Can Acupuncture Help with Stress? Research and Tips

In the modern world, avoiding stress is almost impossible.  Whether financial, physical, or emotional, the pressures of daily life are all very real.  These factors also contribute to what can become a constant hum of background stress.  While certain aspects of life are beyond our control, how we choose to manage our stress is fully within our power.

What is Stress?

Stress is a biological response to a perceived threat. This response is an emotionally and physically taxing one, with health consequences that can be quite serious. Stress involves hormonal secretions and interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, or the HPA axis. The sympathetic nervous system is also involved in stress as the “fight or flight” response can flood the body with cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones. The stress hormone, cortisol, also regulates inflammation in the body. A 2012 Carnegie Mellon University study explains that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect due to prolonged stimulation. Also, the glands that make cortisol can become exhausted, then when you really need this hormone it can’t be made. The resulting runaway inflammation can throw off digestion, blood pressure, menstruation, fertility, sleep, and many other functions within the body. Therefore, nipping stress in the bud is one of the best preventative health measures a person can take.

Acupuncture and Stress Research

Because acupuncture reduces inflammation, this modality is a perfect way to address the inflammatory response of long term stress. In a study performed at the Georgetown University Medical Center, acupuncture performed on stress-exposed rats blocked the stress hormones of both the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system. In this study, all rats were exposed to cold induced stress. One group of rats received acupuncture while the control group did not. When analyzing the blood of the subjects, those who received acupuncture had far lower levels of stress hormones than the control group. This study is a pertinent addition to the mounting body of evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for stress.

The Liver, Stress, and Chinese Medicine

In Chinese medicine, stress is associated with the functions of the liver. The liver is responsible for maintaining the smooth flow and circulation of all physical and emotional systems. When the liver is unable to properly do its job, we experience stress and its aftereffects. Chinese medicine practitioners commonly refer to this as “liver qi stagnation.”

In today’s post, I will lead you through general practices for supporting the proper functioning of your liver. We will examine ways to minimize stress and induce relaxation through acupressure points that you can stimulate at home, diet, herbs, and lifestyle changes. These guidelines are for general stress management. However, for more in depth support around the different ways that stress affects your body including IBS, migraines, PMS, etc., please contact me schedule an appointment with me here.

Stress Relief Acupuncture Points :  At Home Acupressure 

Our main stress points are Liver 3, The Great Surge, and Large Intestine 4, or Joining Valley. These two points work together increasing circulation of all systems throughout the body. Liver 3 is called the Great Surge due to its powerful ability to really get things moving. Because of this potency, it is usually quite tender and can feel like a surge of energy is being released when needled or pressed. Liver 3 is located on the top of the foot, between the big toe and second toe, an inch away from the web of where these two toes meet. I recommend pushing with the tip of the index finger into this point for 1-2 minutes on each foot.

When Liver 3 is paired with Large Intestine 4 on all four extremities we call this “opening our four gates”. Large Intestine 4 is the potent match of Liver 3 and is so powerful that it is used to induce labor! WARNING! Do NOT use this point if you are pregnant or suspect you may be. In that case, sticking to Liver 3 is fine. For those who are not pregnant, this point is a mirror of Liver 3. Imagine your hand is a foot, with your thumb being your big toe, and the U shape between your index finger and thumb is the toe web. Large Intestine 4 is halfway between the base of the thumb and the first knuckle of the index finger. Press here for 1-2 minutes on each hand. This point is also fantastic for immunity and headaches. It can help with TMJ and any other forms of pain.

Best Diet for Stress

Now that we have gone over points for stress, let’s look at the best diet tips for getting through these times. For some people, eating regularly is one of the first things that goes out the window when stress sneaks in. Committing to three regular, well balanced meals a day will give you time to rest and relax. As a result, your digestion is more likely to remain steady and your body will be able to absorb and maximize the nutrition it needs. During this period avoid stress-eating sugary, greasy, fried, or very spicy foods. Instead, focus on foods that can be easily broken down and digested. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or omnivore, make sure that each meal includes a palm size protein portion. A great tip to follow for ensuring a proper diet is to eat a rainbow at every meal, or at the very least, every day. Different colored foods are rich with different nutrients, so eat every color daily!

Foods that are best for stress are foods that best support the liver. The liver is aided by sour, bitter, and green foods.

Consider bringing these into your diet:

  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Lettuces
  • Spring onion
  • Lemon (in drinking water, meals, and herbal tea)
  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickled foods
  • Vinegars
  • Dandelion greens

Alcohol will also upset your liver and while a stressful day can leave one really wanting a drink, reaching for a cup of mint tea with lemon will take the edge off in a much more sustainable way.

Help Relieve Stress with a Calming Cup of Tea

My favorite way to unwind is with a warm cup of tea while I’m curled up with my dog.

Some Soothing herbal teas you can incorporate to destress are:

  • Mint
  • Rosebuds (excellent for opening the heart and working through interpersonal situations)
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Lemon Balm

If you have some of these at home, you can consider steeping them together and melting in some local raw honey.

The Stressless Lifestyle

Exercise is by far the best way to move the stagnant energy that tends to accumulate in our livers. When we get our circulation flowing throughout our body, we are jump starting the liver’s job and inherently relieving stress.  The liver is associated with the wood element as well as with the color green, so it’s even more effective to de-stress by exercising in the forest! If there are no forests nearby, getting around trees or plants, such as a botanical garden or a park will definitely be helpful.

Aim for 20 minutes of exercise a day, 3 times a week at a minimum. Running, hiking, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, dancing or any other outdoor activity are all fantastic stress relievers. Science is now backing up meditation as a helpful tool to destress. If you’d love to see a useful guided meditation video click here or read more about meditation and happiness here

In addition to proper exercise, going to bed by 10:30 pm is important. This gives the liver a full opportunity to rest and replenish. Being awake past 11:00 PM is taxing on the liver and its ability to keep the body’s functions running smoothly.

A creative outlet is another great way to manage stress. There is no need to create anything magnificent or beautiful, simply get your pent-up frustrations out. Grab your paints, markers, clay, pen, paper, guitar, or camera and head to a beautiful natural setting. As your creative juices begin to flow, so will your liver qi. Singing along to your favorite tunes while driving down the highway also counts!

Last but not least, call a friend! Positive human connection is so essential.  Bonus points if you laugh together!  Laughter is another excellent way to move stagnant liver qi and relieve stress.

While the society we live in continues to be a stressful one, we can decide exactly how we want to respond to the stress in our lives. By making healthy lifestyle choices, we will be much better equipped to weather the storms we experience.  Making these choices is worth it in the long haul. Your health is important, and so are you.


Looking for a Denver acupuncture clinic to help you with all of your general health, mental health, chronic pain, fertility, gynecological, facial acupuncture, or digestive needs?

Contact Wellnest Acupuncture + Holistic Medicine at 720.618.0770 or book an appointment online.

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