Stress is often cited as a root cause of many disease states and a group of researchers have been locating specific biochemical markers of stress to see if acupuncture can help.
While it is understood through empirically (observation, experience) that acupuncture DOES reduce stress, the question for this study asked what are the actual pathways it takes to show that it helps.
Eshkavari, Permaul, and Mulroney of Georgetown University Medical Center’s School of Nursing and Health Studies published their study, Acupuncture blocks cold stress-induced increases in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in the rat in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Endocrinology. This article summarizes its findings.
In order to see how acupuncture might have an effect on chronic stress, the researchers chose common hormones and neurotransmitters present under stress. These could serve as markers for stress because there is more of each when there is a natural response. The subjects were not human, but animal- lab rats- because they also release these substances as a natural response, in this case, temperature change, to which the HPA and SNS are very sensitive. The acupuncture points were needled with the addition of an electrical lead (electro-acupuncture), for greater measuring accuracy.
The researchers measured the effects of acupuncture on stress response by blood test, over a 10-day period. There were four distinct groups to measure and compare against each other.
1. Group 1: No stress and no acupuncture- this is the control group.
2. Group 2: Subjected to cold temperature for one hour a day with no acupuncture.
3. Group 3: Subjected to cold temperature for one hour a day and treatment of “sham” acupuncture- needled in a random, non-acupuncture point (near the tail).
4. Group 4: Subjected to cold temperature for one hour a day and treatment of electro-acupuncture at a significant acupuncture point ST 36.
Group 1 was the control group: they had no stress and no acupuncture. Both Groups 2 and 3 had elevated levels of the hormones and neurotransmitter. Group 4 had reduced levels of all three, almost as low as the control group, and significant for reduction of HPA activity.
The researchers’ conclusion was that the pathways for these biochemical were blocked by the electro-acupuncture in Group 4, resulting in lessened stress response.
Afterthought: any method, modality, or medical intervention that reduces stress by regulating body systems is of benefit to human health. Examples of each might be meditation, acupuncture, or prescription drugs. It bears repeating that the conclusion in this study has broad implications for the future of acupuncture within the cross-section of chronic pain, stress, and achieving a steady state of wellbeing. More research needs to be done on the intersection of acupuncture and additional body systems such as the Inflammatory and Immune Response as well as other structures in the brain.