Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that’s been used for centuries to treat a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.
Extensive research conducted worldwide has shown that acupuncture may significantly improve symptoms of stress.
From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture relieves stress by promoting the movement of Qi in the body.
According to TCM, the energy that usually flows smoothly throughout the body can become stuck or scattered due to stress or disease. This can lead to:
- muscle tension
Qi can also become deficient.
According to Ali Vander Baan, a licensed acupuncturist and founder of Yintuition Wellness in Boston, improving the flow of Qi can bring relief.
“When acupoints are applied to areas of stagnation or along energy channels where energy is not flowing properly, it can improve the flow of Qi and resolve those symptoms, resulting in relaxation and relief, feeling the way we should when our bodies are getting what they need,” says Vander Baan.
This may be because acupuncture can release hormones like endorphins.
“From a physiological perspective, the stimulation of acupoints promotes the release of ‘happy hormones,’ like endorphins and other natural chemicals that signal to the body that it is safe, secure, and can relax and turn off its stress response,” Vander Baan says.
Acupuncture has been shown to offer several benefits to both mind and body.
Dr. Shari Auth, DACM, co-founder of New York City acupuncture studio WTHN, explains how this works.
“We spend so much of our time racing to work or getting the kids to school, all which utilize our fight-or-flight nervous system, or sympathetic nervous system. Acupuncture helps us relax and shift into our parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, nervous system,” says Auth.
Like Vander Baan, Auth notes that this process increases hormones associated with a positive mood.
“This important shift changes our neurochemistry, increasing our ‘happy’ hormones, such as serotonin and epinephrine, and decreasing our main ‘stress’ hormone, cortisol,” says Auth.
In addition to increasing serotonin, a 2016 review of both animal and human studies suggested that acupuncture may help treat depression. A
Auth says you’re likely to leave your next acupuncture session feeling happier and relaxed due to the release of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a relaxation amino acid.
Along with GABA, acupuncture may also encourage the release of:
Research assessing the impact of acupuncture on stress tends to focus on specific objective parameters of stress. These include:
- blood pressure
- heart rate
- cortisol levels
Studies also emphasize subjective patient experience, according to Vander Baan.
“Acupuncture has been shown in studies to decrease the activation of the stress response and various indicators of stress in the body and improve the patient experience with stress and anxiety,” she says.
Gabriel Sher is the lead acupuncturist at ORA in New York City.
“Acupuncture relaxes the system and mitigates the repercussions of stress created by our daily lives,” says Sher. “Acupuncture is an essential tool for both physical and mental well-being, and at ORA, we create a safe, peaceful environment where you can de-stress and reenergize.”
There is quite a bit of research that addresses the effectiveness of acupuncture on stress.
An older 2002 study of advanced heart failure patients found that acupuncture helped diminish stress.
The study demonstrated that acupuncture can help inhibit activation of the sympathetic nervous system in heart failure patients under stress. In other words, acupuncture may help prevent the activation of the stress response.
A randomized controlled clinical trial published in 2017 tested the effects that traditional acupuncture had when compared with sham acupuncture used as a control.
Participants were people who studied or worked on a large, urban college campus. Those in both the traditional acupuncture and sham acupuncture group showed a substantial initial decrease in perceived stress scores within the first few weeks.
At 12 weeks post-treatment, the traditional acupuncture group showed a significantly greater treatment effect than the sham acupuncture group. The study also demonstrated that effects can persist for at least 3 months after completion of treatment.
In a 2018 study of 75 women with fibromyalgia, real acupuncture showed improvement for longer periods of time than sham acupuncture.
When it comes to acupuncture treatment for stress, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“While there are points that consistently improve stress, acupuncture treatments are always customized to the patient and their particular constitution and symptoms,” says Vander Baan. “Because stress has systemic effects on the body, we want to treat the whole person and consider where the imbalances are for that particular person.”
That being said, Vander Baan often uses specific acupoints for stress in her patients. These include:
- PC6 (Pericardium 6) in the inner wrist
- HT7 (Heart 7) in the inner wrist
- yin tang between the eyebrows
- ear points, which are known to regulate the nervous system
In his practice, Sher uses DU-20 at the crown of the head, to treat stress in the people he performs acupuncture on.
“DU-20 clears the mind to help you feel focused and present, and it also helps relieve depression and sadness,” he says.
Like Vander Baan, Sher also uses the point yin tang to treat stress.
“Yin tang calms the spirit and takes the edge off emotional restlessness and anxiety — it also promotes deep relaxation and treats insomnia,” Sher says.
Ren-17, located in the middle of the chest, is another point that Sher uses to target stress in his practice of acupuncture.
“It’s especially [helpful] for those who tend to feel the effects of stress or anxiety in their chest, such as shortness of breath, tightness, or palpitations,” says Sher. “Ren-17 relaxes and opens the chest and releases the diaphragm.”
Depending on your personal goals and how long you’ve been dealing with a particular condition, you can expect to feel a little better with each treatment.
“A general guideline: If you’re brand new to acupuncture, we recommend coming once a week for the first month so that your body’s natural healing defenses can fully kick in and you’ll feel the effects begin to build up,” says Auth. “At that point, your acupuncturist can reassess your treatment plan.”
“When the body is under stress, it releases stress hormones that cause weight gain, an evolutionary response to survival,” says Vander Baan. “Traditionally, the stress response was a signal to the body to prepare for fight-or-flight and stimulated the activation of survival mode.”
Today an overactive stress response causes the body to chronically store excess weight. By down-regulating the sympathetic nervous system, acupuncture may help prevent and reverse the effects of the stress response on fat storage.
Acupuncture may also promote digestion and metabolism.
“In Chinese medicine, the liver system is responsible for processing stress, and when it becomes overwhelmed, it tends to overact on the spleen system,” says Vander Baan. “Treatment includes relieving the stress that overwhelms the liver while supporting the digestive system that has been taxed by the liver.”
To target weight gain associated with stress, Sher uses a combination of points that focus on stress as well as points that speed up digestion. These include:
- the “Four Doors” points
These points “are used to treat digestive disorders by strengthening the digestive system and regulating the function of the spleen, stomach, and intestines,” Sher says.
Sher recommends treatments two times per week to balance the body and ensure that the digestive system is functioning at an optimal level.
“To achieve your best health preventatively with acupuncture, we emphasize the importance of creating a healing habit and routine — and we recommend a minimum of one acupressure session per month to ideally one acupuncture session per week, with reality often falling somewhere in between,” says Auth.
When it comes to the research, there’s consensus that acupuncture may reduce symptoms associated with stress.
It does this in part by switching off the sympathetic nervous system and activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
If you believe your weight gain has been caused by stress, acupuncture may be beneficial to you. The frequency of your acupuncture sessions will depend on your needs and goals.
Talk with your healthcare provider to create a plan that works for you.
Daley Quinn is a beauty and wellness journalist and content strategist living in Boston. She’s a former beauty editor at a national magazine, and her work has appeared on sites including Allure, Well + Good, Byrdie, Fashionista, The Cut, WWD, Women’s Health Mag, HelloGiggles, Shape, Elite Daily, and more. You can see more of her work on her website.