Acupuncture is often touted as a natural way to relieve stress, and most people report feeling relaxed after a treatment. But how does this ancient therapy really work to reduce stress and anxiety?
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for our involuntary actions such as breathing and digestion. It has two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is responsible for our “fight or flight” response to stress, while the parasympathetic branch is responsible for rest, repair and relaxation.
When we are under long-term stress, our bodies can switch into sympathetic overdrive resulting in both physical and emotional symptoms. In order to combat this, it is necessary to restore balance within the ANS. The sympathetic branch needs to be calmed and the parasympathetic branch stimulated.
The ANS is a complex system which relies on both chemical and electrical signals to work. Acupuncture relieves stress and anxiety by influencing these signals and changing the way that the body communicates with the brain.
Acupuncture Restores Autonomic Balance
This study on how acupuncture regulates the nervous system showed that acupuncture affects the levels of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the ANS.
Neurotransmitters play an important role in everything from our mood to our memory, and in conditions such as chronic stress, anxiety and depression they can become imbalanced.
Acupuncture regulates the levels of these neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, dopamine, GABA and glutamate. It is no coincidence that these are the the neurotransmitters most involved with our mood and emotions.
Acupuncture has also been shown to increase activity in the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain to the abdomen and plays an important role in parasympathetic function. An increase in vagus nerve activity is associated with reduced stress and an increased state of relaxation.
Acupuncture Alters Your Brainwaves
Brainwaves have long been used to measure electrical activity in the brain and nervous system. There are four major types of brainwaves; alpha, beta, theta and delta.
Alpha brainwaves are dominant when we are awake, but relaxed and calm. Beta brainwaves are dominant when we are awake and active, thinking and problem solving. Theta and delta brainwaves are associated with deep relaxation, and can be measured during sleep or meditation. They are involved in learning, memory and dreams.
Acupuncture Gets You High
Well, sort of. Acupuncture works on the endogenous opioid system. This is the part of the brain which is influenced by painkillers such as morphine. These drugs block pain by binding with opioid receptors in the brain, and as a side effect, produce a sense of well-being or a “high” which is part of what makes these drugs so addictive.
But did you know that your body can also make its own opioids? These are known as endorphins. These are your personal, natural painkillers and also what give you that buzz after a good workout or sex.
Acupuncture not only triggers the release of endorphins, but may also increase the number of opioid receptors in your brain. This is what makes acupuncture so effective in treating pain and also contributes to its stress-busting abilities.
Acupuncture Relieves Stress and Anxiety, Naturally
Aside from all the evidence about how acupuncture works for stress and anxiety, having acupuncture is relaxing in itself. Simply lying quietly while the needles do their work is extremely calming, and many people even fall asleep during their treatments.
So if you think having needles stuck in you doesn’t sound like a relaxing experience, think again. Or why not try it for yourself and see?