Needles and PinsIssue: Section:
Acupuncture – what it does and how it affects the body/mind/spirit
I am always asked if acupuncture really works and how it works. Does it work for pain? I answer, “Yes, it works for many things.” In particular, acupuncture has an effect on the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “fight or flight,“ and the parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest. One of the ultimate goals is to activate the rest and digest side of the nervous system in order to reduce stress and anxiety in the patient. While an acupuncture practitioner treats the patient’s complaint, this treatment also allows the patient to enter into a state of restfulness, allowing the body to effectively heal.
Stress is a major part of many people’s lives today – especially people who live and work in the New York City area. People hustle to make ends meet, trying to divide our work and family time in a timely economical way, and often we ignore our own needs to rest and relax. This will eventually have a negative impact on our body, mind, and spirit, so we should find the time to take care of ourselves. We have all heard about how stress can lead to all sorts of disease. Acupuncture is a way of taking care of ourselves, allowing the body to rest during treatment and letting the needles do the work. Acupuncture has specific points and styles to treat specific things, but ultimately, regardless of the condition, the treatment leaves the patient feeling relaxed and well balanced.
My explanation involves a little anatomical discussion about the brain and nervous system and what I believe is happening physically during an acupuncture treatment. I believe that a biological explanation of what’s happening helps to understand the body/mind/spirit concept.
Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic
The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are the two parts of the autonomic nervous system, or ANS. The ANS regulates sexual behavior, thirst, hunger, body temperature, and defensive reactions such as fear and rage. “Rest and digest” belongs to parasympathetic nervous system, activating what is known as SLUDD – salivation, lacrimation, urination, digestion, and defecation. When people are stressed, we are usually a bit hunched over, protecting the front of our bodies, which is part of the response of a sympathetic nervous system reaction, or “fight or flight.” The sympathetic nervous system supports emergency and exercise, increasing heart rate and shutting down digestion and urination processes. The image of the caveman vs. the saber tooth tiger is often used to describe what happens during a sympathetic reaction. Pupils dilate, the heart rate increases, and the body readies itself to either defend or run. Both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are driven by hormones secreted by the hypothalamus in the diencephalon, located in the middle of the brain. Painful, stressful, and emotional experiences send signals to the hypothalamus, which then activates the rest and digest or fight and flight systems. When activated, the hormones released have a direct affect on visceral organs and smooth muscles, producing physical reactions in the body. In a stressed out individual, someone who is constantly moving as if they under the gun, or even in an individual under mild, consistent stress, a toll is taken on the body. The person becomes worn out and eventually will have adrenal exhaustion. In turn, this will have an effect on the body, then affecting the mind where we may think we can’t meet all of the demands in our lives. With this exhaustion, the spirit is lowered and the individual feels drained, having no time devoted to self and self care.
Vagus Nerve – brain gut
Another biological component to consider is the cranial nerve known as the vagus nerve. This nerve travels all the way from the head and neck to the chest and gut. The vagus nerve has a direct influence on the “rest and digest” system. It controls heart rate, digestion, and sweating. This nerve provides a direct pathway from the brain to the digestive system and many people who experience a great deal of stress and anxiety will have digestive problems, from lack of appetite to diarrhea, constipation or an alternation of the later two. This is known in the medical world as IBS and it is seen quite a bit among people in high stress jobs, or just living a high stress life. The brain is constantly moving and trying to keep up with a demanding schedule. Many people may have working lunches and fail to take a proper break during the day. This would leave the sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, and the parasympathetic nervous system unable to take over and effectively manage the ability to “rest and digest.” Acupuncture has a prescription not only to assist with the stress, but also to relieve digestion problems. The digestion problems themselves can become a source of stress. If one is experiencing a great deal of stress, they should notice their digestion patterns since it can be a direct result of a stressful lifestyle. A good acupuncture treatment should relieve these patterns and bring the patient into a state of what should be a normal digestive pattern for the patient.
Now that I’ve given a small anatomy lesson, this is what I’ve seen acupuncture do. In my own experience with acupuncture treatment, I have witnessed the action of the needles and the way that acupuncture activates the rest and digest system. People often fall asleep once the needles are in and the patient is left to rest for several minutes. When I get treated, sometimes I will wake myself up snoring or I’ll have dreams, because I’m in such a restful state. Acupuncture points are selected based on the patient’s needs. In any acupuncture treatment, the practitioner will ask specific questions about the state of the patient’s mood, bodily functions, sleep patterns, and check the tongue and pulse, as well as palpate, or touch the body in certain places, in order to determine the points necessary to provide the best treatment for the patient. I encourage people to try acupuncture for everything from sinus problems, depression, muscular pain, insomnia, gynecological problems, and so on. I have found it to be a great source of preventive care and if used regularly, acupuncture can bring a patient’s body back into balance. The goal is to free and spread the qi (pronounced “chee”) that is stagnant, which in turn, allows blood and bodily fluids to move more freely, leading to a more balanced body, improving one’s state of mind and thus lifting the spirit!
Jessica Towery, MS L.Ac