The public awareness of acupuncture has grown by leaps and bounds since I first started my practice 13 years ago. This is a testament not only to the profound efficacy of acupuncture, but to its ever-growing acceptance from the conventional medical world. Much of that acceptance is due to a continually expanding field of research proving the benefits of acupuncture for a myriad of ailments. While most people are aware of its benefits for pain relief, fewer are aware of how great acupuncture is at boosting the immune system. However, as the data on acupuncture’s effects on pain becomes solidified, new and better research is emerging on how it affects immunity.
Acupuncture for Stress Reduction
Before diving too deeply into the research, we should note one of the most important ways in which acupuncture boosts immune function – stress relief. Anecdotally, patients report improvements in their reactions to psychological stress as something of a side-effect of treatment. Countless times, I have heard patients remark at how surprised they are to find that, although the stressors in their lives have not changed, they are reacting to that stress with much less intensity. And while we can amplify these stress-relieving effects using specific acupuncture points, even folks who are being treated for something as unrelated as low back pain note a significant reduction in stress.
So why is this? Well, for one thing, we know that acupuncture has a direct effect on the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that regulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) alongside the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). Acupuncture not only significantly reduces sympathetic hyperactivity, it actively stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. As our physical reaction to stress decreases, our bodies produce less inflammatory substances like cortisol. With lower levels of inflammation come higher levels of immune function. So not only are we feeling happier and less stressed, our bodies are more robustly able to fight off infection. While the stress-relieving effects of acupuncture are great, they are not the only way in which acupuncture benefits the immune system.
Acupuncture and Your Immune System
Central to the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. This nerve forms the “brain-gut” axis in which the gastrointestinal (GI) tract communicates with the brain. Via vagal nerve stimulation, along with stimulating increased blood perfusion to the GI tract, acupuncture protects the integrity of the intestinal mucosa. The mucosa is where the billions of beneficial bacteria reside in the GI tract. These friendly bacteria form a significant portion of the immune system, excreting massive quantities of antibodies into the gut. They need a healthy ecosystem in which to thrive and studies show that acupuncture does indeed provide that healthy environment.
Research shows that acupuncture has a direct effect on the body’s production of certain specific immune cells. T-cells are a type of lymphocyte produced in the thymus gland that play a central role in immune response. One study measured serum levels of T-cells both before and after a prescribed course of acupuncture treatments. The study separated the participants into two groups – young adults and older adults. Not only did the research show that T-cell counts went up significantly among both groups, the difference in pre and post treatment counts was greater in the group of older adults. Additionally, although T-cell counts did decrease 3 months after the acupuncture treatments, they were still significantly higher than before the treatments were administered in both groups.
While the previous study shows how profoundly acupuncture can boost immunity in older people, other studies show that other vulnerable groups benefit greatly from treatment as well. A meta-analysis of multiple studies found that acupuncture has similarly strong immunomodulatory effects among lung cancer patients. Not only did this review find that acupuncture increased certain subsets of T-cells, it was associated with an increase in other important immune cells such as Interleukin-2 (IL-2) and natural killer (NK) cells. Acupuncture also reduced the bone marrow suppression that is a common side effect of conventional cancer treatment, allowing the bone marrow to better function in its production of many of the blood cells and lymphocytes that are integral to immune function.
As we all try to navigate the new reality of life in a world with coronavirus, it is now more than of paramount importance to keep both our minds and bodies as healthy as possible. As we move forward bravely towards some semblance of life as we once knew it, let us all take the best possible care of ourselves. Let us all find a renewed commitment to self-care and utilize all of the tools at our disposal to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy. Please know that your friendly neighborhood acupuncturists across the state stand ready to help you reduce your stress and anxiety, boost your immune systems, and stimulate your bodies and minds to function as optimally as possible.
Matt Maneggia, LAc. is a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of Connecticut Family Acupuncture with offices in Coventry, Glastonbury and West Hartford. As a board member of the CT Society of Acupuncturists and a state rep to the American Society of Acupuncturists, Matt advocates for increased access to acupuncture through insurance coverage and integration of acupuncture into the mainstream healthcare system. He can be contacted through his website at: www.CTfamilyacupuncture.com or via the main office at 860-503-3676.