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How Can Acupuncture Treat Your Stress?

Stress is pervasive. It affects all ages, genders and races. In everyday life our reactions to stress help us adapt to our environment and in crucial moments can even save our lives – so stress isn’t always bad. But on the other hand, prolonged stress can make us sick. Chronic stress has been tied to a myriad of diseases from chronic pain states to cardiovascular disease. While under stress, our body goes through many physiologic changes that happen when we don’t even realize it.

There are two key facets of our nervous system that keep the physiological stress reactions in our bodies in a state of balance:

  • The sympathetic nervous system, better known as our “fight or flight” nervous system, helps us deal with a stressor, be it a work deadline or a grizzly bear! The sympathetic nervous system readies our bodies to react by dilating our pupils so we can see better, making our heart pump faster, opening our lungs, and shunting blood away from our digestive organs and out to our skeletal muscles. (After all, we don’t need to worry about digesting our lunch when we should concentrate on running away from a bear.)
  • The opposing, but complementary counterpart is our parasympathetic nervous system, commonly known as our “rest and digest” nervous system.  This part of the nervous system allows our heart rate to return to baseline and focus on basic functions such as digesting our food.

Problems can occur when we stay in the “fight or flight” nervous system for a prolonged period of time. Stress hormones in our body remain elevated for too long and lead to inflammation. This can result in symptoms such as poor digestion, IBS, weight gain, and anxiety. Systemic inflammation has been tied to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and more.

Acupuncture, a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), helps decrease our “fight or flight” response and puts our bodies in the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system so our bodies can heal. In doing so, it also helps to retrain our nervous system to turn down the hyper-reactivity of the stress response and thus utilize more of the “rest” response. Acupuncture also has an anti-inflammatory effect, which is why it can help with pain, digestion and disease prevention. It can also help release the muscles that tend to become tense with chronic stress, including the muscles of the neck and shoulders where we often carry our stress. Releasing these muscles can also aid in relieving stress headaches.

TCM also utilizes herbs and diet therapy to mitigate the stress response and normalize inflammation in the body. Many herbs are “adaptogenic” and help the body adapt to the environment and deal with stress. Diet is also a large component of inflammation and therefore can cause physiologic stress. We now know that much of our nervous system lies within our gut, also known as our “gut-brain”. There is a connection between our brain and our gut-brain (via the vagus nerve) and the state of our gut can influence the state of our mind and vice versa. Eating a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory foods and taking probiotics can have a positive effect on our mental stress.

Dr. Alison Warren, DAOM, L.Ac. holds a Clinical Doctorate in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. During her training in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), she also traveled to China to train at prestigious hospitals in both Shanghai and Chengdu. Dr. Warren has been a nationally board certified licensed acupuncturist and diplomat in Oriental medicine since 2010, and Asian Body Therapist since 2007.

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