Anxiety and Acupuncture By Dr. Monica Benco DTCM, LAc

By Dr. Benco
Thanks to COVID 19, health issues are dominating the news with stories that focus on symptoms and outcomes. Like mainstream media, conventional medicine, all too often, fixates on treating a patient’s physical symptoms and overlooks the mental aspect of health and wellness. Yet research over the past three to four decades has clearly established that psychological stress affects clinically relevant immune system outcomes.[1] Given that an estimated 30% of the global population suffers from some degree of anxiety[2], it stands to reason a patient will have better outcomes if treated holistically, i.e. their physical, mental and emotional health. Anxiety may not be visible but that does not mean it should be taken any less serious than other medical conditions.

Research has shown that acupuncture can be used to effectively treat patients with anxiety.[3] Perhaps this is because acupuncture will not only target the symptoms that the patient feels, it will address their underlying causes. This is often referred to as the root and branch approach. While most other medical traditions treat only the branch symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes a more holistic approach, assessing a patient’s constitution, lifestyle, and health history to determine treatment. Addressing only the branch symptoms may seem effective at first but symptoms will often reemerge since the root concern has not been determined or addressed.

In my clinical experience, I have had patients report symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations or a racing heartbeat, lack of appetite or nausea after eating, overwhelming panic, and stomach pain to name a few. At times, these physical symptoms were debilitating and interrupted the patients’ daily life. However by focusing on discovering the underlying cause of the symptoms, we were able to discover a psychological root, anxiety. Often invisible, left untreated, anxiety can harm a person emotionally by undermining their perception of self-worth and relationships with loved ones. While there are widely known treatment methods for anxiety, they usually include a combination of psychological and pharmacological interventions, so many people with anxiety still suffer in silence.
In biomedical terms, acupuncture has been shown to have a profound effect on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS exists to aid in the sympathetic, or the “fight or flight” mechanism necessary for survival. In patients with anxiety, this system can be unbalanced to the point where the parasympathetic side of the ANS, “rest and digest”, cannot do its job. By influencing the hypothalamus, acupuncture can help regulate the body’s chemical response to external stressors.[4] Helping to balance the body’s chemistry, acupuncture allows the sympathetic nervous system to relax when it does not need to be in full force. The reduced levels of stress improves other body functions, including the immune system so that it is better able to attain health and wellness.

Can acupuncture cure anxiety? The simple answer is no. No one treatment can. Just like no patient can be successful on their own. However, as part of a well-rounded approach, acupuncture can make anxiety more manageable.

When treating patients suffering from anxiety or other mental health concerns, I encourage them to develop a support system that includes a mental health professional such as a counselor or psychotherapist and a Naturopathic Doctor that can help treat nutrient and mineral imbalances that contribute to mental health. Combined with acupuncture, this holistic approach can help a patient return to a more balanced sense of well being and a richer, fuller, healthier life.

[1] Seiler A., C.P., Christian L.M. (2020) The Impact of Everyday Stressors on the Immune System and Health. In: Choukèr A. (eds) Stress Challenges and Immunity in Space. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-16996-1_6,
[2] Baxter AJ, Scott KM, Vos T, Whiteford HA. Global prevalence of anxiety disorders: a systematic review and meta-regression. Psychological Medicine. 2013; 43:897-910
[3] Goyata SL, Avelino CC, Santos SV, Souza Junior DI, Gurgel MD, Terra FS. Effects from acupuncture in treating anxiety: integrative review. Rev Bras Enferm. 2016 Jun;69(3):602-9
[4] Guo ZL, Longhurst JC. Expression of c-Fos in arcuate nucleus induced by electroacupuncture: relations to neurons containing opioids and glutamate. Brain Research. 2007;1166:65–76