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Acupuncture for Depression and Anxiety

Did you know that acupuncture can have a significant affect on your mood? Many people who have received an acupuncture treatment report that they leave feeling much more relaxed and peaceful. But why? What is it about getting acupuncture that sends someone off to this magical "acu-land" of contentment and ease? To understand an answer to this question, we must first look at what causes one to feel unhappy in the first place.

Let's take a closer look at the science of depression and anxiety:

Many researchers in Western medicine are beginning to view psychiatric disorders (such as depression and anxiety) as being a symptom of a dysregulation in the stress response system within the body. Namely, an over-production of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is vital to one's ability to deal with stress. A healthy stress response releases heightened levels of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine when faced with a taxing situation. This temporary increased production of steroid hormones allows for a greater chance of survival on a biological level. It does this by placing the body in a sympathetic state: increasing awareness, response time, cardiovascular tone, and respiratory rate. This is a really important physiological system for the body to best deal with moments of stress. However, this is not a state you want to be in all the time. When stressed, you breathe faster, your heart rate increases, and your digestion slows down.

The main mediators of this stress response reside within parts of the brain called the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, as well as within the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys. These three locations are commonly referred to as the HPA Axis. But unfortunately, there are a lot of things that can cause an interruption in the communication between these areas of the body. If this happens, it is common for one to begin to produce too much cortisol, and high levels of cortisol cause the body to remain in a stress-driven sympathetic state.

This overproduction creates a negative feedback loop within the hippocampus wherein it continues to produce unnecessary amounts of cortisol which, in turn, continues to keep the body in a heightened sympathetic state, which makes it want to produce too much cortisol. Over time, this feedback loop often leads to many stress-induced conditions including depression and anxiety. Another unfortunate side-effect of chronic stress is that it will also lead to an under-production of the neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and relaxed such as dopamine and serotonin.

Because many researchers in Western medicine are now viewing anxiety and other mood disorders as often being a symptom of a dysregulation of the stress response system (the HPA Axis) it is believed that by addressing the function of this system, stress and anxiety levels can be reduced.

So what does all this have to do with acupuncture?

It turns out that the mechanism by which Eastern medicine treats depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders from a biomedical perspective, may be by fixing this dysregulation within the stress response system (or the HPA Axis.)

Studies have shown that acupuncture and some herbal medicine actually decreases cortisol levels. Moreover, it has been found that acupuncture stimulation also has the ability to increase the production of dopamine and serotonin in the body. In one study published in Neuroscience Letters in 2016, acupuncture was found to be just as effective at regulating cortisol levels as tricyclic antidepressants. However, acupuncture had the added effect of increasing neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) where the antidepressant medication did not.

What does this mean?

Acupuncture has the ability to reduce stress, calm the nervous system, make you feel more relaxed, and make you happier. It makes sense that you feel happier and calmer when you leave your acupuncture appointment because the treatment has actually caused your body to be less stressed, more calm, and happier on a physiological level.


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