Acupuncture, an ancient form of Chinese medicine involving the application of needles along important points in the body, is associated with countless health benefits. While these benefits are deeply understood by the Chinese, who have practiced acupuncture for more than 2,500 years, the West is only now beginning to understand why and how the ancient technique works.
One of the many benefits of acupuncture is stress relief, but exactly why or how placing needles in the skin achieves this was previously unknown. A new study published in the Journal of Endocrinology looked at the mechanism by which acupuncture may help reduce stress in rats.
Researchers from the Georgetown University Medical Center found that electronic acupuncture blocks the release of stress hormones in the body, thus shielding it from the impacts of stress.
Reducing stress in rats
“Many practitioners of acupuncture have observed that this ancient practice can reduce stress in their patients, but there is a lack of biological proof of how or why this happens,” said the study’s lead author, Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. “We’re starting to understand what’s going on at the molecular level that helps explain acupuncture’s benefit.”
Electronic acupuncture, or electroacupuncture, is a form of acupuncture that sends small electric currents into the needles. This method is sometimes preferred over traditional acupuncture due to the fact that the needles don’t need to be placed as precisely, because the electrical current reaches a greater area.
Electroacupuncture carries many of the same benefits as traditional acupuncture, but is believed to be particularly effective for pain management.
“I used electroacupuncture because I could make sure that each animal was getting the same treatment dose,” said Eshkevari, a physiologist, nurse anesthetist and certified acupuncturist.
Eshkevari created a series of studies on rats to analyze the effect electroacupuncture has on levels of proteins and hormones released into the bloodstream as a result of stress.
Observation of stress hormones
Scientists used rats for the study because their response to stress resembles that of humans; they become stressed when exposed to cold temperatures for one hour per day. Researchers studied rats for a total of 14 days after separating them into four groups.
One group served as a control and received no electroacupuncture or stress triggers; a second group was stressed for one hour per day and received no electroacupuncture; a third group was stressed and received “sham” acupuncture (essentially a placebo used in scientific studies to test acupuncture’s efficacy); and the fourth group was stressed and received acupuncture to the “Zusanli” spot on the leg.
“Zusanli” is a spot that, when needles are inserted, is believed to reduce stress. This place is the same for rats and humans: on the leg just below the knee.
Next, scientists measured chemicals associated with stress in the rats.
Stress causes the body to release an assortment of hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones are released by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland, which together constitutes the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. They also looked at the activity of a peptide involved in “fight or flight” responses called neuropeptide Y (NPY).
From this analysis, scientists discovered that the “electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway.” The rats that received the “sham” electroacupuncture experienced elevated levels of hormones similar to the rats that were only stressed.
“Our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture’s protective effect against the stress response,” said Eshkevari, adding that more research is needed to learn whether or not acupuncture would be effective for reducing hormone levels in rats after they are exposed to the stress of cold temperatures, and if a similar observation could be made in humans.
“Eshkevari says this research complements her earlier reported work that focused only on NPY. In that study, Eshkevari and her team found that NPY levels were reduced in the experimental group almost to the level of the control group, while the rats that were stressed and not treated with Zusanli acupuncture had high levels of NPY (Experimental Biology and Medicine Dec. 2011),” reads a university press release accompanying the study.