Acupuncture’s Effect on Nervous System

Acupuncture’s Effect on Nervous System

Acupuncture Benefits Nervous System Health

Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture is thought to exert a positive effect on the human body and is backed by centuries of empirical experience.  And while is it highly revered and routinely used in Eastern Asia, it is still looked upon with hesitation and skepticism here in the States. Easy as it is to dismiss something that we do not know or understand, we cannot ignore the fact that this ancient system of medicine has an extremely long history and is still being used today by nearly a quarter of the world’s population.  It’s fair to say that there must be something to it.

According to the theory of Chinese Medicine, disease is a result of an imbalance between theyin andyang elements of the body, and acupuncture is a therapeutic technique used to rebalance the two in order to promote healing.  In western perspective, we can translate this as the delicate and important balance between the Parasympathetic (yin aspect) and the Sympathetic(yang aspect) nervous system activity. Both of these systems make up what’s known as the Autonomic Nervous System.

The sympathetic system is often dubbed the “fight or flight” response that is  invoked during a physically, mentally or emotionally stressful time. While very useful in emergencies, it must be kept in mind that it is a catabolic process that tears down the body and uses up the body’s energy reserve.

Sympathetic response:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased Heart rate
  • Increased blood flow to the brain and muscles
  • Decreased blood flow to the digestive tract and eliminative organs
  • Feelings of nervousness, stress, anxiety, panic


On the contrary, the parasympathetic system is described as the “rest and digest” response when one is in a relaxed state; allowing the body to build up and save energy.  The focus here is on nourishment, the elimination of toxins/waste and most importantly on healing and regeneration of the body.

Parasympathetic response:

  • Decreases blood pressure
  • Slows down the heart rate
  • Promotes blood flow to digestive organs
  • Stimulate immune function
  • Stimulate the eliminative organs (Detoxification)


The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems may be thought of like a water faucet with hot and cold water balancing one another to create the ideal water temperature. They work together yet in opposition to each other in order to maintain a balance in which health thrives. The tendency however, thanks to our society’s typical hectic lifestyle, is for the sympathetic system to override the parasympathetic system. It is for the simple and obvious reason that a survival mechanism in a perceived state of emergency must supercede that of relaxation and healing.  What good is our healing ability if we’re not quick enough to run away from a dangerous and potentially fatal situation?  Take note though, that ANY stress, whether it’s from anticipating a difficult exam, speaking in public, or running away from an attacking grizzly bear, the body perceives and reacts to these stressors in the SAME way.

Now imagine what your state of being is in the day-to-day grind of today’s overly busy society. Do you find yourself rushing about, anxiously stuck in traffic, stressed about the upcoming project deadlines or important exams? Do you have a hard time turning off your mind or have trouble sleeping?  These are some good indicators that your sympathetic system is in overdrive and out of balance.  Although this seems to be the norm today, it is in fact precipitating the increasing rate of disease in this country! 

Is it any wonder why the harmonious function of the body’s organ systems begin to deteriorate so soon? If the energy output is constantly and insatiably being directed and expended in “defence” rather than “nourishment”, then eventually these precious life supporting organs begin to stagnate and slowly but surely weaken and decline in their ability to serve the body. Sooner than later, this state paves the way for pain and disease to settle in and take the reigns.

So, what can we do about this?  How can we better regulate the balance between these two systems and promote regeneration and healing rather than furthering along the body’s deterioration?

This brings me to the enormous impact acupuncture, when performed skillfully, can make on our health.  Because unlike herbs, an external source of supplementation, acupuncture focuses more on the reinforcement and activation of the body’s own internal healing ability.

Mechanism of Action

There is emerging evidence which reveals that acupuncture activates specific regions of the brain in disease states caused by the imbalance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activities. Moreover, it has been found to regulate adaptive neurotransmitters in these brain regions that subsequently alleviate the autonomic stress response.

One proposed mechanism of action is through the stimulation of the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the part of the brain called the hypothalamus.  This is a group of cells that plays an essential role in regulating the autonomic stress response.  Acupuncture stimulation is found to decrease the sympathetic outflow of certain neuropeptides and stress hormones that typically flood our brains in response to chronic stress.  In other words, acupuncture promotes the body’s healing response by down-regulating the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous activity. This allows the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response to take the lead and establish a natural healing mode of repair and regeneration.

Acupuncture’s effect on the nervous system is impressive, but acupuncture also helps regulate other systems of the body including the digestive, immune, endocrine, urinary, reproductive, circulatory, and respiratory systems.  It is also very successful in treating psychogenic diseases stemming from emotional or mental stresses. These topics will be explored in further detail in the upcoming blogs!

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