The last blog discussed the changes in the body created by acupuncture, specifically in the nervous system. This installment discusses the change in the body’s chemicals associated with acupuncture treatment.
Once you start making changes in the activity of the nervous system, shifts in the levels of chemicals in your body are not far behind. Acupuncture has been associated with changes in levels of numerous categories of chemicals in the body. Your body has its own pharmacy, and acupuncture is one way to access this pharmacy.
The first type of substances associated with acupuncture is what is called an endogenous opioid. (Endogenous just means that your body produces them on its own.) These are the chemicals your body produces to provide pain relief since they resemble substances like morphine and other narcotics. Examples of opioids are endorphins and enkephalins. These chemicals are associated not only with pain relief, but also with a feeling of well-being and even euphoria. You have heard of an endorphin high, right? This was one of the first areas researched because practitioners working with heroin addicts noted that those who received acupuncture had significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms than those who did not receive acupuncture. An endorphin release is also thought to be why people feel so good after an acupuncture treatment.
The second category of substances is the neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals responsible for communicating between the cells of the nervous system. Examples are serotonin and dopamine. The regulatory influence that acupuncture has on neurotransmitters would explain the positive results of studies regarding acupuncture and depression.
Acupuncture has been shown to boost the effectiveness of SSRI medications. Also, in a large study in Britain (1), acupuncture was as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy in a comparison of usual care, acupuncture plus usual care, and cognitive behavioral therapy plus usual care. At 3 months usual care alone was the least effective intervention measured in that study. Both acupuncture and cognitive behavioral therapy produced faster results when added to the treatment protocol.
The third category of chemicals is hormones. Acupuncture has demonstrated an influence on various hormones that regulate reproductive and sexual function (estrogen and testosterone), hormones that regulate the appetite (leptin and ghrelin), and hormones that regulate blood sugar, bone growth and other functions (cortisol). This would explain why acupuncture has been shown useful for issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and other gynecological disorders, appetite dysregulation issues, and male and female infertility.
The chemicals in your body greatly determine how you feel on a moment to moment basis. Between the changes in your nervous system and the chemicals circulating throughout your system, acupuncture has a profound influence on the overall balance of your body.
Stay tuned for the next installment, which examines how acupuncture affects the circulatory system.
(1) MacPherson, H., et al. Acupuncture and Counselling for Depression in Primary Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial, PLoS Med. Sep 2013; 10(9): e1001518. Published online Sep 24, 2013. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001518