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Chinese Medicine

TCM Acupuncture for Anxiety and Mood Disorders

by James Pascual, Dac, DC RSS

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The increased stresses of the world, whether personal, occupational, or societal, can have a detrimental effect on one’s health. When one is not able to deal with stress, anxiety can develop and the symptoms of anxiety can overwhelm them. Acupuncture remains an effective treatment for anxiety. Research has shown acupuncture’s effectiveness and offers explanations on how this natural therapy can biochemically help control anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health problem in Canada. They are defined as a persistent state of fear that may or may not be associated with a specific object or situation, often accompanied by physiological changes such as a fast heartbeat and rapid breathing. In 2001, it was estimated that 2.9 million Canadians suffer from some type of anxiety disorder.   

Published lifetime prevalence rates for anxiety disorders suggest that somewhere between ten percent to one-quarter of the population is affected. Anxiety patients are more frequent users of the health care system than the general population with those sufferers having visited a general practitioner six or more times in a year. According to an American Study, Anxiety Disorders were found to be the most costly, accounting for nearly one-third of the total economic burden, higher than any other mental disorder or condition. Although there have been no formal studies concerning the costs of anxiety disorders to the Canadian health system, the American study indicates that the annual cost of anxiety disorders are $42 billion US.

The human body has developed an ingenious way to deal with the stresses that we encounter. With stress, the body is programmed to turn on the necessary systems and shut off secondary ones.  The body’s “fight or flight” mechanism (also known as the sympathetic system) turns on when stress is presented. Blood and energy is diverted to the systems that are required to fight or flee – such as the muscles of the body, the heart, and the cardiovascular systems. There are increases to the heart rate, energy is released from fat, and muscles become ready for quick action. In addition, secondary systems such as the digestive and reproductive are shut off because they are determined not to be necessary in this stressful situation.

In today’s fast paced world, stressors can become constant in our lives. The problem with stress is that it can cause the sympathetic system to be constantly functioning. Blood pressure remains high, there is a heightened sense of nervousness, and these symptoms can manifest into the anxiety disorders that are prevalent in our society today. In addition, psychosomatic disorders such as gastrointestinal ulcers and headaches can be due to this phenomenon.

Research has shown that when an animal is placed into a situation in which it cannot achieve an adaptive reflex, an abnormal biological reaction takes place involving visceral-endocrine functioning. These maladaptations may lead to the development of psychopathology, i.e. anxiety/phobias or physical illness (headaches, hypertension).  

Acupuncture remains an effective, natural, and safe treatment for people suffering from anxiety conditions because it is able to calm the sympathetic system by allowing the body to release neurotransmitters that can control a person’s stress level.

Acupuncture was developed about 2500 years ago and is centered around the development of Chinese society and Traditional Chinese Medicine which states that there are pathways or meridians in the body where energy or chi travels. Any disease, pain, or dysfunction is due to a blockage in these meridians. In the case of anxiety, when emotions are held over long periods of time, or when they result from a traumatic event, they can become the cause of illness. This will block the flow of chi. Fine needles are placed into specific acupoints which remove the blockage and allow the energy to flow again. With proper energy flow, the person’s health returns.

Since ancient times, acupuncture has been known as an effective treatment for stress and its disorders. There have been numerous references to the effects of the emotions on the body and psychosomatic illness, a relatively new concept in the West, but one that was recognized and written about 200 years B.C.  Based on these references, acupuncture was found to be the treatment of choice.

ACUPUNCTURE RESEARCH

Various scientists have researched the effects of acupuncture on anxiety. Two researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine assembled a group of patients for a blind, randomized controlled trial. The patients were undergoing surgery which created an acute anxiety condition. The study found that while treatment did not produce any significant physiological changes, subjects who received acupuncture did experience a profound change in their behavioural anxiety levels. In addition, they added that “the results of the study suggest that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for individuals experiencing intense levels of daily stress and anxiety.”

A German trial using a double blind design examined the effects of acupuncture on patients with minor depression and generalized anxiety disorders. One group was given acupuncture at the sites of true acupuncture points while the other received acupuncture at the sites of sham acupuncture points (needles were placed in points on the body that did not represent any particular acupuncture point). After 10 treatments, those receiving true acupuncture were experiencing a remarkable reduction in anxiety symptoms.

A Beijing Medical University trial compared the use of traditional acupuncture techniques against the use of the drug amitriptyline in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Amitriptyline is an antidepressant drug and may help alleviate the anxiety component of depression because of its sedative nature. Progress was assessed using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. The results showed that acupuncture treatment is as effective as amitriptyline in the treatment of depression and even more effective for anxiety symptoms.

Another study from China looked into the effects of acupuncture on reducing anxiety and depression in patients with chronic physical illness, where the psychological state of the patient was exacerbating their physical condition, contributing to a “vicious circle” of deteriorating health. Patients were administered acupuncture using standard points diagnosed through Traditional Chinese Medicine. Anxiety and depression rating scales were used before and after treatment.  After one month of treatment, anxiety had decreased to normal levels in 70% of the patients and depression in 90%.

An investigation was made to determine the effect of acupuncture on neurotransmitters commonly implicated in anxiety and depression – focusing on serotonin and norepinephrine. Electroacupuncture enhances the effect of the acupuncture needles by adding a current. Using electroacupuncture on specific acupuncture points, the study found that it accelerates the synthesis and release of serotonin and norepinephrine on the central nervous system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter released by neurons in the central nervous system and is believed to play an important role in the regulation of mood and sleep. Abnormal levels of serotonin have been thought to play a part in many disorders, notably as part of the biochemistry of depression, migraine, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Norepinephrine is also a stress hormone and along with epinephrine affects the fight or flight response affecting the sympathetic system. This confirmed findings in an earlier study which found that needling specific acupuncture points affected change in the amounts of particular neurotransmitters found in a subject’s blood and urine. Acupuncture mimics the mechanism used by various anti-anxiety and anti-depressive drugs by increasing amounts of serotonin and norepinephrine available to postsynaptic cells in the brain thereby decreasing anxiety symptoms.

Acupuncture remains an effective treatment for those suffering from anxiety, without the side effects seen with various drugs. With it’s effect on decreasing anxiety, acupuncture can help secondarily with the treatment of psychosomatic disorders. Research shows that there is a positive response of anxiety to acupuncture and that it should be considered a treatment for those suffering from this debilitating disorder.

References

Article Tags: chinese medicine, acupuncture, anxiety

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