As you may know, acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years – and over a decade here at Empirical Point in Philadelphia. As our medical understanding of acupuncture’s benefits continues to grow, it is increasingly employed to treat common ailments, like stress, pain,and – perhaps most promisingly – immune system disorders.
When you think of immune disorders, you may imagine people who are severely immunocompromised (like those with HIV or certain cancers), but this kind of dysfunction actually has a very wide range of symptoms and severity. Immune disorders can be as mild and common as seasonal allergies, which are triggered by the immune system’s overreaction to allergens in the air. At the other end of the immunity continuum, you have significantly weakened immune systems that force sufferers to take strict precautions to avoid infections.
Several recent studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment for patients looking to strengthen their immune systems. To demonstrate acupuncture’s potential to relieve and even suppress harmful immune reactions, let’s start with the severe end of the spectrum. Sepsis, for example, is a life-threatening infection complication that kills nearly a quarter of a million Americans each year. Western medicine generally uses antibiotics to help control it, but the fatality rate remains high, as sepsis can progress extremely quickly. Recent animal research has demonstrated that triggering certain acupuncture points can calm the immune mechanism responsible for sepsis. Researchers have been so impressed with the results of these studies that a journalist at Scientific American recently wrote this:
The finding… raises the possibility that knowledge derived from alternative medicine may provide a means of discovering new nerve pathways that can regulate a variety of immune disorders, from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease. If future studies achieve similar results, acupuncture might be integrated into the nascent field of bioelectronics medicine—also called electroceuticals—that is generating intense interest among both academics and drug companies.
Acupuncture is also being offered more and more as a complementary option for people with a variety of cancers. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) – a branch of the National Institutes of Health – has cited numerous studies suggesting that acupuncture (and specifically electroacupuncture) can reduce the vomiting caused by chemotherapy. They also believe that it can help strengthen the immune system at the same time. Acupuncture’s immune boosting effect is incredible news for cancer patients, as chemotherapy is well known to leave them at risk for potentially life-threatening infections.
This support for acupuncture is echoed at BreastCancer.org, which provides patients with information about managing their cancer and the treatment process. The website states that “acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. They then travel to weakened areas of the body and relieve symptoms.” In addition to this immune system response, BreastCancer.org cites recent studies that demonstrate acupuncture’s potential to fight fatigue, control hot flashes, decrease nausea, reduce vomiting, and ease pain.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, research has repeatedly shown that acupuncture is highly effective for controlling the symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis, like nasal congestion and itchy, watery eyes. It is also helpful for many other immune-related conditions that are not potentially fatal, like cancer or sepsis. According to the National Center for Biotechnology, the incidence of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis may be on the rise. This condition, in which the immune system attacks the thyroid, can cause weight gain, hair shedding, persistent fatigue, infertility, and a generally weakened response to infection. Since Hashimoto’s is both endocrine (hormonal) and autoimmune, it is often exceedingly difficult to treat. But in a 2012 study conducted at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, acupuncture was shown to “regulate the neuroimmunoendocrinological system of the body and make significant positive changes on thyroid hormone levels and [encourage] recovery.” In simpler terms, this means that, as I have written many times before, acupuncture addresses ailments systemically. It treats the whole person, not just an isolated symptom or cluster of symptoms.
Acupuncture may also benefit those who suffer from alopecia areata, a devastating autoimmune condition in which a person’s hair falls out in round patches. In a recent study, the inflammatory process that underlies this condition was shown to be eased by electroacupuncture.
People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – the autoimmune variant of the disease – are being offered acupuncture treatments fairly frequently now, and for good reason. A 2009 study had this to say about acupuncture for RA:
Acupuncture was additionally perceived as alleviating a number of consequential secondary symptoms of RA, such as fatigue, depression and sleeplessness. These effects allowed patients to feel normal again and regain their lives, and resulted in improvements in patients’ lifestyle, emotional well-being and self-image. Acupuncturist affiliation impacts on both patient experience and perception of effects.
Here at my practice, I see patients from all over the Philadelphia region who are also feeling these benefits. There is a growing wealth of research and data pointing to the real and significant impact of acupuncture on the immune system. This increase in measurable effect, along with the growing use of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, could translate to broader acceptance of this centuries-old practice in the very near future.
Post updated October 4, 2016