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Can stress effects on health be reduced by acupuncture?

Acupuncture reduces protein linked to stress in a first of its kind animal study, says recent research. Although the study was done in rats, scientists suggest the findings could help explain why many users of the therapy report health benefits. It's the protein released by your body when you're under stress that results in those bad health effects. But acupuncture significantly reduces levels of a protein in rats linked to chronic stress, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) have found. They say their animal study may help explain the sense of well-being that many people receive from this ancient Chinese therapy. If it happens in rats, can it also happen in humans? After all rodents and humans share 97.5% of their DNA, according to the New Scientist article, "Just 2.5% of DNA turns mice into men - 30 May 2002."

Can stress effects on health be reduced by acupuncture?
Can stress effects on health be reduced by acupuncture?Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The study, "Acupuncture at ST36 prevents chronic stress-induced increases in neuropeptide Y in rat," appears online January 2012 in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine. And the researchers say that if their findings are replicated in human studies, acupuncture would offer a proven therapy for stress, which is often difficult to treat. "It has long been thought that acupuncture can reduce stress, but this is the first study to show molecular proof of this benefit," says the study's lead author, Ladan Eshkevari, Ph.D., according to the December 19, 2011 news release, "Acupuncture reduces protein linked to stress in first of its kind animal study." Eshkevari is an assistant professor at Georgetown's School of Nursing and Health Studies, a part of GUMC.

Eshkevari, who is also a nurse anesthetist as well as a certified acupuncturist, says she conducted the study because many of the patients she treats with acupuncture in the pain clinic reported a "better overall sense of wellbeing — and they often remarked that they felt less stress." There are numerous studies online showing how acupuncture may benefit a variety of health issues such as "Acupuncture for Pain | NCCAM" or "Acupuncture Provides True Pain Relief in Study - NYTimes."

While traditional Chinese acupuncture has been thought to relieve stress —in fact, the World Health Organization states that acupuncture is useful as adjunct therapy in more than 50 disorders, including chronic stress — Eshkevari says that no one has biological proof that it does so

So she designed a study to test the effect of acupuncture on blood levels of neuropeptide Y (NPY), a peptide that is secreted by the sympathetic nervous system in humans. This system is involved in the "flight or fight" response to acute stress, resulting in constriction of blood flow to all parts of the body except to the heart, lungs, and brain (the organs most needed to react to danger). Chronic stress, however, can cause elevated blood pressure and cardiac disease.

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

Eshkevari allowed the rats to become familiar with her, and encouraged them to rest by crawling into a small sock that exposed their legs. She very gently conditioned them to become comfortable with the kind of stimulation used in electroacupuncture — an acupuncture needle that delivers a painless small electrical charge.

This form of acupuncture is a little more intense than manual acupuncture and is often used for pain management, she says, according to the news release, adding "I used electroacupuncture because I could make sure that every rat was getting the same treatment dose."

She then selected a single acupuncture spot to test: Zuslanli (ST 36 on the stomach meridian), which is said to help relieve a variety of conditions including stress. As with the rats, that acupuncture point for humans is on the leg below the knee.

The study utilized four groups of rats for a 14-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 Zuslanli spot on the leg.

She found NPY levels in the experimental group came down almost to the level of the control group, while the rats that were stressed and not treated with Zuslanli acupuncture had high levels of the protein

In a second experiment, Eshkevari stopped acupuncture in the experimental group but continued to stress the rats for an additional four days, and found NPY levels remained low. "We were surprised to find what looks to be a protective effect against stress," she says, according to the news release.

Eshkevari is continuing to study the effect of acupuncture with her rat models by testing another critical stress pathway. Preliminary results look promising, she says.

Funding for the study came from the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists doctoral fellowship award to Eshkevari, and by a grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Co-authors include Georgetown researchers Susan Mulroney, Ph.D., Rupert Egan, Dylan Phillips, Jason Tilan, Elissa Carney, Nabil Azzam, Ph.D., and Hakima Amri, Ph.D. The authors disclose no conflicts of interest.

Noteworthy are other studies also showing acupuncture may also help pets and other animals. See, "Acupuncture for Pets - petMD" and "Acupuncture helping heal dogs, cats in Stuart - WPBF.com."

Bothered by hot flashes?

Acupuncture might be the answer, says new research. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials indicates that acupuncture can affect the severity and frequency of hot flashes for women in natural menopause. The research appears online since July 7, 2014 in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS). The meta-analysis (article), "Effects of acupuncture on menopause-related symptoms and quality of life in women on natural menopause: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials," also will be published in the February 2015 print edition of Menopause.

This new meta-analysis shows benefits of ancient Chinese method on today's menopausal hot flashes. In the 2,500+ years that have passed since acupuncture was first used by the ancient Chinese, it has been used to treat a number of physical, mental and emotional conditions including nausea and vomiting, stroke rehabilitation, headaches, menstrual cramps, asthma, carpal tunnel, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, to name just a few. A lot of women would welcome a non-drug and no side effects approach to curtailing those hot flashes. Acupuncture works with the body's energy channels also known as meridians.

An extensive search of previous studies evaluating the effectiveness of acupuncture uncovered 104 relevant students, of which 12 studies with 869 participants met the specified inclusion criteria to be included in this current study. While the studies provided inconsistent findings on the effects of acupuncture on other menopause-related symptoms such as sleep problems, mood disturbances and sexual problems, they did conclude that acupuncture positively impacted both the frequency and severity of hot flashes.

Women experiencing natural menopause and aged between 40 and 60 years were included in the analysis, which evaluated the effects of various forms of acupuncture, including traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture (TCMA), acupressure, electroacupuncture, laser acupuncture and ear acupuncture. Interestingly, neither the effect on hot flash frequency or severity appeared to be linked to the number of treatment doses, number of sessions or duration of treatment. However, the findings showed that sham acupuncture could induce a treatment effect comparable with that of true acupuncture for the reduction of hot flash frequency. The effects on hot flashes were shown to be maintained for as long as three months.

Although the study stopped short of explaining the exact mechanism underlying the effects of acupuncture on hot flashes, a theory was proposed to suggest that acupuncture caused a reduction in the concentration of β-endorphin in the hypothalamus, resulting from low concentrations of estrogen. These lower levels could trigger the release of CGRP, which affects thermoregulation.

There's much to be learned about the cause and treatment of hot flashes due to menopause and how acupuncture may be of help

"More than anything, this review indicates that there is still much to be learned relative to the causes and treatments of menopausal hot flashes," says NAMS executive director Margery Gass, MD, according to the July 14, 2014 news release, "Bothered by hot flashes? Acupuncture might be the answer." The review suggests that acupuncture may be an effective alternative for reducing hot flashes, especially for those women seeking non- pharmacologic therapies."

A recent review indicated that approximately half of women experiencing menopause-associated symptoms use complementary and alternative medicine therapy, instead of pharmacologic therapies, for managing their menopausal symptoms. Grants from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan supported the meta-analysis.

Noteworthy also are various studies that discuss how acupuncture can be just as effective without needles. See, "Acupuncture is Just as Effective Without Needles" and "Acupuncture Just As Effective Without Needle Puncture, Study."

Founded in 1989, The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) is North America's leading nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the health and quality of life of all women during midlife and beyond through an understanding of menopause and healthy aging. Its multidisciplinary membership of 2,000 leaders in the field—including clinical and basic science experts from medicine, nursing, sociology, psychology, nutrition, anthropology, epidemiology, pharmacy, and education—makes NAMS uniquely qualified to serve as the definitive resource for health professionals and the public for accurate, unbiased information about menopause and healthy aging. To learn more about NAMS, please visit the Menopause.org website.