Acupuncture is usually dismissed in the alternative medicine category, despite many who extol its benefits for relieving a variety of conditions. Now a new study shows that the ancient Chinese practice mimics the same changes in the body that occur from taking stress-relief drugs.
Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) found that acupuncture calms stress in rats using similar mechanisms to anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. The study, which stressed rats by chilling them in ice water before returning them to their cages, showed that acupuncture prevents release of ‘stress’ hormones. This could be a step towards vindication of acupuncture as a valid medical treatment.
“The benefits of acupuncture are well known by those who use it, but such proof is anecdotal,” senior investigator and associate professor Ladan Eshkevari told GUMC News. “This research demonstrates how acupuncture might work in the human body to reduce stress and pain, and, potentially, depression.”
In one experiment, a single needle was stuck in the rats’ stomach meridian (point ST36, which in humans is just below the knee). This is one of the most powerful points in acupuncture, associated with chronic pain, the immune system, mood, and emotion. In the experiment, Eshkevari and her team found that this reduced activity in the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA), which in turn stopped production of stress hormones.
Interestingly, this works even during the stressful event (in a previous study, Eshkevari successfully tested the application of acupuncture before stress was applied), and the effects of the acupuncture continue for up to four days after treatment is stopped.
The next step is humans. “We have now found a potential mechanism, and at this point in our research, we need to test human participants,” says Eshkevari.
Acupuncture could be a great, side-effect-free alternative to drugs, but it’s hard to see folks ditching their de-stressing after-work drink for a quick needle-stab in the shin.