Needle This: Study Hints at How Acupuncture Works to Relieve Stress

Needles may not seem like the best tool for treating stress, but acupuncture could be tapping into basic biological systems that keep stress under control. Reporting in the Journal of Endocrinology, researchers led by Ladan Eshkevari, assistant program director of the nurse anesthesia program at Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, mimicked chronic stress in a rat model and documented how stimulating certain body points with acupuncture can alter stress hormones. The body’s stress response is triggered by two main pathways, one of which involves the HPA axis, or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, in which these areas of the brain are activated to release peptides and proteins such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). They, in turn, launch the production of other hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine that rev up the anxiety meter. Once activated, the system causes the heart to beat faster and the senses to go on alert. It also diverts the body’s energy away from background operations such as digestion to prime and fuel the muscles into a state of readiness. MORE: The Two Faces of Anxiety All of this is normal and necessary for protecting mammals, including us, from potential threats. But when stress becomes chronic, beating us down hour after hour and day after day, it’s no longer helpful and can become harmful. “People under chronic stress don’t handle acute stress very well,” says Eshkevari. “In chronic stress, the cortisol levels are elevated and never come back down to baseline, so people end up with insomnia or depressed or anxious because of the constant ramping up of this system.” When Eshkevari, who is a nurse anesthetist, noticed that many of her patients who used acupuncture to treat pain reported sleeping better and feeling better able to cope with their pain, even if the needling did not relieve the pain itself, she wondered whether acupuncture might help to reduce stress. MORE: Work Stress Linked to More Heart Attacks There weren’t many studies documenting how acupuncture could affect physiologic stress pathways, however, so she designed one using rats … Continue reading Needle This: Study Hints at How Acupuncture Works to Relieve Stress