9 surprising ways acupuncture can make you healthier, according to experts
In recent decades, the use of holistic medicine treatments in America has been steeply rising. With no end in sight to their popularity in the West, a 2014 report published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that complementary integrative medicine has evolved in no small part due to its effectiveness for pain relief and scientific studies that have begun to prove its efficacy. Particularly, 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered annually in the United States alone.
Often facilitated with needles penetrating the skin, acupuncture, which originated from Eastern Chinese Medicine, is used for pain management-like headaches, osteoarthritis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea. Of course, that’s not to say that acupuncture should replace modern medicine. Many times, they work hand in hand.
While acupuncture hasn’t exactly been proven by science, there’s preliminary data indicating it may improve menstrual health and there’s experimental data showing that acupuncture can influence female reproductive functioning, according to NCBI’s 2014 report. Another study published in 2008 by the British Medical Journal found current preliminary evidence suggests that acupuncture given with embryo transfer improves rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilization.
The Yinova Center, led by Dr. Jill Blakeway and Dr. Noah Rubinstein, combines Eastern and Western medicine to treat their patients. In addition to pain management, their practitioners use acupuncture to heal women’s health conditions. These unexpected benefits are not paraded as much as reduced stress, but they can be just as promising. Here, Dr. Blakeway lists the ways women can utilize this ancient practice in fortuitous ways.
1. Regulates menstrual cycles and prevent premenstrual stagnation
“A lot of women experience constipation before their period and loose stools during their period. After ovulation, your body supports the potential to get pregnant by raising progesterone levels to warm your body and maintain a thick uterine lining. This allows time for an embryo to implant and form a strong connection within the endometrium,” says Dr. Blakeway.
According to Dr. Blakeway, all of this “holding” can create what Chinese medicine considers stagnation, which can lead to constipation. “From a Chinese medicine perspective, we consider these monthly changes in bowel habits to be a piece of a bigger picture.”
With acupuncture, you can help prevent premenstrual stagnation, which can reduce constipation, and subsequent urgency and loose stool once the period begins, she says. However, she also says that “regular acupuncture treatments can help regulate your cycles overall, further reducing the severity of these symptoms.”
2. Relieves premenstrual migraines
According to Dr. Blakeway, women who are prone to getting migraines often receive them right before or during menstruation (aka when their hormones fluctuate). “In these cases, the migraine is triggered by fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone. Hormone levels dip as we approach menstruation, typically one to two days prior to bleeding,” she says.
Dr. Blakeway explains that having an acupuncture treatment the week prior to your period can prevent the onset of headaches. According to a 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal, acupuncture decreased chronic-tension headaches in 270 trial patients. The needle stimulates the nerves to release endorphins, which trigger a response from your immune and circulation system stimulation to relieve migraines and tension headaches, Healthline explains. “As with changes in bowel movements, if this shift is not smooth, it can trigger various PMS symptoms, including migraines.”
3. Helps manage period and ovulation pain
“Acupuncture can help period pain by promoting blood circulation, balancing hormones, reducing inflammation and giving the body a prompt to release its own natural painkillers, called endorphins,” Dr. Blakeway explains. Many of her patients seek help with another painful condition associated with the menstrual cycle— mittelschmerz, also known as ovulation pain.
Thankfully, she says that acupuncture’s anti-inflammatory effect combined with its ability to relieve pain can alleviate this symptom. In a 2017 study published in the Healthcare Medical Institute, researchers found that acupuncture successfully down-regulates a pro-inflammatory biochemical (tumor necrosis factor alpha), which results in anti-inflammatory and painkiller responses.
4. Prevents premenstrual acne
“Hormones, and in particular, estrogen and progesterone, fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle. Just before the period starts, progesterone drops, while estrogen levels begin to rise. This can make your skin more oily and result in clogged pores and breakouts,” Dr. Blakeway explains.
In Chinese medicine, if this transition from progesterone to estrogen does not drop and rise when it should, it results in qi stagnation [when energy does not flow as easily as it should], she says, which can, ultimately, lead to inflammation. “We use acupuncture to move qi to relieve the stagnation and that has the benefit of reducing premenstrual breakouts and skin irritation.”
5. Helps with lack of focus and poor memory
According to Dr. Blakeway, the kidney system in Chinese medicine is related to brain function. Because poor memory is more of a cognitive issue, she uses acupuncture points to support and act on the central nervous system. This is why many of the herbs used to improve concentration are also kidney tonics. “However, Chinese medicine differentiates forgetfulness from a cloudy mind. If you feel foggy and heavy-headed, your Chinese diagnosis would more likely be related to damp, which is related to poor fluid metabolism and mucus accumulation,” she explains. In this case, they would focus on choosing acupuncture points that redistribute fluids in the body to clear mucus.
Overall, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are used to treat all sorts of issues related to mental function. Because everyone is different, she recommends getting a proper Chinese medical diagnosis from an experienced practitioner who is able to prescribe you a formula specially tailored to your circumstances.
6. Provides relief for grogginess and cloudy mind
“In Chinese medicine, grogginess—a heavy head and a cloudy mind —are caused by damp. This is a disorder related to the digestive system that causes poor fluid metabolism. Acupuncture’s circulatory benefits don’t just affect blood but can also tone up the digestive system and move accumulated fluids and relive that weighed down, foggy feeling.
What Chinese medicine refers to as damp, biomedicine would see as poor fluid metabolism, mucus accumulation, and systemic inflammation. That is what causes that weighed down, heavy and groggy feeling that is associated with a cloudy mind. “The main cause is often a reaction to certain foods. This is often true for people who have an intolerance to dairy, gluten or processed sugars,” she explains. This is why the Yinova Center helps people adjust their diets and work on their digestive systems to increase their tolerance to these foods so they don’t become inflamed or swollen in reaction to them.
7. Reduces night sweats
“Most people associate night sweats with menopause, but many women get them premenstrually,” Dr. Blakeway says. She explains that towards the end of a woman’s monthly cycle, progesterone levels increase and estrogen levels decrease. In some women, this increase in progesterone sends a signal to the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls temperature) that tells your body it’s overheating (because one of the effects of progesterone on the body is to increase internal temperature). The brain then responds by sending signals to the body to cool off and that results in sweating and a feeling of heat coming to the surface of the body.
“The cause is usually qi stagnation, the same condition that is responsible for premenstrual acne. So if you find that the week before your period comes you are kicking off the sheets and sleeping restlessly, it may be worth seeing an acupuncturist and letting them move your qi.” Most of the research into acupuncture and hot flashes have been done on menopausal women. This 2018 Danish study published by the British Medical Journal found that a course of five acupuncture treatments helps with hot flashes and night sweats. The Journal of The North American Menopause Society also published a study that shows how 20 acupuncture treatments reduced the number of hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause by as much as 36 percent with effects lasting for six months.
8. Regrows hair loss
“More and more women are suffering from hair loss. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology estimates that at any given time, 30 million women in the USA are affected by alopecia. In Chinese medicine, healthy hair relies on a good flow of qi and blood to nourish the scalp. This flow can be interrupted by either a deficiency of qi and blood or stagnation of qi and blood—either of which can mean that insufficient nourishment reaches the scalp. Blood and qi deficiency are often caused by either poor diet or poor assimilation of nutrients whereas qi and blood stagnation are often caused by stress or a hormone imbalance. Acupuncture can improve the flow of qi and blood in the scalp and can help hair to regrow and Chinese herbs can nourish qi and blood to stop more hair from falling out.”
Because circulation in the scalp helps hair regrowth, Dr. Blakeway uses acupuncture points on the scalp that cause minor irritation, which in turn causes the body to respond by bringing more blood to that area. “We combine these points with points on other parts of the body that promote better blood circulation throughout the whole body.”
9. Breech Baby
“Breech presentations [when a baby’s feet or buttocks are closer to the birth canal instead of their head]affect 4% of pregnancies but most of the time the baby turns themselves by the 36th week. If the baby continues to be breech, however, most OB’s advise a C-section so it’s worth trying to get the baby to turn if you can,” she explains. When she treats pregnant patients with a breech baby, her center uses a well-known acupuncture and moxibustion protocol which involves warming a point on the small toe.
“I must admit that when I first learned about this in the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine graduate school, I was skeptical. It seemed improbable that burning an herb above someone’s toe could have any effect on their baby’s position. However, over the years I have seen it work over and over again. In fact, it is one of the most tested points in Chinese medicine and has a success rate of anywhere between 69% and 85% in successive clinical trials.” Basically, it creates a small amount of extra room in the uterus, which the baby uses to wriggle down into the correct position.
Dr. Blakeway’s practice views acupuncture as more than just a way to relieve stress and tension. It’s a Western meets Eastern medicine to free women of pain caused by menstruation, pregnancy, and ovulation so they can focus on the beauty of being a woman.