Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been used for thousands of years to strengthen the immune system, and to prevent and treat illness and infection.
The holistic understanding of the body in TCM is one key to its worldwide and enduring use as a preventative medicine. And in recent decades, medical research has uncovered some of the incredible science behind its effectiveness.
In this blog we’ll talk about 4 ways that acupuncture helps your immune system. But to start, it’s helpful to review what the immune system is:
The immune system is a complex system of organs, cells and proteins that protect our body from foreign pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and toxins. This system also protects against threats from our own bodies, such as infected or abnormal cells. The immune system is also involved in conditions such as allergies (when it overreacts to a normally harmless substance) and autoimmune diseases (when it misidentifies and attacks the body’s own cells as pathogens).
So how does acupuncture affect the immune system?
1. Acupuncture Boosts Immune Cells & Proteins
In numerous studies, acupuncture has been shown to increase the production and activity of immune cells that circulate in the bloodstream and protect us from pathogens. This includes phagocytes (which ingest and destroy pathogens) and natural killer cells (which detect and kill infected cells), and cytokines (proteins that act as messengers between immune cells). It also helps the proliferation of T cells - these are the cells that patrol for specific antigens, so the body can respond more quickly when it recognizes a pathogen. For example, if we’ve encountered a virus before, through previous infection or a vaccination, T cells help the body to remember it and mount an attack against it.
2. Acupuncture Lowers Stress
Chronic stress has been shown to suppress our immune system. For example, the stress hormone cortisol puts our bodies into sympathetic (fight or flight) mode, which decreases our production of lymphocytes (white blood cells involved in the immune response).
In various studies, acupuncture has been shown to reduce cortisol production leading to a reduction of sympathetic activity. At the same time, it stimulates the release of oxytocin, which activates the opposite functions of the nervous system - the parasympathetic (rest or digest) mode. This mode enables our bodies to heal, recover and rebuild immune system capacities.
3. Acupuncture Reduces Inflammation
Acupuncture doesn’t just boost immune activity, it can also decrease it (this is known as a dual regulation effect). This is important when it comes to inflammation.
Inflammation is an important tool of our immune system to fight infection or heal injuries. But it's meant to taper off once the injury or infection has healed. Unfortunately, many factors in our modern world (including diet, pollutants, and chronic stress) can lead to a state of ongoing, systemic inflammation. This inflammation is considered a major factor in the development of certain allergies, as well as asthma, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s and many autoimmune diseases.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, acupuncture has been shown to reduce inflammatory markers that are involved in these processes - such as TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha) and proinflammatory cytokines. For example, one study showed that acupuncture helped to decrease the inflammation induced destruction of joints in rheumatoid arthritis.
The regulatory effect of acupuncture means it can boost inflammation and immune activity for acute issues, as well as reduce it in the case of chronic inflammation. This effect means not only better defense against common colds and flus, but for preventing or slowing chronic illness too.
4. Acupuncture is Holistic & Preventative
In TCM, we don’t have an equivalent concept to the immune system exactly, though we do recognize that complex relationships in the body protect us from disease. Rather than viewing these protections as their own isolated system, we look at them within the context of the whole body.
To help illustrate this idea, we can look at the concept of Zheng qi. It describes the strength of a person’s body in comparison to the strength of a pathogenic factor. Zheng qi is cumulative - it's determined by an array of factors including diet, digestion, genetics, and the proper functioning and relationships of the organs and bodily substances. The stronger one’s Zheng qi, the less likely they are to succumb to a disease, and vice versa: weaknesses or imbalances in these factors leave the body susceptible to illness.
TCM provides acupuncturists with a lens to diagnose these imbalances before they manifest into a disease. It also provides us with the tools to balance them - through acupuncture, herbal formulas, dietary protocols, and other techniques. This implies improved immune function not just during cold and flu season, but throughout our lifetimes.
If it sounds like you could use some acupuncture for your immune system, book today!
Inflammation and Allergic Disease: An Irrefutable Combination https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6313256/
Acupuncture Modulates the Neuro–Endocrine–Immune Network
Autonomic Neural Regulation of the Immune System Implications for Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease
Anti-Inflammatory Actions of Acupuncture:
Chronic Inflammation in the Etiology of Disease Across the Life Span
What is “Zheng” in Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Acupuncture Anti-inflammatory Marker Found
The Mechanism of Acupuncture and Clinical Applications