Have you ever been told that you have a lot of inflammation? Or that a particular complaint you have is “just inflammation?” What exactly is inflammation in the first place, and how can acupuncture help?
Inflammation is a broad term used because, well, it’s a broad and complicated process. Inflammation in general is when the immune system is alerted that ‘something’ is wrong. We refer to the substances that create inflammation as the “Inflammatory Soup,” which has arguably 18 or more substances involved. Imagine the immune system as our body’s police force, military and medical staff, and when a call is made to 911 when something is wrong, a host of respondents are deployed and put to work. Maybe emergency medical staff or paramedics are called, perhaps police officers rush to the scene. The same thing happens with the immune system, which is made up of red and white blood cells along with other cells that roam around our bodies making sure everything is in order. When inflammation occurs, it can be from a physical injury, from an organ not working properly, from an accumulation of substances that shouldn’t be there such as a tumor or a knot in a muscle (trigger point), or an invasion of bacteria, parasites or viruses. Normally, this Inflammatory Soup occurs naturally in response to these problems, but it is also vigorously stimulated with the application of targeted acupuncture.
When a physical injury occurs, a variety of substances travel to that area as part of the normal healing response. Platelets help patch up injured tissue, nerve growth factor (NGF) helps repair damaged nerves, and calcitoningene-related peptide(CGRP) transmits the signal of pain. This signal further increases the amount of beneficial substances that can enter the area by vasodilation, which is often responsible for swelling. When inserting an acupuncture needle near an area that has been injured, we actually produce these same effects of increasing platelets, NGF and CGRP. Acupuncture forces your body to send more of these resources to an area to speed healing.
When an organ isn’t functioning properly, it often takes a detour to remain operational. If an organ is stressed, or diet or exercise is inappropriate, it can create undesirable side effects while it struggles to function normally. One side effect is stimulating too much prostaglandin activity. Prostaglandins are compounds pounds similar to hormones and have powerful effects that can stimulate other inflammatory substances such as tumor necrosis factor(TNF) and histamine. TNF is suspected to be the key component of the “anti-inflammatory”effect that acupuncture produces. This is one of the reasons why acupuncture works so well to regulate organ inflammation. Histamine is often responsible for symptoms such as itching, but also plays a large role in gut, brain and uterus cell signalling.
When acupuncture is applied, the needle sends a signal to certain areas of the brain and we see on functional MRI studies that this along with the neuropeptide called Substance P can help regulate pain and anxiety. Vasointestinal active peptide (VIP) has also been shown to increase significantly after acupuncture, which helps relax the throat, stomach and gallbladder, and helps to increase the function/contraction of the heart. VIP is also considered part of this inflammatory soup.
Acupuncture even works great for inflammation in which a foreign invader such as bacteria or viruses have taken over. Interleukin 1 Beta (IL-1B) is usually what is responsible for a fever spike. It also helps alert the body of foreign invaders and when a needle is inserted into the body, we see a spike of activity in IL-1B. Tryptase is also released when acupuncture is administered, which can help destroy the influenza virus.
The most critical factor with acupuncture is the large accumulation of mast cells near designated acupuncture points. Mast cells are apart of the white blood cell family and when alerted that something is ‘attacking,’such as in acupuncture, they release a host of substances that are very anti-inflammatory. My favorite is serotonin, which makes you feel happy but also helps heal injuries and contributes to our sleep and awake cycles. Mast cells also release ATP, histamine and TNF, which helps you feelgood and have more energy.
Even though inflammation is a very complicated process, it is clear to see that acupuncture is a simple and effective method for decreasing inflammation while alerting the body to expedite healing exactly where needed. Acupuncture is meant to be a gentle therapy, but can often pack quite the punch to produce excellent, lasting results. This is what is called Medical Acupuncture—the application of acupuncture with the intent to strategically simulate medical and biological processes in the body. Although traditional acupuncture can still produce many of these effects,Medical Acupuncture targets inflammation in a highly sophisticated manner. As the years continue to go by, more studies continue to be published with amazing conclusions, enhancing our understanding of how to utilize this tool most effectively. 1,2
Dr. Christina Fick (DAOM)