How Chronic Stress Contributes to Anxiety and Depression
Stress is a way of life for many people these days. When we experience a thought or event that we perceive as stressful, our bodies begin producing hormones and neurotransmitters designed to help us respond to the stressful situation by engaging in a conflict or fleeing. This is referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, both located in the brain, and the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys.
The “fight or flight” response is important for motivating us to take action and avoid danger when needed. It is meant to be a short-term reaction to an acute situation that may be life-threatening. Thankfully, most of us don’t experience those situations as part of our daily lives. The stresses of our modern lives are rarely life-threatening and it’s usually inappropriate to “discharge” the energy built up by the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters by getting into a fight or running away. Unless we take action through regular exercise, meditation, or other stress management techniques, we don’t give our bodies the opportunity to recover from stress.
With continued or repeated stress without adequate time and resources for our bodies to recover, the “fight or flight” response can become chronic. This leads to persistent elevation of adrenal stress hormones and neurotransmitters including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Over time, the adrenal glands may become fatigued and stress hormone production may decrease or the daily pattern with which they are released may become disrupted. Disruptions in the production of adrenal stress hormones contribute to imbalances in other hormones and neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, which may lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Acupuncture and Stress Relief
Most people who get regular acupuncture treatment will tell you that they feel relaxed and peaceful during and after treatment and they also seem to handle the big and small stresses and challenges of life with greater ease.
A study published in March 2013, in the Journal of Endocrinology, shed some light on the physiological mechanisms behind acupuncture’s beneficial effects on stress. The study examined the effect of acupuncture on rats subjected to the stressful experience of cold exposure for one hour daily for ten days. Rats treated with acupuncture prior to the 10 day study period had significantly lower stress hormones (ACTH and cortisol) at the end of the 10 days than rats not treated with acupuncture. Acupuncture helped the study rats to cope better with stress.
Human bodies have the same type of response to the experience of stress that the rats in the study did, and most of us would say that we feel stressed for more than just one hour per day! Our adrenal glands increase their production of stress hormones when we feel stressed and this elevation can become chronic if the stress is repeated or continued. Disrupted stress hormones can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain, fatigue, frequent infections; digestive problems like IBS and acid reflux, and chronic pain, among many others.
Acupuncture for Anxiety and Depression
For many, the emotional symptoms of chronic stress are the most apparent and troubling. Fortunately, acupuncture and naturopathic medicine provide excellent strategies and tools for effectively treating both anxiety and depression, and for supporting patients in working with their underlying stress.
Many studies have demonstrated the benefit of acupuncture for treating anxiety disorders and there is evidence that acupuncture’s effect is comparable to that of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of counseling commonly used for patients with anxiety and depression. One recent study conducted at the University of York in the UK and published in September 2013, in the online journal PLOS Medicine, found that acupuncture is as effective as counseling and more effective than antidepressant medication alone in the treatment of depression.
In this study, 755 patients were randomly assigned to receive acupuncture, counseling, or standard medical treatment (medication) for their depression symptoms. At the end of the 3-month study, the researchers found that one in three patients who received either acupuncture or counseling were no longer depressed, compared to one in five patients who received only standard medical care.
Research clearly shows us that there are multiple valid and effective treatment options for anxiety and depression. If counseling and/or medication aren’t working, or if you are interested in a holistic approach, acupuncture may be a good choice for you.
What to Expect
In my practice, I regularly see patients who suffer from the effects of chronic stress, depression, and anxiety achieve significant relief with acupuncture treatment. Naturopathic treatment strategies including nutrition and lifestyle counseling, herbal medicines, homeopathy, and targeted nutritional supplements can greatly enhance acupuncture’s beneficial effects. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other symptoms of chronic stress, there are effective holistic strategies available to help you find and maintain emotional balance.
For most patients who choose acupuncture treatment alone or in conjunction with naturopathic care, an initial series of 6-10 weekly acupuncture treatments is recommended. After that time, treatments may be spaced out to once every 2 weeks or continued weekly treatments may be recommended depending on how the treatment is progressing. Over time as patients feel better and better, the time between visits gets longer until eventually patients only come for “tune up” treatments every 3 months to help maintain balance, or as needed when acutely stressful situations arise.
Eshkevari L, Permaul E, Mulroney SE. (2013), Acupuncture blocks cold stress-induced increases in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in the rat. J Endocrinol, 217 (1): 95-104. doi: 10.1530/JOE-12-0404.
Errington-Evans, N. (2012), Acupuncture for Anxiety. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 18: 277–284. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2011.00254.x
MacPherson H, Richmond S, Bland M, Brealey S, Gabe R, et al. (2013) Acupuncture and Counselling for Depression in Primary Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLoS Med 10(9): e1001518. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001518