Acupuncture is a fantastic treatment for stress relief and prevention. It has a diverse range of mechanisms that work to reduce symptoms of stress and increase healing. It is safe to use in the long-term, avoiding any drug-related side-effects. On top of this it is safe to use along-side drugs. It is also useful for stress related symptoms, such as lethargy, insomnia, anxiety and depression, aches and pains and headaches and migraines.
Everyone is affected by stress. There is almost no escaping it these days. Whether it is from an external stressor, such as work, family, friends or relationships, a physical stressor such as lack of exercise, poor diet or disease symptoms or a psychological stressor such as anxiety or depression, we all suffer. The question is whether stress gets to the point that it can cause physical or psychological conditions. Between 2015 and 2016 there were nearly half a million cases of work related stress alone, from which nearly 12 million days of sick leave were needed. Stress was responsible for 37% of all work related ill health and 45% of all working days lost. It is, therefore, a huge issue.
Side effects of stress include; feeling overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, headaches and migraines, tension and pain, sleep problems, lethargy and appetite changes. Long-term stress can lead to heart conditions and is implicated in most chronic inflammatory diseases.
Conventional treatments include medication such as anti-anxiety drugs, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques. The anti-anxiety drugs can be useful to some people, but can come with side-effects that in and of themselves cause stress and can make them somewhat self-defeating. CBT can be useful for some of the psychological issues in some cases and help with relaxation, but it is not very effective for the physiological effects of stress, which, if not also treated, can increase stress, or reduce the effectiveness of the therapy. Relaxation techniques can be useful but take time and effort to build up the effects. I personally think they are essential long-term, but that a more powerful therapeutic agent is also necessary, at least in the short-term.
Acupuncture for stress
Acupuncture, on the other hand, has no long-term risks associated with it and has been proven to be safe. Whilst there are few studies looking at the direct effects on stress there is a wealth of evidence showing acupunctures positive effects for related conditions, such as; insomnia, anxiety and depression, aches and pains, headaches and migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder and even stress related urinary incontinence. For all of the above conditions it is recommended by The Acupuncture Evidence Project, the most up-to-date comprehensive review on acupuncture research. It is also recommended by The World Health Organisation for the majority of the above conditions. We also know that many of the mechanisms of acupuncture have a direct effect on stress and thus can reduce stress and related conditions.
How does acupuncture reduce stress?
Acupuncture has been used to treat stress and related conditions for centuries. It was known to do so by balancing the mind and body and restoring physiological functioning. Research is showing a variety of mechanisms that contribute to these effects. It has been shown to do this by:
- Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry
- Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing AchE reactivity in the hippocampus
- Reducing serum levels of corticosterone and the number of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells
- Regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states
- Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response;
- Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions
- Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors
- Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry.