Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, a professor at Georgetown Medical University noticed that many of her patients receiving acupuncture for pain reported improvements in other unrelated symptoms like poor sleep, depression and stress.
She, together with a team of researches, decided to investigate how acupuncture was causing these desirable side effects. They looked to see if the stress reducing effects were taking place on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is an important hormonal pathway and the target tissue for many current anti-depressant and anxiety drugs. It is where the hormone cortisol is active.
They used rats as an animal model for their study. Rats have the same hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis as humans and are used to study other stress and anxiety related medications.
The researchers stressed the rats out by putting them into ice water. They then applied acupuncture to the rats and measured cortisol levels, to assess their stress level. They found that stressed rats had higher cortisol levels. However, stressed rats that receive acupuncture had cortisol levels equal to the control mice that were not stressed.
The findings showed that acupuncture worked to reduce anxiety and stress by reducing cortisol levels.
The researchers also found that the rats who received acupuncture exhibited significant behavioral changes. While the stressed rats that didn’t receive acupuncture exhibited anxiety, depression and hopelessness through behavioral tests the stressed rats that did receive acupuncture behaved similarly to the normal non-stressed rats and didn’t exhibit anxiety and depression.