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Series of RN-led studies at Georgetown University Medical Center examine acupuncture’s mechanisms of action


In a series of studies at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., researchers have demonstrated how acupuncture can significantly reduce the stress hormone response in an animal model of chronic stress, according to a news release.

The latest study was published in the April issue of Journal of Endocrinology.

“Many practitioners of acupuncture have observed that this ancient practice can reduce stress in their patients, but there is a lack of biological proof of how or why this happens,” the study’s lead author, Ladan Eshkevari, RN, PhD, BSN, an assistant professor of nursing and assistant director of the nurse anesthesia program at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, said in the news release. “We’re starting to understand what’s going on at the molecular level that helps explain acupuncture’s benefit.”

Eshkevari, a physiologist, nurse anesthetist and certified acupuncturist, designed a series of studies in rats to test the effect of electronic acupuncture on levels of proteins and hormones secreted by biologic pathways involved in stress response. Eshkevari used rats because these animals are often used to research the biological determinants of stress, according to the release. They mount a stress response when exposed to winter-like temperatures for an hour a day.

“I used electroacupuncture because I could make sure that each animal was getting the same treatment dose,” she said in the release.

The spot used for the acupuncture needle is called Zusanli, which is reported to help relieve a variety of conditions including stress. As with rats, that acupuncture point for humans is on the leg below the knee.

The study used four groups of rats for a 10-day experiment: a control group that was not stressed and received no acupuncture; a group that was stressed for an hour a day and did not receive acupuncture; a group that was stressed and received sham acupuncture near the tail; and the experimental group that were stressed and received acupuncture to the Zusanli spot on the leg.

The researchers then measured blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The interactions among these organs control reactions to stress and regulate digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality and energy storage and expenditure.

They also measured levels of neuropeptide Y, a peptide secreted by the sympathetic nervous system in rodents and humans. This system is involved in the flight or fight response to acute stress, resulting in constriction of blood flow to all parts of the body except the heart, lungs and brain. Chronic stress, however, can cause elevated blood pressure and cardiac disease.

“We found that electronic acupuncture blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway,” Eshkevari said in the release, adding that the rats receiving the sham electronic acupuncture had elevation of the hormones similar to that of the stress-only animals.

Eshkevari said in the release that this research complements her earlier reported work that focused only on NPY. In that study, Eshkevari and her team found that NPY levels were reduced in the experimental group almost to the level of the control group, while the rats that were stressed and not treated with Zusanli acupuncture had high levels of NPY.

“Our growing body of evidence points to acupuncture’s protective effect against the stress response,” she said in the release. Eshkevari said additional research is needed to examine whether acupuncture would be effective in reducing hormone levels after the animals are exposed to the stress of cold temperatures and whether a similar observation can be made in humans.

The study was funded by the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists doctoral fellowship award to Eshkevari.

Co-authors include Georgetown researchers Susan Mulroney, PhD, and Eva Permaul.


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