Healing the Adrenal System: Acupuncture and the HPA Axis
As I discussed in my last article, my adrenals have taken a beating over the past decade of my life. As a result, my hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) isn’t working as well as it should be. I overproduce epinephrine and norepinephrine in the morning, leaving me feeling very anxious and jittery, but my cortisol production is slightly low. This combination of high epi and norepi and low cortisol leaves me feeling wired but also tired. At night, while my norepinephrine and epinephrine levels are fine, my cortisol is high. This occasionally makes sleep less than restfully.
As we’ve discussed previously, maintaining adrenal health is essential if you wish to feel and look your best, reach your fitness goals, and prevent disease. Knowing this and considering how long I’ve known my own adrenals have been off, it’s high time I took care of this issue.
In an effort to treat my own adrenal derangement, I have been investigating alternative medicines and treatments. My hope is that these might bring my neurotransmitter and cortisol production back into a normal rhythm and range. My first stop of the road to recovery via holistic therapies is acupuncture.
Many seek out acupuncture to reduce pain, treat addictions like smoking, and aid with mood disorders, among many other reasons. Studies have shown that acupuncture helps to regulate the HPA axis thereby correcting problems that arise from adrenal hormone and neurotransmitter derangement like depression, anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia. It all sounds promising, but I wanted to know how this works and what to expect from the treatment.
I decided to ask an expert, Dr. Ashlee Binns, owner of The Healing Point in Sarasota, FL. Dr. Binns has been in private practice since 2004 and is a licensed acupuncture physician in the states of Florida and New York, as well as being nationally board certified in Oriental medicine. Below she explains in her own words how acupuncture can help the HPA axis return to normal function and what a patient could expect from the therapy.
V: How does acupuncture help the body to return its natural production of stress hormones?
Dr. Binns: The body's functions require a constant state of internal balance, called homeostasis. On the cellular level, the body can tolerate only small variations in temperature, pH, and the concentration of various substances around the cells. The kidneys, liver, endocrine glands, and skin are responsible for maintaining homeostasis.
Acupuncture points are believed to trigger the body's regulatory mechanisms to release chemicals into the muscles, brain, and spinal cord. The chemicals either reduce pain and inflammation or stimulate secretion of hormones or other chemicals to initiate the body's self-regulating systems. Therefore, acupuncture exerts a strong homeostatic effect to restore the body's natural healthy balance. Studies have shown that acupuncture has a regulatory affect on the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones and can positively alter brain chemistry to promote physical and emotional well being.
V: What is the normal treatment prescription? How often should one have acupuncture done and when should they expect to see improvement?
Dr. Binns: Treatment prescription is based on the patients - their body type, the health challenges they are experiencing, how long they have been experiencing these challenges, and their lifestyle. Sometimes people notice a significant difference after their first treatment, while others take a series of treatments. Getting acupuncture is kind of like exercising in that the more treatments a patient receives, the more results they will experience. Depending on the severity of the condition and symptoms, generally patients should receive one to three treatments per week for about four to eight weeks, and then a maintenance program can be established.
V: What should a patient expect during and after treatment?
Dr. Binns: Ideally, patients should eat an hour or two before treatment and avoid any caffeine right before their treatment. Patients should wear comfortable, loose clothing and expect to be lying on the treatment table for 30-45 minutes. During the treatment, they may feel relaxed, heavy, tingly, drowsy, or even fall asleep.
The more acupuncture they receive, the more relaxed they will feel during the treatment. In addition to providing acupuncture, practitioners may prescribe an herbal formula and make dietary or supplement recommendations for the patient to reinforce the treatments and speed the recovery process.
After the treatment, the patient may feel drowsy or very relaxed for about an hour, and then feel refreshed and mentally clear. It is best to not do any strenuous or stressful activity after an acupuncture treatment so that the body can retain the effects of the treatment. It can take up to 48 hours for a patient to feel the full effect, but it’s okay to return to normal daily routines the day after the treatment.
V: What signs should the patient look for that might signal his or her condition is improving?
Dr. Binns: Improvement in conditions from acupuncture treatment is usually subtle and gradual at first. Before patients notice that symptoms are subsiding, they may first notice that sleep is improving, they have more energy, they are feeling less stressed, their thinking is more clear, their mind is more alert, bowel movements become more regular, and they feel an overall improvement in digestion. These are all "side effects" of acupuncture, indicating that the treatment is effective and the patient should continue until their symptoms have subsided or become manageable. Once that has been achieved, the practitioner will recommend a maintenance program to prevent the patient from going back to being so severely out of balance.
With all the talk about adrenal fatigue lately, few have focused on doing more than changing their workouts, stressors, sleep habits, and maybe taking some supplements. I think we’re missing out on a great therapy that could enhance the healing effects of these other treatments. Plus, the healing and regulatory effects of acupuncture may very well help your body respond to training, dieting, and any fitness or health pursuit you engage in. Tomorrow I have my first treatment. Wish me luck!
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.