Acupuncture has its fans and its critics, but a new study shows that when it comes to treating hypertension, this ancient Chinese therapy is in fact effective. Moreover, the research, which was published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that the treatment produces its effects by recruiting the body’s natural opioids.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a dangerous condition that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and a range of other potentially fatal complications if left untreated. Though acupuncture is often claimed to be highly effective at lowering blood pressure, until now there was very little scientific evidence as to how it might achieve this on a physiological level.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, performed electroacupuncture on rats with hypertension in order to see if the treatment really could alleviate their symptoms. Electroacupuncture involves running a pulsating electrical current through acupuncture needles in order to stimulate acupoints.
Twice weekly for five weeks, the rats received 30 minutes of treatments, with all needles being placed over the peroneal nerve in the lower leg. Three weeks into the experiment, the study authors noted that the rats’ blood pressure was reduced for a period of 72 hours following each treatment, suggesting that it was working.
Genetic analysis revealed that throughout this period of reduced blood pressure, the expression of genes coding for opioids called enkephalins were enhanced in a brain region called the rostral ventrolateral medulla (rVLM), indicating that the opioid system was mediating this improvement in symptoms.
To confirm this, the team chemically inhibited the opioid receptors in the rats’ rVLM, and found that this prevented the electroacupuncture from having an effect. They then stimulated these opioid receptors in other rats that had not received acupuncture, reporting that this caused their blood pressure to drop.
While this research doesn’t necessarily prove that acupuncture works for the wide variety of disorders that it is often claimed to cure, it does at least show that the technique produces systemic effects that significantly influence the way the body functions.