One of Acupuncture's greatest theraputic gifts that I tend to overlook is stress relief. I am so focused on treating a long list of my paitents ailments that I have kinda disregarded the one thing that all of us suffer from, stress and anxiety! According to the American Psychological Association, 75% of adults reported moderate to high levels of stress. Approximately 1 out of 75 people experience panic disorder. Stress is a top health concern for U.S. teens between 9th and 12th grade. This is an epidemic that has been normalized by our way of life.
Stress is a normal response that can ignite our fight or flight response or it can subtlely nag us daily until we blow up. This “sympathetic” activity is meant to help us respond to a car accident, an argument, or any other disaster. Have you ever reacted to something minor in an extreme way? This stress response is often due to an unbalanced brain. The brain is the master controler of our bodies. It's our supercomputer that never really sleeps. The brain, much like us as a whole, with practice, becomes better. If you practice tennis, you'll be better at tennis. Your brain behaves the same way. If you continue to practice being “good” at stress, your brain makes more pathways for the stress response to continuing with little effort.
This is called brain plasticity; your brain literally makes more nerve pathways for the stimulus to continue. It's like widening a highway and making more room for more traffic. There can be good or bad brain plasticity. There are multiple sections in your brain responsible for both increasing and decreasing a balance between your fight and flight sympathetic response and your rest and digest parasympathetic. You need a balance between the two. How do you balance your stress then? Especially if you have stress in your life that is not going to change such as a stressful job, a sick child, or my most hated element, the wind!
Engaging in rest and digest parasympathetic activities helps boost more good brain plasticity pathways. The same way the brain can learn how to respond to minor incidents with stress, it can learn how to react positively when stress ensues. It takes practice and skill but you can train your brain to react however you want when your boss sets you off. But since most of us do not have the focus of a budahist monk, you might start your journey to stress relief with the following: hiking, reading, weight lifting, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, a spa day, or acupuncture.
Acupuncture, in general, has the ability to stimulate both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve fibers. So if someone comes in with high stress we can insert needles in certain places that will help increase the parasympathetic response in the brain. Adding relaxing music, turning the lights down and letting you nap for 30 mins further increases the beneficial outcomes. It is amazing what 30 minutes of needle retention and a nap will do for stress! Continuing acupuncture will help build more brain plasticity towards a less stressful response. Will it change your cranky boss, the agonizing drive through traffic or the status of a sick family member? Of course not. But it helps you learn how to better deal with these situations with a clear mind and less impact on your body. When the brain is balanced, your body responds better as well. At a minimum, acupuncture can help balance your brain.
IL-6 (interleukin 6) is a bad inflammatory cytokine (cell). Often in the section of the brain that helps stimulate your fight or flight response we find more IL6 parking spots (called receptors). These IL6 cells also pick on the areas most vulnerable. If you had a shoulder injury, IL6 will have an easier time hanging out in that damaged shoulder than other areas of your body that are healthy. So when you're stressed and your brain is inflamed so is your body. Some herbal compounds help physically remove this inflammation caused by IL6 and promote a healthy parasympathetic response. These compounds include ginseng, holy basil, and omega 3s just to name a few. There are many ways we customize an herbal treatment for people depending on which area of their brain and hormones are out of balance.
The combination of herbs and vitamins boosts its function, even more, meaning, just ginseng alone is far less potent than combining multiple vitamins and herbs together for a synergistic effect. If you haven't tried acupuncture and supplements for your stress, you should consider trying it! I wish everyone could have a midday nap with acupuncture, the world would be a much less stressful place!