I’ve been practicing acupuncture for 8 years and I am still totally amazed by the mystery of its inner workings. You can see why.

I’ve witnessed incredible things: migraine and chronic pain patients becoming pain-free, people with lifelong anxiety and depression no longer having symptoms that interfere with their lives, and women with “out of control” menopause symptoms feeling like themselves again for the first time in years. And that’s just for starters.

How can sticking tiny needles in specific points the body stimulates such profound healing? Mainstream medicine is wondering too.

In the past decade acupuncture research has completely exploded. Renowned universities such as Georgetown, Harvard, Stanford, UCLA and University of Maryland as well as universities world- wide are studying the many ways that acupuncture works. It’s fascinating, and even a little mind-boggling to try to make sense of it all.

This blog is for the acupuncture-lovers or acupuncture-curious among us. I’ve included both eastern and scientific explanations in abbreviated version due to space restrictions. When considering such a powerful healing medicine as acupuncture, both sides of the coin are necessary, and again there will always be some mystery…

The Eastern Perspective

According to Chinese Medicine, we as humans are a cohesive whole where all parts are interconnected and interdependent. As a part of our mind-body being matrix, we have energy channels that run throughout the body. These channels conduct the flow of energy, known as qi or prana. I like to imagine the energy channels like interlocking rivers that flow with energy in the same way rivers flow with water.

If you’ve ever seen a river, you know how a rock in the river diverts the flow of water and impacts the flow of water throughout the whole river. Our energy channels operate in exactly the same way. For the sake of this article, I will call ‘rocks’ in the river blockages, but they can actually be any type of imbalance.

Blockages can be caused by trauma, injury, stress, pent up emotions, poor lifestyle habits, outside pathogens or genetics. These blockages interrupt the natural flow of energy through the body and cause symptoms or disease. By locating blockages and the cause of blockages, and then inserting needles into the appropriate points, energy is liberated or reallocated. As a result,
symptoms are dissipated, and the cause of the symptoms corrected.

To say it short and sweet—Acupuncture works by rebalancing energy flow to treat both symptoms and the origin of disease.

The Scientific Perspective

Research shows that acupuncture works in many different ways.

Regulates emotions and mood

Studies as early as the 1980s show that acupuncture works by stimulating the release of endorphins, known as the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins relieve pain, regulate emotions, and provide a general sense of wellbeing. More recent studies have also shown that acupuncture similarly stimulates the release of serotonin and other opioids.

Reduces inflammation

Inflammation triggers the symptoms of disease, and is a basis for disease itself. By stimulating the vagus nerve, a nerve that activates mechanisms in the body to reduce inflammation, and eventually the key anti-inflammatory agent, the neurotransmitter dopamine, acupuncture is extremely effective for decreasing inflammation.

Promotes blood and oxygen flow

Healthy blood and oxygen flow is necessary to heal injuries, repair tissue damage and restore optimal health. In a Harvard Medical School study using MRIs, acupuncture was shown to increase blood flow to specific areas of the brain that control mood, pain and cravings. Acupuncture also restores local circulation of blood and oxygen.

Releases natural painkillers

Acupuncture stimulates the brain to release the body’s natural painkillers, chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin.

Reduces stress

This may be one of the most essential effects of acupuncture. Nearly all symptoms and diseases are known to be caused or exacerbated by stress. Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

You may be familiar with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) from my other posts about stress and the adrenals. As a refresher, the PNS is the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system that governs all functions of the body that occur at rest. You’d be surprised how many systems of the body depend on the PNS to function optimally- think regular heart rate, urination, digestion, reproduction, sexual arousal. If the PNS is impaired, these functions will not work properly.

Impaired function of the PNS has also been correlated as a cause for autoimmune diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Strengthens the immune system

Acupuncture has been shown to increase T cells, NK (Natural Killer) cells and stimulate lymphatic flow in the body. This is beneficial for all immune related disorders including autoimmune diseases, cold, flu, allergies, asthma, sinusitis, and any bacterial or viral infection. In addition, by stimulating NK cells, acupuncture has been proven to promote anticancer immunity.

Regulates hormones & appetite

The hypothalamus controls part of the nervous system, hormonal processes and many bodily functions such as sleep, regulation of temperature and appetite. The pituitary gland supplies some of the body’s hormones. Together they function as part of the HPA axis (Hypothalamus- Pituitary- Adrenal) that regulates hormones and the body’s stress response. Acupuncture activates normal function of the HPA axis, thus regulating hormones for treatment all hormonal conditions including infertility, menopausal symptoms, menstrual issues, PCOS, thyroid disorders, and adrenal fatigue.