Nicole Berrios, L.Ac.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
The million dollar question of the ages: how does acupuncture work? There are many ways to answer this question, because acupuncture does many different things to the body, but the most simple answer is that acupuncture works by stimulating the body's natural healing response so that it can basically heal itself. If you’re wondering how on earth acupuncture can accomplish this, allow me to explain.
The Traditional Explanation
When you go to acupuncture school, you learn all about the ancient traditional theories regarding how acupuncture works and what it does to the body. Acupuncture is one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been around for thousands of years (seriously, thousands of years!), and because it is so old, it has its own way of looking at the body that is very philosophical and completely different from how we understand the body and physical anatomy in modern times.
To give you an example, traditional Chinese medical theory will say that acupuncture works by moving and boosting the body’s “Qi” (which very loosely translates to energy, or air/oxygen). It may say that acupuncture works by harmonizing the yin and yang of the body or it may say that acupuncture works by removing pathogenic factors in the body that cause dis-ease via releasing the exterior. If any of this sounds philosophical, poetic or just plain weird, you’re not alone. It takes an acupuncturist years of schooling in Traditional Chinese medical theory to begin to wrap the mind around these vastly different concepts of looking at the body and health.
Any acupuncturist in practice or any patient who has received acupuncture can tell you with firsthand experience that acupuncture works. And when something works, even if you have to expand your mind to encompass words like Qi, yin or yang, it doesn’t really matter HOW it works, it just matters that it does (just ask anybody who used acupuncture to get rid of chronic pain or insomnia).
The Modern Science Behind Acupuncture
However, once acupuncture came to America in the 1970s, scientists began to study it to see if they can determine what acupuncture is actually doing to the body and to see how acupuncture really works (and without using terms like Qi, yin or yang).
Acupuncture has now been studied vigorously in many countries and there are thousands of studies validating its effectiveness (check out this page for links to our favorite acupuncture studies). Studies have also shown what acupuncture actually does to the body, which helps one to understand just how it works and why it is as effective as it is.
10 Ways That Acupuncture Works
According to scientific research, here are 10 ways that acupuncture works to help the body heal itself:
It reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body (these are the stress hormones in the body- hormones that wreak havoc on overall health status when left unchecked)
It boosts the body’s level of endorphins (this is the feel good hormone- the one that is released with exercise)
The body has natural opioid receptors and acupuncture activates these receptors, which provides natural pain relief (without the problems associated with taking actual opioids)
It increases blood flow and circulation
It encourages lymphatic drainage
It decreases swelling and inflammation if present in the body
It activates the autonomic nervous system, which takes the body out of “fight or flight” mode and instead puts it into “rest and digest” mode. This allows the body to enter a deep state of relaxation
It increases melatonin in the body, a hormone related to healthy sleep cycles
It stimulates peristalsis (or intestinal movement), which allows for healthier digestion
It opens up the airways, allowing the body to receive more oxygen
The Bottom Line
As you can see, there really is no single answer to the question “how does acupuncture work” because it does many things to the body. But because it does all of the amazing things listed above, it can be used to treat just about any ailment you can think of. When you balance out the body’s hormones, decrease swelling and inflammation, increase oxygen and more, the major stressors that can keep a person unwell are alleviated, which allows the body to finally have the space to heal itself.
The body truly is an amazing thing, and acupuncture taps into the body’s innate wisdom by just letting it do what it already does. And even with all the science backing it up now, it still sounds pretty poetic to me.