Evidence Based

9 Benefits of Acupuncture (Including Weight Loss, Anxiety)

Written by Nattha Wannissorn, PhD (Molecular Genetics) | Reviewed by Selfhacked Science Team | Last updated:

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Acupuncture might just be the solution to the opiate addiction epidemic as it can better manage pain without the addictive effect. It can even help with addiction itself.

It can also enhance mood and sleep, and improve the overall health and quality of life for an individual with few adverse side effects.

In this post, you’ll read about the proven health benefits of acupuncture and how you can use it to hack your health.

Health Benefits of Acupuncture

There are many potential health benefits and positive side effects of acupuncture. Some intended, positive side effects of acupuncture include:

  • Alertness [1]
  • Anti-inflammation [2]
  • Relaxation [1]
  • Calmness [1]
  • Improved sleep [1]
  • Pleasant feeling of fatigue [1]
  • Euphoria [1]
  • Feeling of warmth [1]

Acupuncture reestablishes homeostasis by affecting the interrelated systems of the body (nervous system, immune system, etc.) [3].

This readjustment of energy flow promotes healing in the body [4].

1.) Helps Alleviate Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects about 20% of adults globally. 10% of these are newly diagnosed each year [5]. In the US, the use of addictive opiate painkillers is becoming very problematic [6]. Acupuncture appears to be more effective at pain management without the side effects and may even help patients wean off from opiate drugs [7, 8].

Acupuncture is widely used to manage chronic pain [9].

The perception of pain and pain relief is a complex system involving nerves, the immune system, and hormones [10].

Stimulation of acupoints causes the body to release endorphins and natural opioids in the body, thus reducing the perception of pain [11]. In addition, it also reduces stress and tension [11].

However, we still don’t completely understand how acupuncture helps with pain. Research have hypothesized that a combination of neural signaling, opioids, glutamate, and adenosine are involved [11].

Dry needling can lengthen shortened muscles and release trigger points [12]. Electroacupuncture on the muscles can bring more blood flow to the area, flush out inflammation, and stimulates the muscles to function correctly [13]. These are practiced in medical acupuncture but not typically practiced in the context of traditional Chinese medicine.

For Back Pain

Chronic low back pains is a common, disabling condition with an annual incidence of 10 15% and 15 30% of people experience this at some point in their life [14].

A meta-analysis of 22 randomized clinical trials found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain but are inconclusive for acute low back pain. However, despite these results, the study found that other active therapies were just as effective for treating chronic low back pain as acupuncture [15].

In several clinical studies (DB-RCT), patients in both the acupuncture and the sham (minimal fake acupuncture control) acupuncture groups were more effective at treating low back pain than patients with no acupuncture treatment or conventional therapies. However, there was no significant difference between the acupuncture group and the sham control group [1617].

Potentially, acupuncture treatment may have psychological placebo effects without having physical effects on the body. The acupuncture treatment outperformed other groups (conventional treatments and no treatments) but did not outperform the sham control group.

However, brain imaging studies have shown that acupuncture and sham acupuncture have different effects on the brain (limbic structures), despite similar pain-relieving effects [18].

Some studies demonstrated low to moderate evidence that acupuncture was an effective treatment for chronic low back pain. These benefits were short-term (less than 3 months) pain management [19].

For Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder throughout the world, affecting more than 80% of people over the age of 75. Osteoarthritis is the loss of bone cartilage, affecting the flexible tissues around the bone and causing pain [20].

A 2014 meta-analysis found that acupuncture use is associated with [21]:

  • a reduction of pain intensities
  • functional mobility improvements
  • improved quality of life

The study supports acupuncture as an alternative form of medicine to traditional painkillers (including opiates) in osteoarthritis patients [21].

Clinical studies have shown mixed results [22].

Other randomized controlled studies have shown that acupuncture has functional improvements of joints and pain relief for osteoarthritis compared with both controls [23].

However, the improvement differences between acupuncture and sham acupuncture decrease over time (after 26 and 52 weeks) [24].

Can Treat Pain Associated with Cancer and Chemotherapy

Cancer-related pain, prevalent in 40 – 85% of patients [25], can be caused directly by the cancer lesions, or indirectly by surgeries and chemotherapies [26].

Acupuncture is used to treat cancer-related pain, as well as nausea and vomiting [27].

Acupuncture works by helping to release serotonin, opioids, and endorphins in the brain [28].

Serotonin release from the brain (upper brain stem region and hypothalamus) stimulates the release of other hormones (β-endorphin, enkephalin, endomorphin, and dynorphin) that reduce and alleviate the pain [29].

Acupuncture can also be used to treat weakness and pain from nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy) associated with chemotherapy. Although further studies are still needed to validate using acupuncture to treat chemotherapy pain, utilizing acupuncture in this area seems promising [30].

Can Treat Pain During Pregnancy

When compared to physical therapy, acupuncture has been shown to be more effective at relieving pain and decreasing disability from lower back pain during pregnancy [31, 32, 33].

In a blind controlled study, ear acupuncture has also been shown to reduce posterior pelvic pain during pregnancy after one week of therapy [34].

However, certain acupoint sites in the abdominal region and those that stimulate the cervix and uterus (stimulation of these points can potentially induce labor) should be avoided during pregnancy [35, 36, 32].

Although acupuncture and acupressure have been effective at reducing pain during pregnancy, further studies are needed to validate the results [37].

2.) Can Treat Headaches and Migraines

Acupuncture treatment appears to be an effective treatment for headaches and migraines [38].

Adding acupuncture to other treatments (standard of care) reduce the frequency of migraine attacks [39, 40].

However, in clinical studies, acupuncture treatment for headaches and migraines have conflicting results.

In a randomized control study, patients in both the acupuncture and the sham acupuncture groups were both more effective at treating tension headaches than patients with no acupuncture treatment. However, there was no significant difference between the acupuncture group and the sham control group [41].

In 2 different studies, acupuncture was more effective than placebo, reducing both the number of headache attacks and the duration of the headaches [42, 43].

A 2016 meta-analysis found that acupuncture is effective at treating frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches [44].

For episodic migraines, true acupuncture was more effective than sham acupuncture and traditional painkillers [39].

3.) Can Enhance Sleep

Acupuncture is effective at improving both the quality and duration of sleep [45].

Acupuncture leads to brain and hormonal changes that can improve sleep. It decreases metabolic activities and heart rate (increased parasympathetic system, decreased sympathetic system) [46].

Helps with Insomnia

Multiple randomized, controlled studies have shown that acupuncture is more effective at treating insomnia than other controls [45, 46, 47].

Helps with Sleep Apnea

In a randomized, single-blind study, acupuncture was more effective at reducing respiratory conditions in obstructive sleep apnea syndrome than sham acupuncture [48].

Helps with Menopausal-Related Sleep Disturbances

A 2016 meta-analysis concluded that acupuncture treatment was associated with decreased sleep disturbances in perimenopausal or menopausal women [49, 50].

Acupuncture has also been shown to have subjective improvements of individual symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. These symptoms include tremors, walking, handwriting, slowness, pain, sleep, depression, and anxiety. However, clinical tests have demonstrated that acupuncture failed to show physical improvements besides sleep and rest [4].

4.) Can Enhance Mood

Acupuncture can induce the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and endorphins in the brain, elevating mood [51].

In animal studies, acupuncture can improve mood-related disorders (by increasing NPY in the hippocampus) [52].

5.) Can Reduce Anxiety

Acupuncture has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety in both human and animal subjects, despite poor methodological reporting and reproducibility in repeat studies [53].

In two case reports of male patients, scalp acupuncture has demonstrated to be effective in treating anxiety. Acupuncture stimulation at specific points of the brain (Governing Vessel and local acupoints) helped with anxiety – both in the short and long terms [54].

Also, acupuncture can treat anxiety and depression during pregnancy. A systematic review of 6 studies showed that acupuncture reduces both depression and anxiety during pregnancy [55].

Despite promising results in multiple studies for the treatment of anxiety, there is still not enough research evidence to validate these results [56, 57].

6.) Reduces Stress and Depression by Reducing Brain Inflammation

Psychological stress can elevate inflammatory responses. These inflammatory responses can cause depressive symptoms such as poor mood, inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia), fatigue, and social problems [58].

Inflammation and stress are interconnected and interactive in the (sympathetic) nervous system [59].

Acupuncture inhibits inflammation in specific parts of the brain and in (peripheral) blood, indirectly reducing stress hormones. This effect is beneficial in the treatment of depression [2].

Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve with electroacupuncture can also inhibit these inflammatory responses (TNF, IL-1beta, IL-6, and IL-18) [3].

7.) Can Reduce Blood Pressure Increase Caused by Stress

Stress increases blood pressure [60].

In a controlled experiment, acupuncture at both acupoints and non-acupoints greatly decreased blood pressure in response to mental stress (mental arithmetic and the Stroop color and word test) in humans [61].

One explanation for the reduction in blood pressure is that acupuncture stimulates the sensory neurons in the muscles. This stimulation of the nervous system induces the release of endogenous opioids, which have effects on the heart (cardiovascular system) [61]. In addition, acupuncture also reduces stress by increasing parasympathetic activity and decreasing sympathetic activity [62].

8.) Stimulates the Immune System

Acupuncture involves introducing a foreign object in the form of a metallic needle into the body. The introduction of foreign material into the body will produce an immune response [63].

Acupuncture treatment can not only reduce stress but also stimulate the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells (lymphocytes) [63].

Immune functions such as mobility of cells (chemotaxis), phagocytosis, lymphocyte proliferation, and activities of natural killer (NK) cells were significantly improved in anxious women after acupuncture treatment in women with anxiety [64].

9.) Ear Acupuncture Can Help with Weight Loss

Ear acupuncture is widely used in Western countries for weight loss [65, 66].

The satiety center (ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus) of the brain can be stimulated to decrease the feeling of hunger [67].

For the therapeutic effect of weight loss, stimulation of the vagal nerve raises serotonin levels. This stimulation affects the smooth muscles in the stomach, leading to appetite suppression [68].

Serotonin can also enhance intestinal motility, decrease anxiety, and mobilize the body’s energy reserves (lipolytic effect), which contribute to weight loss [67].

In a randomized control study, bilateral auricular acupuncture stimulation in healthy, nonobese subjects led to significant weight loss [69].

Common Adverse Side Effects Associated with Acupuncture

Acupuncture treatment is generally safe, and few adverse effects are observed when treatment follows Clean Needle Technique (CNT) and sterile practices [70].

The risk of adverse events for acupuncture is 0.01 per 10,000 acupuncture sessions and 0.09 per 10,000 individual patients [71].

From 2000 to 2009, there were 95 cases of serious adverse effects associated with acupuncture use, with many incidents occurring in Asia. 5 cases were fatal [72].

Many serious complications are not inherent to acupuncture but are caused by malpractice of acupuncturists [72].

Improper acupuncture techniques can lead to excessive bleeding, heart problems, lung problems, and different kinds of infections [73].

Negative side effects inherent to acupuncture includes:

  • Bruising [74, 75]
  • Sweating [1]
  • An extreme feeling of fatigue [1]
  • Feeling cold [1]
  • Dizziness [1]
  • Pain in acupuncture points [1]

1.) Can Potentially Lead to Infections

Before the introduction of disposable needles, hepatitis cross-infections between patients were common. Since then, the majority of infections have been bacterial, caused by skin contact at the acupoints [70].

Complete sterilization of the skin is not only impractical for acupuncture but also not possible even under surgical conditions [76].

The most common outbreak are mycobacterial infections, which occur in 96% of cases [77].

Other infections include pyogenic bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus), bacterial endocarditis, and blood-borne viruses (hepatitis, HIV) [78, 79].

Infection control education and good hygiene practices should be emphasized at acupuncture clinics [80].

Although bacterial infections are the most commonly encountered complication, these infections are relatively minor and can be treated with antibiotics (Note: antibiotics does not treat viral infections) [72].

2.) Can Cause Loss of Balance and Consciousness

During acupuncture treatment, loss of balance (vertigo) and loss of consciousness (syncope) is not uncommon. Individuals with abnormally low blood pressure (hypotension) or slow heart rate (bradycardia) are more at risk [81].

Loss of consciousness due to acupuncture is called “needle fainting.” These symptoms include:

  • Cold sweats [82]
  • Stomach discomforts [82]
  • Loss of overall body strength [82]
  • Decreased pulse [82]
  • Loss of balance [82]

Needle fainting primarily occurs in patients receiving acupuncture treatment for the first time. This reaction is a reflex (caused by vagal excitation) [73].

The vagus nerve controls different systems of the body including the heart, lungs, hormonal (endocrine), and digestive systems, exerting effects on smooth muscles, blood vessels, and sweat glands [83].

Vagus nerve stimulation affects the nervous system (parasympathetic system) and can lead to voice alteration, cough, difficulty breathing (dyspnea), and diarrhea [84].

In some circumstances, the stimulation of the vagus nerve can lead to heart problems (bradycardia and arrhythmia). In rare but severe cases, death can occur [85].

Reduced blood flow to the brain can also lead to loss of balance and consciousness. Caution is needed when delivering acupuncture treatment to older patients. Convulsive loss of consciousness can sometimes occur [86].

In some cases, reduced blood flow due to chest acupuncture can lead to ineffective pumping by the heart (cardiac tamponade). These effects can also lead to fainting and shock [87].

In several surveys, fainting (syncope) was the most common adverse effect experienced by patients after acupuncture treatments [88].

Contraindications for Acupuncture

There are some situations and conditions in which acupuncture treatment may be harmful to the individual. These contraindications include:

  • Serious spinal disease (cancer or infections) [35, 81]
  • Clotting & bleeding disorders (hemophilia & advanced liver disease) [35]
  • Heart conditions (myocardial infarctions, arrhythmias, congenital abnormalities) [81]
  • Warfarin use [35]
  • Severe psychiatric conditions (psychosis) [35]
  • Local skin infections or skin trauma (burns) [35]
  • Low blood pressure conditions (hunger, anxiety, exhaustion) [36]

Electroacupuncture should be avoided near sites of electrical implanted devices such as pacemakers [35].

Certain acupoint points should also be avoided during pregnancy [35, 36].

Acupuncture should not be done on an empty stomach. Ideally, consume some foods an hour before the treatment.

Experiences with Acupuncture

Acupuncture generally has very positive reviews about its physical and psychological effects.

According to one writer, acupuncture affected her both physically and emotionally. Acupuncture both relaxes and invigorates the individual through activation of the nervous system. 10 minutes into the session, the writer was filled with emotion and started crying. According to the writer, “As I walked out of my session, I felt instantly calmer and more relaxed. The “stresses” I’d been flustered by seemed smaller, my physical ailments felt tangibly better, and I couldn’t wait to book another appointment [89].”

According to another blogger, acupuncture was a relaxing and therapeutic experience. The blogger received acupuncture treatment for low back pains. According to her, “…other times I could feel the energy flowing in a line between the needles on my ankles and my knees. When I left I felt rested and aligned, I was able to stand normally without compensating for my back and even felt a release and suppleness in my upper back and shoulders that get tense even without injury [90].”

Our Personal Experiences with Acupuncture

Nattha’s experience: I could say that I might not have survived graduate school without the acupuncture treatments.

Over the past years, I have received acupuncture extensively in many different formats – both traditional and medical, including regular, electroacupuncture, and ear points both in the US, Thailand, and Canada. The medical acupuncture was practiced by chiropractors, naturopathic doctors, and massage therapists.

I personally found it to be very effective for:

  • Regulating irregular menstrual cycles from stress and low body fat. Weekly acupuncture treatments reduced my cycle length from 49 to 28 days over the course of 3 months.
  • Decreasing very heavy menstrual flow or increasing the less heavy flow.
  • Mitigating premenstrual or menstrual discomfort including pain, tenderness, mood symptoms, food cravings, and insomnia.
  • Depression, anxiety, and improving mood. A few times, I experienced unusual calm and euphoric mood after acupuncture sessions when I informed the acupuncturists of my emotional distress. The more effective acupuncturists I saw could tell that I had some emotional stress going on before I told them.
  • Managing stress, especially the ear and scalp points, were very effective at reducing anxiety.
  • Managing back, neck, knee, and foot pain.
  • Relieving brain fog and fatigue from high inflammation and restoring cognitive functions from eating foods that triggered my histamine intolerance.
  • Relieving the severity of my eczema – In the middle of a bad flare-up, an acupuncture treatment reduced itchiness and swelling from 9 – 10 out of 10 to a 0 – 2 for up to 2 days.
  • Relieving allergy symptoms, including congestion and coughs.
  • Acupuncture was somewhat effective in relieving onset insomnia (when I found it hard to fall asleep) but less effective for terminal insomnia (waking up too early).

Acupuncture Alone is Not Always the Cure

For pain relief, I typically find that meridian points were more effective in reducing the pain than local points (i.e., placing the needles on or around the affected areas). For example, a single needle inserted on my left arm was 100% more effective in relieving my back pain from a sacroiliac joint injury than when the needles were inserted in my back or around the injured joint itself.

The same problem applies when it comes to using acupuncture to manage symptoms of food sensitivities or environmental allergies. If I don’t stop eating the foods or remove the allergens from my environments, the symptoms would improve temporarily only to return 2 days after the acupuncture treatments.

However, for injuries, acupuncture is relief care. It manages pain and inflammation but does not fix the injuries or root causes of injuries. When I receive acupuncture to help with pain or inflammation, the inflammation went down for 1 – 2 days. If movement dysfunctions (e.g. flat foot arch or poor postures) caused the pain, it would still be important to fix the movement dysfunctions with a rehabilitation professional to prevent the injuries from coming back.

Vagal Tone (Heart Rate Variability)

During a particularly stressful period, I measured my HRV in the morning prior to an acupuncture treatment. After this particular acupuncture treatment, I experienced significantly less anxiety and stress. The following morning, I measured my HRV again using the same settings. While the HRV was the same, the LF/HF ratio (a measurement of sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system activity), dropped from an average of 4 to an average of 1. This suggests that the acupuncture did activate my parasympathetic nervous system and reduced my sympathetic nervous system activity, which was consistent with the published literature [62].

Other factors that affected the effectiveness of the treatment for me:

  • I find that community acupuncture was more effective than individual acupuncture.
  • How I liked the acupuncturist did affect the treatment outcome. I’ve also observed that acupuncturists who patiently conversed more with their patients had better clinical outcomes, even though they only had a few minutes to diagnose and treat. They were more popular than acupuncturists who were more reserved. This might be part of the placebo or the “white coat” effect. Different acupuncturists also have different styles, as some are more conservative than others and some prefer specific approaches.
  • Practitioners in Asia seem to be more aggressive in their treatments than those in the US and Canada. They informed me about regulations in North America that prohibit certain practices.

Client experience: One client with chronic fatigue syndrome and another with hyperthyroidism reported that acupuncture immediately worsened their fatigue to the point that they had to sleep for a few days. Therefore, acupuncture may not be for everyone.

For more science-backed tips and tricks on how to start living a happier and healthier lifestyle, check out my book SelfHacked Secrets. Here I’ve compiled all of my research and what I’ve learned from helping over 1,000 patients fix their chronic health issues.

This post is part 2 of a 2-part series. Click below to read part 1 of this series.

About the Author

Nattha Wannissorn

PhD (Molecular Genetics)
Nattha received her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and her undergraduate degree in Molecular and Computational Biology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Aside from having spent 15 years in biomedical research and health sciences, Nattha is also a registered holistic nutritionist, a certified personal trainer, has a precision nutrition level 1 certification, and is a certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner. As a holistic practitioner with a strong science background, Nattha is an advocate of science literacy in health topics and self-experimentation.

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