A new study from Georgetown University Medical Center has found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic stress relief, and has a “similar mode of action to psychiatric drugs.”

“The benefits of acupuncture,” says Dr. Ladan Eshkevari, the lead researcher on the study, “are well known by those who use it, but such proof is anecdotal.” Acupuncturists and their patients know that the treatment is effective, but science has not, till now, been able to quantify the precise action by which it works. This study set out to change that.

Researchers used electro-acupuncture to stimulate the Stomach 36 acupuncture point and found that this reduced the production of stress hormones. In fact, they found that it decreased activitiy in the hypothalamus pituitary axis (HPA), which is associated with chronic stress, chronic pain, the immune system and mood. Says Dr. Eshkevari, “Some antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs exert their therapeutic effects on these same mechanisms.”

The study, which was conducted on rats, had four components:

  • A group which was exposed to stress and received acupuncture
  • A group which was exposed to stress and received sham acupuncture (electro-acupuncture stimulation to a point which is not a real acupuncture point)
  • A group exposed to stress but no acupuncture, real or sham
  • And a group neither receiving acupuncture not being exposed to stress

Previous studies had already shown that acupuncture treatment prior to subjecting rats to stress decreased the production of stress hormones. The current study looked at acupuncture delivered minutes after the stressful event, and found it equally effective. Researchers also looked at stress response after the animals were given a drug to block acupuncture’s effect on the HPA system, and found that the levels of stress hormones equalized in all the groups. This confirms that it is in fact the stimulation of the acupuncture point which creates the effect, and may have profound implications in the future for the treatment of stress and anxiety.

Says Dr. Eshkevari, “We have now found a potential mechanism, and at this point in our research, we need to test human participants in a blinded, placebo-controlled clinical study.”


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