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Researchers have shown that the physiological effects of acupuncture are primarily derived from an increased production of endorphins and other natural opioid peptides.

Among Eastern medical practitioners, acupuncture is considered standard therapy. Among Western practitioners, acupuncture is considered an effective holistic therapy for reasons that remain unclear. Because acupuncture has been proven highly effective in patients with autoimmune disorders and various cancers, researchers have suspected immune system involvement.

Effects of Acupuncture

According to current theories of modern anatomy and physiology, acupuncture points are related to areas on the skin surface with lower electrical conduction compared to that of their immediate environment. These acupuncture points appear to correspond to cranial and peripheral nerve endings.

The analgesic effects of acupuncture have been extensively documented and have been shown to be mediated partially by the stimulation of endogenous (the body's own natural) opioid peptide compounds. However, besides these endorphins, other natural non-endorphin peptides may be produced. In addition, acupuncture has been shown to modulate immunoglobulins (proteins from which antibodies are made) and enhance the activity of the white blood cells known as natural killer (NK) cells and the phagocytes. Acupuncture has also been reported to stimulate production of the cytokines interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) and interleukin-2 (IL-2), and suppress the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 (IL-6) and interleukin-10 (IL-10).

Study Design

In one recent study, physicians studied the physiological changes such as cytokine levels related to acupuncture treatments administered to hospital employees, both males and females between the ages of 24 and 50 years. Each of the study participants had an L1 4 acupuncture treatment and two weeks later had a sham treatment (similar session but with needles administered to non-acupuncture points). Before and after both sessions, subjects were tested for vital signs and for levels of interferon-gamma (IFN-γ) and interleukin-2 (IL-2).

During acupuncture, 50 mm blunt-tipped stainless steel needles were applied to the L1 4 acupuncture points bilaterally. This point corresponds to the large intestine principal meridian, which is located on the hand in the center dorsal interosseous muscle between the 1st and 2nd metacarpal bones. The needles were kept in this position for 20 minutes with alternating continual counterclockwise rotation for 10 seconds every 5 minutes.

Sham treatments were performed exactly as the LI 4 treatments, except that the needles were applied at non-acupuncture points approximately 1 inch from the LI 4 site bilaterally. It is thought that application of needles to non-acupuncture sites does not elicit the Qi stimulation induced at acupuncture points.

Study Results

The measurement of Qi was conducted by assessing the responses of subjects to the acupuncture stimulation. All subjects receiving acupuncture reported increased Qi. Blood pressure and heart rate were not affected by acupuncture. Two subjects showed a slight increase in cytokine levels following acupuncture, but no significant sustained increases in cytokine levels were seen.

The investigators hypothesized that the principle effects of acupuncture are due to the stimulation of endogenous opioid peptides and the related immune system benefits. These effects are similar to those attributed to low-dose naltrexone, an oral medicine that also raises endogenous opioid peptide levels. Several studies have previously demonstrated that acupuncture induces production of endogenous opioid peptides, particularly beta-endorphin.

The investigators also noted the importance of selecting acupuncture points. They commented that other animal and human studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of combining the L1 4 point with SP 6 and ST 36. The use of this combined approach has yielded increases in circulating white blood cells and immunoglobulins17 and significantly increased IL-2 concentrations in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Importance to Patients

This study emphasizes both the benefits of acupuncture and the importance of choosing the correct acupuncture points to derive specific benefits in autoimmune disease. It is important to find a certified acupuncturist and to discuss the reasons for your treatment.


Mary Johansen, PharmD?Gui-Ju Yu, PhD?Timothy Madden, PharmD?Joseph S. Chiang, MD, Effect Of Acupuncture On Circulating?Cytokines In Healthy Subjects, Medical Acupuncture, Vol 15 (2), 2001.

Jacqueline Young, The Healing Path, London: Thorsons Publishing, 2001.

The copyright of the article Benefits of Acupuncture in Autoimmune Disease is owned by Elaine Moore.