How does Acupuncture work? Biochemical Soup

bowl of medicinal soup

The basic answer to the common question about Acupuncture’s efficacy is that it enhances your body’s own regulatory chemistry, thereby, calming inflammation, promoting tissue repair and balancing the nervous system. In a word, neuromodulation. Although biochemical soup is a perfect description.

Most of the research on the effects of Acupuncture began in China in the 1970’s. Internationally, over the last 20 years, researchers have used electron microscopes to observe biochemical changes in the tissues and functional MRIs to monitor brain activity. We can now name biochemicals that are promoted and better understand how the nervous system is affected.

It’s easy to imagine the effects of Acupuncture would be locally at the site where the needle is inserted. Through the nervous system, we affect pathways that travel throughout the body, eventually reaching the spine and resulting in a message to the brain. The beneficial effects include the depolarization of the electrical gradient in a nerve cell, regulating dysfunctional reflexes in the autonomic nervous system (such as calming acid reflux or diarrhea), and increasing production of neurotransmitters to promote communication within the nervous system.

The biochemicals associated with the nervous system are neurotransmitters (aka neuropeptides). Acupuncture improves the production of many of these chemical messengers, such as 5-HTP, Oxytocin, and Dopamine. It also enhances the body’s natural opioids, such as beta-endorphins, Enkephalins, Dynorphins, and Orphanin. These analgesic chemicals down-regulate pain nerves, which overall decreases pain.

We also know there is a very small immune reaction causing a healing response. Due to larger nerves following arteries, there is a direct effect on the vascular system. The capillaries release white and red blood cells, prostaglandins, and glutamate (another neurotransmitter), among other biochemicals, which help clean up dead cells, calm inflammation, and promote tissue repair.

One great example of the enhanced communication that happens along a nerve pathway is via the Superficial Radial Nerve. The point Large Intestine 4, He Gu, is between the thumb and index finger where this nerve has lots of little branches. Affecting this nerve sends signals along the afferent nerve fibers (a route that brings messages back to the brain). The signals travel back up the arm, through the Brachial Plexus in the shoulder, to the Cervical Plexus along the neck, enters the spine and terminates in the Hypothalamus, which is directly messaging the brain to decrease pain.

When making choices regarding health care, the more information the better. A basic understanding of what Acupuncture does is a valuable tool when considering treatment from an Acupuncturist.

Another common question is regarding the frequency of Acupuncture treatments. Simply put, more often treatments the stronger the results. The Hebbian Theory of brain neuroplasticity is “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means the repetition of affecting biochemical messaging anywhere in your body will change your brain patterning. Frequent and regular Acupuncture treatments are necessary in order to change a dysfunctional condition. We can say Acupuncture treatment is neuromodulation of a pathological system. Let’s all say that!