One of acupuncture’s greatest therapeutic gifts that I tend to overlook is stress relief. I am so focused on treating a long list of my patients’ ailments that I have kind of disregarded the one thing that all of us suffer from: stress and anxiety! According to the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of adults reported moderate to high levels of stress. Stress is a top health concern for U.S. teens. This is an epidemic that has been normalized by our way of life.
Stress can ignite our fight or flight response, or it can subtly nag us daily until we blow up. This “sympathetic” activity is meant to help us respond to catastrophe, danger or any other disaster. Have you ever reacted to something minor in an extreme way? This stress response is often due to an imbalanced brain. The brain, much like us as a whole, with practice, becomes better. If you continue to practice being “good” at stress, your brain makes more pathways for the stress response to continue 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 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 response. 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!
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 minutes further increases the beneficial outcome. It is amazing what 30 minutes of needle retention and a nap will do for stress! Continuing acupuncture will help build more brain plasticity toward 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. At a minimum, acupuncture can help balance your brain.
Acupuncture has been well studied for its amazing ability to stimulate the hypothalamus With medical acupuncture, we stick needles near small nerve fibers that then detect a disruption in the skin, collagen and surrounding areas. The tiny nerve near the acupuncture needle sends a signal up to the brain and the brain responds by sending pain relieving cells, endorphins and serotonin (along with about a dozen other chemicals!) into your bloodstream. The result? Increased endorphins and serotonin that give you the feeling like you just worked out, along with better sleep and a more positive outlook. Don’t believe me? We use the term “Acu-Stoned” for a reason! Patients often feel loopy and euphoric after treatment as if they had been smoking marijuana. But don’t worry—the super loopy feeling wears off within minutes and you resume your normal but happier self.
When you’re overstressed, your body makes more IL-6 (Interleukin 6). IL-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 IL-6 parking spots (called receptors). These IL-6 cells also pick on the areas most vulnerable. If you had a shoulder injury previously, IL-6 will have an easier time hanging out in that damaged shoulder rather than other areas of your body that are healthy and capable of expelling IL-6. So, when you’re stressed and your brain is inflamed, so is your body.
There are herbal compounds that help physically remove this inflammation caused by IL-6 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 their function even more—meaning, just ginseng alone is far less potent than combining multiple vitamins and herbs together for a synergistic effect. There are also herbal compounds that help build more GABA, which is a hormone often deficient in patients who are anxious and have trouble sleeping. A misconception and marketing scam is that you can just ingest GABA, but unfortunately, it’s a huge molecule that can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. So you must ingest substances that are the ingredients your body needs to make GABA. Some of these include passion flower, L-Theanine, magnesium and B6.
Acupuncture is fantastic at naturally stimulating the body’s resources to make you feel better. Herbs and supplements are great at correcting any actual deficiency. The two work wonderfully together. I always recommend patients suffering from stress and anxiety come in on some sort of a regular basis to exercise their plasticity and make sure that they are being proactive. This approach helps to prevent and correct the onset of a major stress response.
Dr. Christina Fick (DAOM)
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