When people ask me "How Does Acupuncture Work?" I generally tell them that acupuncture stimulates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, and improves blood circulation.
New research using a blood-flow imaging technique called photoplethysmography confirms this explanation. The researchers inserted needles in Zusanli (ST 36), and measured blood flow in the limbs.
Zusanli ST 36 Point. Image Source: Health CMI
Using the photoplethysmography, the researchers found that needling Zusanli (Stomach 36) significantly increases peripheral blood flow in the upper and lower limbs and stimulates the parasympathetic, rest and digest response.
So this provides one way to answer the question, how does acupuncture work? It works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and improving peripheral blood flow, which enables the body to relax and heal itself.
It is relatively rare that we can "fix" the body the way that we can fix machines. Imbalances in the body generally are global because every part is attached to the whole, and imbalance in any part causes the whole to adjust to compensate.
For example, if your car's carburetor goes bad, the transmission will not adjust its function to accommodate the problem in the carburetor. Your car won't get a transmission problem due to the carburetor problem.
In contrast, when any one organ system of the body gets out of balance, with either excessive or deficient function, this sets off a chain of changes and adjustments in the rest of the body. A sluggish digestive system will affect elimination, respiration, and often urination as well.
For this reason, if you "take something" to "fix" the digestion, you may not see any positive results in overall well-being, because you haven't done anything to correct all of the adjustments the body has made to adapt to the problem in the digestive system.
In order for any "fix" to be permanent, we have to regulate and restore balance to the whole system that will provide the foundation for sustaining the "fix." We will never have enough knowledge to do this mechanically, but we don't need to, because the body knows how to do it itself. All we need to do is help it get into its natural healing mode of operation: the rest and digest mode the occurs when the parasympathetic nervous system dominates.
Its a bit like shutting down your computer when you have bugs in its functions. When you restart, you often find that the bugs have disappeared. Similarly, if you can get the body into its own "shut down" mode, when it "restarts" you will find it functions better.
The natural "shut down" mode for the human body is sleep, which is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system. Acupuncture activates this "rest & digest" physiology, which allows the body to heal itself.
So, another answer to the question "How does acupuncture work?" is this: Acupuncture works by stimulating the body to restore balance to the whole system. Instead of "fixing" some specific thing only, on an assumption that we have more understanding and command of the body than we actually do have, we simply help the body achieve the state that allows it to reset itself.
Unlike "quick fixes," healing with acupuncture is gradual and subtle, because it relies on gradually shifting your system to a calmer condition with better circulation, which allows the natural homeostatic mechanisms of the body to restore harmony and balance to various functions. This is a lot different from "fixing" something with direct action on the ailing tissues, as done with drugs and surgery. It takes time, because the body can perform repairs only so fast.
In fact, there are known timetables for rejuvenation of all tissues. For example, we renew our platelets every 10 days, our blood cells every 3 months, our muscle cells every 4 months, and our bone cells every 2-3 years. There is no way to rush these processes, but you can retard them by interfering with normal body functions, and by not getting enough rest or proper nutrition. Too much saturated fat in the diet in particular impairs circulation and therefore slows down healing.
So if you want natural healing, you have to be patient, give your body deep rest, and eat nutrient-dense foods and supplements. Acupuncture helps a lot by inducing deep rest and improving circulation so that nutrient-rich blood gets to the ailing tissues, and wastes get carried away.
Most people these days get too little deep rest, and this means the body never has an opportunity to restore itself as it naturally would. We recommend regular acupuncture to everyone as a health maintenance technique. An acupuncture treatment simply provides a deeper state of rest than you can achieve without the needles. Getting this deep rest on a regular basis helps to prevent things from getting way out of whack.
So, in answer to the question, "How Does Acupuncture Work?" I could answer, "If you have patience, and get enough acupuncture, it works very well, by helping your body get the very deep rest it needs to rebalance itself."
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