The Original Preventive Medicine
In the old days acupuncturists were paid to keep people well. You paid the acupuncturist, followed your instructions, prepared and took herbs, came for treatments if necessary. If you got sick you stopped paying the acupuncturist and it was their responsibility to get you well again. If you didn't do what the acupuncturist suggested they'd hear about it (you both lived in the same small town, after all) and you might be dropped as a client. Bad patients were bad for business.
If a patient died, the acupuncturist hung a lamp outside their door. Too many lamps too soon in their career and their practice would dry up.
Accepted today by the medical community largely as a pain-control technique, acupuncture and its allied modalities (herbal formulas, moxabustion, cupping, acupressure, diet therapies) evolved to treat the complete health needs of what is today the largest population on the planet. They must have been doing something right! Medical researchers have reached a consensus that acupuncture works by stimulating the body's production of endorphines, the body's own natural opiates that produce euphoria, relaxation and pain relief. They've decided this because they can administer naloxone, an opiate-blocker, and stop acupuncture's pain-relieving ability.
From the point of view of an acupuncturist this is much too simple a view. The many people who've achieved results from acupuncture treatment that last for weeks or years would be surprised to learn that their improvement is the result of chemicals that are cleared from the bloodstream within hours.1 It would appear that even the simplest benefits of acupuncture will take more effort to measure.
Acupuncture has a well-earned reputation for relieving acute stress.2,3,4 If done by a sensitive and respectful hand it is nearly painless. One to several treatments per week can dramatically change the way life feels. These effects tend to accumulate with repeated treatment. After awhile treatment frequency is reduced. Eventually acupuncture can be stopped and the new, more balanced and harmonious way of being acupuncture helps create will persist. Occasional touchups can be a good idea though, as life continues to bat us around from time to time.
In the traditional view acupuncture, like acupressure, works by redirecting the flow of chi, the life force. Chi is charisma: the bounce in one's step, the gleam in one's eye, the life pulsing in a thriving city. Chi is not a physical force like heat, light or gravity - it has its own rules and follows its own logic. Among other things, chi goes where attention sends it. That's why we can feel it sometimes when someone's gaze focuses on us. Chi also flows toward itself. That's why people with a lot of chi generally attract a lot of attention. That attention itself then feeds still more chi into the person.
Because it's attracted toward itself, chi tends to get into ruts. We call this being a creature of habit; another way to put it is that chi has a tendency to get stagnant. Doing the same thing over and over again in the same way, thinking the same thoughts, not being able to see options, controlling instead of flowing . . . all of these are examples of chi being stuck in a rut, of being stagnant. The natural tendency is for chi to become even more stagnant over time. It takes conscious awareness and practice to overcome this tendency and keep the chi flowing.
A smart person, attracting a lot of attention, will give it all back. Good performers do this and while they do it they appear larger than life - a reflection of the level of chi they're moving through themselves and back to their audience. This doesn't happen by accident. It's a high art. The simplest thing in the world is to try to hog all the chi. Not understanding that chi is a flow of events, of attention, of energy, like a river . . . naive people can try to keep all the chi for themselves. But then the source of chi collapses, and they're usually left high and dry, sadder and sometimes not even any wiser. One needs to understand the ways of chi to realize that the whole trick is to keep it moving.
Sound and movement will do it, talking will do it, flower essences will do it, yoga will do it, exercise will do it, emotional processing work will do it, massage and energy healing work will do it. Acupuncture is a particularly powerful approach informed by traditions that have developed over thousands of years for the conscious purpose of moving stagnant chi.
Stagnant chi can be hot or cold, damp or toxic. It can make certain areas of the body overfull while leaving others depleted. The tendency of chi to be attracted towards itself means that sometimes all the heat or life force is in one part of the body while everything else is cold and/or exhausted.
Simplistic efforts to warm up such a person (to help the obvious cold symptoms) can sometimes just make the stagnant heat worse. Building up the body and its energy flows with tonic herbs in a stagnant, toxic person can add to the stagnation because the additional heat or chi is drawn to the stagnant accumulation and added to it.
By knowing the ways of chi and the special properties of each acupoint, a skilled acupuncturist can redirect the body's energy in delicate and sophisticated ways, conserving chi whenever possible and draining toxic stagnant energies safely.
The same benefits and cautions that apply in the case of acupressure also apply here. Acupuncture is not a substitute for mental health therapy. As one tunes the body and its energies it's important to re-educate the mind, unlearn bad habits and master new ones. However it's much easier to make these changes when underlying metabolic and energetic knots are untied and the body/mind is tuned up. Acupuncture can be a powerful adjunct to psychotherapeutic work.
Of course in medical terms acupuncture does release endorphins.5,6 It also acts as a local and sometimes systemic anti-inflammatory.7,8 Both these effects occurring simultaneously means that acupuncture activates relaxing parasympathetic nerve activity and calms stress while reducing pain. Most acupuncture patients find themselves uncharacteristically peaceful after their treatments.
In my own practice I work to build up a person with good nutrition as an adjunct to acupuncture work. I find that patients get a lot more from their treatments when the physical body is well-nournished enough to receive the chi. Counseling or group therapy work can be critical too. Because chi goes where attention sends it unaddressed and dysfunctional mental and emotional patterns work against acupuncture's redirection of energy into new, more harmonious flows.
The reduced stress levels that flow from good health habits and regular acupuncture treatment can, with the right changes in attitude and habits, speed personal growth and development. The accelerated aging characteristic of high-stress lifestyles is slowed and the development of degenerative disease is delayed or blunted. That's why in the old days acupuncturists could function as a kind of informal health insurance. Everyone knew that if you found a good one, went for regular treatment and did the things you were told to do, it'd be a good long while before anyone'd be hanging a lamp for you.
1. The half-life of naloxone is 31-81 minutes.
2. Middlekauff, H.R. et al. 2002. Acupuncture inhibits sympathetic activation during mental stress in advanced heart failure patients. Journal of Cardiac Failure. 8(6):399-406.
3. Wang, J.D., Kuo, T.B., Yang C.C. 2002. An alternative method to enhance vagal activities and suppress sympathetic activities in humans. Autonomic Neuroscience. 100(1-2):90-95.
4. Manber, R. et al. 2002. Alternative treatments for depression: empirical support and relevance to women. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 63(7):628-640.
5. Eschkevair, L., Heath, J. 2005. Use of acupuncture for chronic pain: optimizing clinical practice. Holistic Nursing Practice. 19(5):217-221.
6. Hans, J.S. 2004. Acupuncture and endorphins. Neuroscience Letters. 361(1-3):258-261.
7. Liu, X.Y., et al. 2004. Electro-acupuncture stimulation protects dopaminergic neurons from inflammation-mediated damage in medial forebrain bundle-transected rats. Experimental Neurology. 189(1):189-196.
8. Liu, S., et al. 2004. Effects of acupuncture on myelogenic osteoclastogenesis and IL-6 mRNA expression. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 24(2):144-148.