Stress, depression and anxiety are common conditions that are seen frequently in our clinic.  And when the holidays roll around, it amps up even more for so many people.  The added stress of parties, family get togethers, gift buying, cooking, cleaning, decorating, etc. can literally push some people over the edge.

Chronic stress manifests as a wide range of emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms.  However, through the use of East Asian Medicine (EAM) and its many tools like acupuncture, cupping, herbs and moxibustion, our patients frequently report back that many of their symptoms have improved.  Some of the reports we get after patients are treated include:

  • More stable moods
  • Happier, calmer
  • Better self-esteem
  • Feeling more in control
  • Less triggered
  • Higher / more stable energy
  • Ease of digestion
  • Free of aches & pains
  • Better circulation
  • Improved ability to focus
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved libido
  • Less brain fog
  • Appetite regulation

While EAM has its own unique way of explaining why all these results occur, this article will discuss acupuncture and mental / emotional health from a physiological perspective. The key seems to be that acupuncture acts like physical therapy for the nervous system. It entrains the nervous system and brain to behave in ways that correspond to desired effects.  More specifically, studies show that acupuncture appears to have a positive effect on heart rate variability, which in turn promotes a healthy central autonomic network or the brain’s “executive function”.

It’s helpful to understand how central stress is to our health. EAM, as well as many traditional medical systems that see the mind and body as interconnected, see thoughts and emotions as the primary drivers of physical health issues. And this acknowledgment of the mind-body connection is finally becoming increasingly mainstream.

Here is a breakdown of commonly acknowledged stress symptoms:

Emotional symptoms of stress include becoming easily frustrated, agitated, and moody, feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control, having trouble relaxing and quieting your mind, feeling badly about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed and avoiding others / social situations.

Physical symptoms of stress include low energy, headaches, upset stomach, including diarrhea,  constipation, and nausea, aches, pains, and tense muscles, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent colds and infections, loss of sexual desire and / or ability, nervousness and shaking, cold or sweaty hands and feet, clenched jaw and grinding teeth and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).

Cognitive symptoms of stress include constant worrying, racing thoughts, forgetfulness and disorganization, inability to focus, poor judgment and being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side.

Behavioral symptoms of stress include changes in appetite, procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities, increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes and exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing.

Most people know that a little stress every now and then is part of life and not something to be concerned about. However, ongoing, chronic stress can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders, cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and stroke, obesity and other eating disorders, menstrual problems, sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women, skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis and eczema, and permanent hair loss and gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis and irritable colon.

When we experience stress, it triggers our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Usually known as the “fight-or-flight” response, the SNS is responsible for getting the body and mind ready for confrontation.  Internally, when the SNS is triggered, your pupils will dilate, salivation is inhibited, the bronchi in the lungs relax, the heart rate accelerates, gastrointestinal function and secretion decreases, glucose production and release increases, bladder contractions are decreased and adrenaline secretion increases.  And naturally, this is how you would want your body to respond in an emergency because it’s a reasonable response to a threat.

The problem comes when we are chronically locked into a fight-or-flight response, due to our perception of ongoing threats. In the average life, almost all of these threats are mental and emotional in nature, not threats of actual physical harm. When stress becomes chronic, our digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive and hormonal systems, as well as our brain, start to take a beating.  This kind of chronic stress starts to lead to the extensive list of stress-related symptoms mentioned above. And that’s not good.

Many of our patients with chronic digestive issues report that the symptoms diminish substantially when they’re on vacation. That’s no doubt due to the part of the body that balances out the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is commonly called  the “rest-and-digest” system.  The PNS gets you ready for relaxation, digestion and general feelings of calm and well-being.  Internally, when the PNS is triggered, the pupils constrict, saliva flows freely, the bronchi in the lungs constrict, the heart rate slows down, peristalsis in the digestive tract is stimulated, bile production is stimulated and bile is released freely and the bladder contracts regularly.

So the question becomes how do you know when you are in fight-or-flight mode (sympathetic), or rest-and-digest mode (parasympathetic)?  Aside from your own subjective feelings of either stress or relaxation, there is an objective measure known as heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability, or HRV, is the measurement of how the heart rate varies in timing between heartbeats. Scientists have found that HRV reflects the level of activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the primary players in the body’s central nervous system. The “tone,” or activity level, in the vagus nerve is an indicator of when you’re spending more time in sympathetic or parasympathetic mode.

For decades, doctors and psychologists have correlated low HRV with higher incidences of heart disease, high blood pressure, stress, anxiety and depression.  Decreased HRV is associated with states of stress, tension, anxiety, depression, anger and frustration. Research psychologists found that subjects focusing on thoughts of anger and frustration exhibit reduced HRV, while emotions of appreciation increased HRV. According to these studies, if you spend time being angry or frustrated, your heart behaves like the heart of someone who is four times more likely to die of a heart attack.  Conversely, healthy HRV ranges are associated with even emotions, reduced stress, better adaptation to stress situations, better performance and better functioning in day-to-day life.

When HRV gets into optimal ranges, this creates a positive influence in the central autonomic network (CAN), which is very desirable. CAN refers to the parts of the brain that create our “executive function”.  This consists of  our working memory, which stores details of our current surroundings and events to integrate the changes that are happening around us, as well as gathering and organizing information from the mind and body (signals from vagus nerve, heart, lungs, emotional centers) to negotiate and respond to present moment experience.

Between these 2 functions, the CAN (and its associated emotional-processing centers in the limbic system) literally acts as a bridge between mind and body.  It seems to be a major, central structure involved in keeping us on top of day-to-day changes, especially unexpected sources of stress.  It is crucial to successful performance in response to a wide range of social and cultural demands. Thus, a healthy CAN is key to navigating a stressful life while keeping our body in a non-stressed state of being. CAN inhibits our flight/fight response (SNS) and promotes greater amounts of time spent in the rest-and-digest response (PNS).

When our CAN is active and HRV is high, executive function increases and we are better adapted to our circumstances, more effective and accurate in our decision making, more focused, happier and less stressed about everything we are doing and less prone to heart disease, heart attacks, stress, anxiety and depression.  Therefore CAN is crucially important for getting and keeping us in the flow of events, feeling less anxious, stressed or frazzled.

In simple terms, acupuncture helps get HRV into optimal ranges, which also keeps our central autonomic network healthy. A 2012 meta-analysis of studies on acupuncture and HRV found that acupuncture does indeed improve patients’ HRV scores. This helped patients improve their symptoms, which in these studies were heart disease, hypertension, mild anxiety, depression, insomnia, migraines and muscle pain.

One of the key points that the authors emphasized was the “dosage” of acupuncture was important in helping patients get results, both in number of points per session and frequency and duration of the treatment plan. In studies where patients received only 1-3 points per treatment or got treatment only once every 2-4 weeks, results were decreased. In studies where patients received more points and treatments at least weekly, results increased.

Acupuncture is like a physical therapy for the nervous system. With sufficient numbers of treatments and points per session, acupuncture helps the nervous system adapt and re-educate itself to operate in a more optimal way.  When our nervous systems are in balance, we thrive. This is noted daily at Zen Penguin Wellness.  Many clients find greater balance after getting acupuncture. It’s always amazing to see how wide of a variety of effects acupuncture can have on a person’s well-being.

The science discussed above paints a good picture of why we frequently see such improvement in so many of the mental, emotional, relational and behavioral areas of people’s lives. It also demonstrates why we find such high levels of success in helping people with stress-related physical issues like headaches, muscle pain, digestive problems and respiratory issues, which are all areas connected by the vagus nerve, and badly affected when the SNS and PNS, CAN and HRV levels are thrown off by stress.

Each patient that enters the clinic is unique and facing their own unique set of circumstances, which is why our treatments are never cookie cutter.  Every patient gets individualized treatments that will change as the symptoms change.  To find out more about how East Asian Medicine can help you with stress, anxiety or any related issue, please contact us.

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