study, electroacupuncture was shown to lower the number of inflammatory cells in asthmatic rats compared to placebo acupuncture. It also lowered the number of cytokines, which are proteins that signal the inflammatory reaction.4 In another rat study, electroacupuncture to the point ST 36 showed to decrease inflammation through release of opioids.5
This shows that acupuncture has both a analgesic effect and an anti-inflammatory effect. This is good news, because so many disorders with pain also have significant inflammation.
A Glimpse into the Research
This is a glimpse of what modern research is explaining about acupuncture. There is still a lot more to learn, but what we know is really exciting.
¹ Napadow, V. Kettner N., Liu J. Et. al. Hypothalamus and Amygdala Response to Acupuncture Stimuli in Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Pain. 2007; (130): 254-266.
2. Zhao H, Tian Z, Feng Y, Chen B. Circulating estradiol and hypothalamic corticotrophin releasing hormone enhances along with time after ovariectomy in rats: Effects of electroacupuncture. Neuropeptides. 2005; (39): 433–438.
3. Langevin HM, Churchill DL, Wu J. Et. al. Evidence of Connective Tissue Involvement in Acupuncture. FASEB Journal. April 10, 2002. Published Online.
4. Carneiro ER, Et. Al. Effect of Electroacupuncture on Bronchial Asthma Induced by Ovalbumin in Rats. JACM. Volume 11, Number 1, 2005, pp. 127–134.
5. Kim HW, Et. Al.The Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Low- and High-Frequency Electroacupuncture Are Mediated by Peripheral Opioids in a Mouse Air Pouch Inflammation Model. JACM. Volume 12, Number 1, 2006, pp. 39–44.