Anxiety affects many of us to varying degrees, from mild worries and concerns to extreme fear, panic and avoidance of certain situations, people and/or activities. It can impact our relationships, work, social life, willingness to travel or try new things, as well as increase bodily tension and pain, interfere with our sleep and just generally decrease our enjoyment of life.
Everyone is unique in how they learn to manage and work with anxiety. For some, psychotherapy (such as CBT) and/or medications can help a lot, along with lifestyle changes such as exercise, regular sleep routine and healthy eating. Others may find benefit in other complementary strategies such as yoga, meditation and acupuncture for anxiety.
Before we consider if acupuncture can help anxiety, we should look at some of the areas in which our physiology can contribute to anxiety:
Autonomic Nervous System & HPA Axis
Our stress response is regulated primarily by the autonomic nervous system which controls our sympathetic fight or flight response vs parasympathetic rest and digest response, and our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis which controls the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Modern day life is very good at stimulating our stress response with things like work deadlines, family obligations, financial stress, global and environmental issues, etc. When our body is constantly bombarded by these signals of perceived threat, we can become trapped in a cycle of increased sympathetic arousal and over-production of stress hormones which contributes to anxiety, in turn creating more perceived stress and feeding into the cycle.
Modern life is also great at triggering inflammation through things like poor diets, lack of physical exercise, chronic stress, not enough sleep and environmental toxins. Some may also suffer with chronic infections or autoimmune diseases. While the relationship between inflammation and anxiety is not yet fully understood, some of the main theories are that it:
- Affects neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for mood regulation.
- Stimulates the HPA axis (see above), leading to overproduction of stress hormones and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.
- Negatively impacts the gut microbiome (see below), affecting the gut-brain connection.
Gut Microbiome & Gut-Brain Connection
The gut microbiome and its systemic influences is a growing area of research, particularly the relationship between the brain and gut. The gut microbiome refers to the various microorganisms that live along our digestive tract. Many of these microorganisms live symbiotically, supporting digestion and our physiology in various ways, however, over or under growths of certain populations of microorganisms have been associated with various disorders. Our gut microbiome is potentially negatively impacted by all the same things we’ve already seen above: poor diet, lack of sleep, chronic stress, inflammation, environmental toxins, plus overuse of antibiotics.
The gut is then connected to the brain via the vagus nerve (part of the parasympathetic rest and digest nervous system), the immune system and the neurotransmitters produced in the gut such as serotonin and GABA. These connections have been hypothesised to influence our brain function and mood regulation, contributing to anxiety.
While there is modern research to suggest that acupuncture may be useful for regulating the above areas (see here, here, here, and here for example), in the clinic it always comes down to treating you as an individual, not a set of symptoms or body systems. As you can see above, there are often many factors that can be influencing each other when it comes to your mental and physical health. With Chinese medicine acupuncture, we take a holistic look at you and your health and tailor the treatment and recommendations accordingly. When working with you we will be looking for improvements with not only your anxiety, but also other areas important to your health such as sleep, digestion, pain, tension, and stress.
If you would like to try acupuncture for anxiety, or have any questions, please either contact us or book online to one of our Sydney acupuncture clinics in the CBD and Balmain.