Most of us know that stress is not good for us. One of the many negative effects that stress has on our body is that it weakens our immune system and makes our bodies more susceptible to a whole host of illnesses and diseases, including allergies, colds and flu. But few really understand the extent to which this is true unless they have suffered the effects of a serious illness due to stress, such as an autoimmune disease, cancer or recurrent infections. It is estimated that 80% of all illnesses are stress induced (1). Because of its negative effect on our immune system, 100% of all illnesses are worsened by stress. The good news is that acupuncture has been shown to reduce the effects of stress on our bodies and strengthen our immune system.
Anyone who has had acupuncture can tell you that it helps them feel very relaxed. Acupuncture has been shown to induce a “relaxation response” and strengthen our immune system by reducing the negative effects of stress on our bodies. Over the past 25 years, an ever growing body of research has been exploring the detailed biological mechanisms by which acupuncture reduces stress and strengthens our immune system. The question now is not “does it work?” but rather “how does acupuncture work to reduce stress and improve our immune system?” To understand this we must first understand how stress negatively impacts our immune system.
Acupuncture has been shown to induce a “relaxation response” and strengthen our immune system, by reducing the negative effects of stress on our bodies.
Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system. This is our survival system that creates those flight-or-fight reactions that are necessary for escaping danger, such as increased heart rate, improved lung function, reduced movement of our large intestine and increased blood pressure. This flight-or-fight response allows us to maximize the functions of our body that will help us escape danger while minimizing the functions of relaxation. This is all beautifully orchestrated by our central nervous system (CNS) via a chain reaction of energy and chemicals that send messages from our nervous system to our endocrine (hormonal) system. This is called our neuroendocrine system. This neuroendocrine system is interconnected so that the system can send and receive messages in all directions in order to keep itself in balance or homeostasis.
However, when stress persists over an extended period of time, our sympathetic nervous system remains constantly stimulated. As a result, the system becomes depleted. When this happens the ability of our nervous system to remain in balance is compromised and the potential arises for all sorts of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, depression, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies and increased risk of infections, cancer, colds and flu.
When stress persists over an extended period of time, the ability of our nervous system to remain in balance is compromised and the potential arises for all sorts of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, depression, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and increased risk of infections, cancer, colds and flu.
One of the main ways that stress affects our immune system is by stimulating the increased production of cortisol which suppresses our immune system. Most people by now have heard of cortisol (that nasty little stress hormone that creates the dreaded belly fat). However few really understand that cortisol weakens our immune system. Cortisol acts as an immunosuppressant by reducing the number of white blood cells in our body, (specifically T cells and macrophages). White bloods cells are the foundation of our immune system and are the cells responsible for producing antibodies and destroying viruses, bacteria and tumor cells.
Acupuncture works to reverse the effects of stress by suppressing the sympathetic nervous system (remember this is the system that controls our body when it is under stress) and activating our parasympathetic nervous system (which controls our body when we are calm and relaxed.) Acupuncture is able to change the messages that are being sent from our nervous system to our endocrine system and finally to our immune system. Exactly how this works is under continued investigation. One theory is that acupuncture corrects the “firing” of energy messages sent by our nervous system (2). This in turn leads to improved immune response by:
- increasing serotonin and endogenous opioid peptide levels in the blood stream (3)
- decreasing cortisol levels in the blood stream (4, 5)
Acupuncture corrects the “firing” of energy messages sent by our nervous system (2). This in turn leads to improved immune response by increasing serotonin and endogenous opioid peptide levels and decreasing cortisol levels in the blood stream (3, 4, 5).
How can this be possible? Acupuncture needles are metal and we already know that metal is an excellent conductor of energy. Acupuncture points are surrounded by a greater concentration of nerve endings than in other nearby areas of the body. Because the nervous system uses energy to send its messages and acupuncture allows us to conduct and adjust the flow of energy, you can begin to see how acupuncture works to reduce stress and improve our immune system!
We cannot always reduce the stressors in our lives but we can change how our body reacts to them. Acupuncture is a tool that helps our bodies reverse and cope with the negative effects of stress. It naturally regulates our nervous system which leads to a better functioning immune system. By creating a sense of profound relaxation, acupuncture also improves our overall state of mind. When we feel better, both physically and mentally, we are healthier and may even be able to make the healthy changes in our lives that we have been wanting to make. As you begin this new year why not add regular acupuncture treatments to your routine in order to give yourself the best advantage for having both a happy and healthy new year! Don’t wait until stress has caused a major health problem for you. Make your health a priority this year by reducing stress. Remember that a major focus of acupuncture is on preventing illness… not just treating it. Acupuncture can be an invaluable tool for helping us cope with stress and prevent allergies, colds, flu and other illnesses.
- Friedman MM, et al. Family nursing: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). 2003. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Walling A. Therapeutic modulation of the psychoneuroimmune system by medical acupuncture creates enhanced feelings of well-being. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2006 Apr;18(4):135-43.
- Cabioglu MT, Cetin BE. Acupuncture and immunomodulation. Am J Chin Med. 2008;36(1):25-36.
- Imai K, et al. Electroacupuncture improves imbalance of autonomic function under restraint stress in conscious rats. Am J Chin Med. 2009;37(1):45-55.
- Ahsin S, et al. Clinical and endocrinological changes after electro-acupuncture treatment in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Pain. 2009 Dec 15;147(1-3):60-6.