New research explores how acupuncture works to relieve stress

New research explores how acupuncture works to relieve stress

Lorne Brown
New animal research explores how acupuncture works to relieve stress.

Stressed out patients know that acupuncture helps them to relax, feel calm and let go of pent up tension – a welcome relief from our go-go-go society.

Given that chronic stress is implicated in a number of serious health conditions including elevated blood pressure, IBS, insomnia, migraines and cardiac disease, acupuncture is a great non-invasive way to stay healthy.

For those in the acupuncture field, practitioners and researchers, however, the big question is WHY does it work? What are the biological reasons for its success in treating chronic stress?

Well researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), researchers recently explored exactly that question. They investigated the biological mechanisms involved in acupuncture's stress-relieving abilities by showing how acupuncture can significantly reduce the stress hormone response in an animal model of chronic stress.

The research released in the April 2013 issue of The Journal of Endocrinology showed that stress hormones were lower in rats that had received electronic acupuncture.

The study's lead author, Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, a part of GUMC was quoted in Science Daily and Eurekalert:

 We're starting to understand what's going on at the molecular level that helps explain acupuncture's benefit."

 Eshkevari, a physiologist, nurse anaesthetist and certified acupuncturist, designed a series of studies in rats to test the effect of electronic acupuncture on levels of proteins and hormones secreted by biologic pathways involved in stress response.

She used rats because these animals are often used to research the biological determinants of stress. They mount a stress response when exposed to winter-like temperatures for an hour a day.

"I used electroacupuncture because I could make sure that each animal was getting the same treatment dose," she explained in Eurekalert.

The spot used for the acupuncture needle is called "Zusanli," which is reported to help relieve a variety of conditions including stress. As with rats, that acupuncture point for humans is on the leg below the knee.

The study looked at four groups of rats for a 10-day experiment: a control group that was not stressed and received no acupuncture; a group that was stressed for an hour a day and did not receive acupuncture; a group that was stressed and received "sham" acupuncture near the tail; and the experimental group that were stressed and received acupuncture to the Zusanli spot on the leg.

The researchers then measured blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis as well as levels of NPY, a peptide secreted by the sympathetic nervous system in rodents and humans.

"We found that electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway," Eshkevari said in Eurekalert:

 Our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture's protective effect against the stress response."

Eshkevari says additional research is needed to examine if acupuncture would be effective in reducing hormone levels after the animals are exposed to the stress of cold temperatures, and whether a similar observation can be made in humans.

The study was funded by the American Association of Nurse Anaesthetists doctoral fellowship award to Eshkevari.

Co-authors include Georgetown researchers Susan Mulroney, PhD, and Eva Permaul. The authors disclose no conflicts of interest.