Understanding the molecular underpinnings of an ancient Chinese therapy's success could increase its acceptance by mainstream medicine
While acupuncture is used widely to treat chronic stress, the mechanism of action leading to reported health benefits are not understood. In a series of studies at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), researchers are demonstrating how acupuncture can significantly reduce the stress hormone response in an animal model of chronic stress.
The latest study was published today in the April issue of Journal of Endocrinology.
"Many practitioners of acupuncture have observed that this ancient practice can reduce stress in their patients, but there is a lack of biological proof of how or why this happens," says the study's lead author, Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, a part of GUMC. "We're starting to understand what's going on at the molecular level that helps explain acupuncture's benefit."
Eshkevari, a physiologist, nurse anesthetist and certified acupuncturist, designed a series of studies in rats to test the effect of electronic acupuncture on levels of proteins and hormones secreted by biologic pathways involved in stress response.
Eshkevari used rats because these animals are often used to research the biological determinants of stress. They mount a stress response when exposed to winter-like temperatures for an hour a day.
"I used electroacupuncture because I could make sure that each animal was getting the same treatment dose," she explains.
The spot used for the acupuncture needle is called "Zusanli," which is reported to help relieve a variety of conditions including stress. As with rats, that acupuncture point for humans is on the leg below the knee.
The study utilized four groups of rats for a 10-day experiment: a control group that was not stressed and received no acupuncture; a group that was stressed for an hour a day and did not receive acupuncture; a group that was stressed and received "sham" acupuncture near the tail; and the experimental group that were stressed and received acupuncture to the Zusanli spot on the leg.
The researchers then measured blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which includes the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. The interactions among these organs control reactions to stress and regulate digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality and energy storage and expenditure.