acupuncture helps depression: cytokines

Recent research discovered that depression is not only psychiatric condition – it has a physiological manifestation in the brain. Scientists found that depressed patients have higher levels of cytokines. Cytokines are proteins which have an ability switch on inflammation in your body. These proteins can turn the brain into sickness mode – feeling down, lethargic, sleepy.

Acupuncture effective treatment for depression

This scientifically justified therapy showed promising results in patients who are diagnosed with depression, and especially, in patients with treatment resistant depression. Recent systematic review and meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture combined with antidepressant medication is effective, has an early onset of action, safe and well-tolerated over the first 6-week treatment period. Moreover, this treatment combination appears to result in greater therapeutic efficacy than SSRI therapy alone.

How acupuncture helps and why you should consider it

Previous experimental studies found that acupuncture can reduce cytokine levels in chronic headache patients. Research on rodents has shown that it can reduce cytokine levels in the brain.

One of the ways how acupuncture regulates your body is through the vagus nerve. This important nerve connects the organs with the brain. Via the Vagus nerve acupuncture can directly reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. And long term treatments can increase levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines. To achieve this benefit you need 3 or more months of regular treatment. This is not only beneficial for depression. Inflammation has been linked to heart disease, increase risk of cancer, affect your sleep, it makes it hard to lose weight, increases bone loss, damages your gums… Reducing inflammation can benefit your health significantly.

Currently there are a few theories explaining the therapeutic effects of this time-tested therapy for depressed patients. Cytokine theory is one of the most promising theory explaining how acupuncture treats depression.

“Does acupuncture work” – asked an orthopedic surgeon, whom I met at a social gathering. I told him there were numerous studies to show it did, and as example mentioned a new study published in the current issue of Nature magazine.

“Of forty mice with induced sepsis, all 20, who received acupuncture lived. Another 20 received fake acupuncture and half of them died” – I said. [Sepsis is a deadly condition caused by whole body inflammation.]

“I don’t believe this” – he said. “Sepsis! How could acupuncture ever touch sepsis!”

“It’s all legit, published in the current issue of Nature magazine” – I fired back.

“I don’t believe this” – he insisted.

I pulled out my smartphone to show him the study.

“Well, it’s just one study. I don’t believe this. Maybe, I’d believe it, if a recommendation came from the World Health Organisation or NHI”.

I put my phone to good use again and a minute later, I’m on WHO website with the list of condition acupuncture has been shown to work for.

“I still don’t believe it works!”

At that point, I make a joke “if you were a real doctor, but not an orthopedic surgeon, you would have more appreciation for the studies” I teased him. Then I changed the subject. It was not my business to convince him. It was just a chat  at a party.  He asked, I answered kind of thing.

But later my mind brought me back to this. How to convince the sceptics. I need an image, that would just explain it in a split second. FMRI brain scans!

FMRI or functional magnetic imaging can visually show an increased activity in various centers of the brain by measuring the blood flow. There are numerous studies on acupuncture published in peer reviewed magazines. An image below is a good example, showing specificity of various acupuncture points. You can see different areas of the brain getting activated depending on the acupuncture points being usedref 1. The image above this article shows activation of visual cortex in response to treatment of BL60, an acupuncture point associated with visual healingref 2.

acupuncture fmri

Acupuncture PCOSThe cause of polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS has not yet been agreed upon by scientists. And now there is  another possible scenario of pathogenesis, which looks very viable.

Apart from the well-known insulin resistance and hormone imbalance, there is one more process happening in the PCOS women’s bodies. The name of it is high sympathetic nerve activity, which, studies show, is present with PCOS patients.

Sympathetic nervous system innervates and regulates almost all of the internal organs, including hormone glands. It also innervates ovaries.

The interesting bit is that scientists believe, that sympathetic hyperactivity could develop before the hormone imbalance, and therefore be the root cause of PCOS.

The reason this is on my blog is that acupuncture has been researched to normalise the sympathetic nervous system. It can restore regular ovulation especially in patients with less androgenic hormonal profile and a less pronounced metabolic disturbance.

If you need help with PCOS, seek an acupuncturist with in depth knowledge of these studies and good understanding of electro-acupuncture. If the wrong frequency of stimulation is administered, it can cause further activation of sympathetic nervous system, which would be harmful to PCOS patients.

Note that sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system dysfunction can also explain pathophysiology of other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.


acupuncture adenosine

I have stumbled upon an article on the mechanism of acupuncture in the latest issue of journal of Nature.

A team of scientist from University of Rochester, New York  found acupuncture triggered an increase in neurotransmitter adenosine an incredible 24-fold at the punctured area. The study is important, because it explains one of the mechanisms how acupuncture works.
Listen to Scientific American podcast on the subject:

More details in Nature Neuroscience.

Update: there was a substantial media coverage of this study including scientific journals like Scientific American and mainstream media including New Zealand Herald. I’ve inserted a scanned image of the story in NZ Herald forwarded to me by one of my colleagues.


This study examines the effects of acupuncture in treatment of obesity.
This is mostly interesting to qualified acupuncturists, medical professionals and erudites that are interested in the science behind acupuncture.

Cabyoglu MT, et al. Department of Physiology, Selcuk University, Faculty of Meram Medical, Konya, Turkey.

The present study is an investigation of the results of the studies on the effects of acupuncture application therapy on obesity. It has been reported that acupuncture application in obesity treatment is effective in procuring weight loss. It can affect appetite, intestinal motility, and metabolism, as well as emotional factors such as stress. Increases in neural activity in the ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus, in tone in the smooth muscle of the stomach and in levels of enkephalin, beta endorphin, and serotonin in plasma and brain tissue have also been observed with the application of acupuncture. It has been observed that acupuncture application to obese people increases excitability of the satiety center in the ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus. Acupuncture stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve and raises serotonin levels. Both of these activities have been shown to increase tone in the smooth muscle of the stomach, thus suppressing appetite. Among other things, serotonin enhances intestinal motility. It also controls stress and depression via endorphin and dopamine production. In addition to these effects, it is thought that the increase in plasma levels of beta endorphin after acupuncture application can contribute to the body weight loss in obese people by mobilizing the body energy depots through lipolithic effect.

Int J Neurosci. 2006 Feb;116(2):165-75.

Source: PubMed