What Happens to Your Brain on Acupuncture

Researchers have begun delving into the neurological and biochemical effects of acupuncture
March 13, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020
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Back when I was in acupuncture school, we would see an uptick of chiropractic students in the teaching clinic right before big exams. Even though they were studying to be chiropractors, they were looking to us acupuncturists to help enhance their focus and increase their memory to give them an edge on exam day. They said the treatments worked, and every quarter, we’d have another group of students wanting acupuncture before their exams.

Who knew that acupuncture could help your memory, or have any effect on your brain at all? Apparently scientists know and are continuing to study this topic. There are a number of ways in which acupuncture treatments can change your brain chemistry, all in a good way. Here are a few:

Endorphins

Acupuncture increases the circulation of feel-good endorphins in your brain, according to a 2004 study published in Neuroscience Letters. Endorphins are a kind of neurotransmitter that have a calming, slightly euphoric effect. They’re responsible for the runner’s high that athletes experience after a hard workout. Don’t think they’re real? I’ve had a patient tell me that after her acupuncture treatments, she sits in her car for ten minutes because she’s just a little too relaxed to drive.

Pain Relief

We know that clinically, acupuncture can be effective for relieving pain of all kinds. Scientists tell us why; it ramps up your body’s natural opioid system. The circulation of chemicals similar to opioids, but made by your body, increases after an acupuncture treatment. In addition, acupuncture chemically blocks some of the pain signals being transmitted to your brain.

Memory

Research is suggesting that acupuncture may help you with your memory. A review of studies on the effect of acupuncture on people with mild cognitive impairment (a kind of pre-dementia) found that the subjects who had acupuncture scored better on tests for memory and dementia than those who didn’t have acupuncture. While research in this area is still early, it suggests that there may be a role for acupuncture in treating memory loss in aging populations.

Stress

Acupuncture helps you deal with stress. Research has uncovered that acupuncture regulates the HPA axis, the interaction between the hypothalamus (a part of your brain), the pituitary gland (also in your brain), and adrenal glands, which regulate your body’s hormones, most notably those that are related to the stress response.  In addition, acupuncture helps to balance out the stress hormones of cortisol, adrenaline, and insulin.

Is acupuncture the magic bullet for memory loss? It’s too early to tell, but this research gives us a better understanding of how acupuncture impacts your brain. If you’re one of those people who suspect that acupuncture is all in your head, I would say ‘yes!’ Those chiropractic students from twenty years ago were onto something, and scientists continue to show us that acupuncture affects your brain in ways that may relieve your pain, reduce the stress response, treat anxiety, help with depression, and improve your memory.

Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com