Could rats subjected to chronic stress — their paws dunked in icy water — hold the key to how acupuncture works? And could all those needles, traditionally thought to unblock the flow of life energy, in fact be calming the body’s stress response?
That’s what Ladan Eshkevari, a licensed acupuncturist, physiologist and associate professor of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing theorizes after treating a group of stressed-out rats with acupuncture. In a study published recently in the Journal of Endocrinology, she found that the treatment actually lowered levels of the rat-equivalent of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as other proteins and hormones secreted by biologic pathways involved in the stress response.
“Our study is one of the first…to show how acupuncture works on chronic stress,” she said. Understanding the ancient Chinese practice on a molecular level, she adds, might make it more acceptable in a mainstream Western medicine context.
Rats, of course, are rats; they’re mammals, sure, but they don’t always behave like people. Still, Eshkevari’s hypothesis is that rats and humans may be comparable when it comes to their response to chronic stress. She posits that acupuncture works by quieting a key pathway — the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis — that drives the production of critical stress hormones in the body. Cortisol in high levels has been linked to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, insomnia and other conditions.
More than 3 million adults in the U.S. use acupuncture each year, according to the National Institutes of Health, yet “there has been considerable controversy surrounding its value as a therapy and whether it is anything more than placebo.” Despite numerous studies reporting its benefits for chronic pain, stress and other conditions (and the fact that it’s been used for over 2,500 years across Asia) experts says there’s no clear understanding of how, exactly, it works. Continue reading