The word ‘stress’ as we know it today did not exist before 1936 when Hungarian scientist, Hans Selye, defined the term as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Stress can be many different things for different people (and not all stress is negative). But we all experience some degree of stress frequently, usually as unpleasant experiences.
Acute stressful situations cause the body to respond with the ‘fight-flight’ biological mechanism to protect the most vital organs by kicking into survival mode. Stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) get released into the bloodstream causing physiological changes: increased heart rate, shallow breathing, increased alertness, etc. When the stressful situation passes, the body relaxes and the hormone levels return to normal.
For people who suffer from chronic stress, however, these hormones are persistently elevated. This can result in long term serious health conditions. For instance, high levels of adrenaline can cause high blood pressure, increasing the risks of heart attacks or strokes. Chronic high levels of cortisol can increase appetite, and result in obesity. Untreated chronic stress can also induce anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle pain, and a weakened immune system.
Research has shown that several modalities can help combat stress: relaxation techniques, meditation, exercise, and social support to name a few. Acupuncture is one of the complementary therapies proved to be effective at reducing the stress response in the body. Up until now, we have not quite understood the mechanisms of action of how acupuncture works on stress reduction.
A recent study at Georgetown University begins to shed light. The study works with four groups of rats: one group had no stress and no acupuncture, one group was put under stress for an hour with no acupuncture, one group was under stress and received ‘sham’ acupuncture (a random point), and one group was under stress and received proper acupuncture treatments (electroacupuncture at ST-36). Stress hormones and blood proteins were measured from each group.
So far, the study is showing that acupuncture is effective at blocking the chronic, stress-induced elevations of stress hormones. Ladan Eshkevari, the study’s lead author confirms that “our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture’s protective effect against the stress response.”
Dr. Eshkevari recently gave an interview about this particular study. If you have sometime, I’d recommend that you have a listen here.
Even though it may be impossible to equate Chinese Medicine to Western Medicine, I think it is very exciting that we can now get a glimpse of some physiological changes as a result of acupuncture therapy.
Now we just need to figure out what is actually going on when we feel like we are ‘floating’ after a treatment…
In good health,
(Photos taken at Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand — one of the most stress-free places on earth!)