Treating Stress with Acupuncture

My work with acupuncture brings me all types of patients with all kinds of health complaints. What is very common however is the theme of palpable stress in people’s lives. So often I am told ‘I didn’t use to be like this’.

I think of it as ‘stress syndrome’, or a variety of symptoms that are caused by the pressure of life in this corner of the world.

Some people describe stress like a clock sitting on their shoulder, constantly telling them they’re running out of time. For others it feels like a crushing weight on their chest. Somebody described their stress to me as being like a drug; a powerful influence that makes you lose perspective and burn-out, yet they return to it time and again.

From my work with patients, I see stress as a perceived inability to cope with how much we have going on in our lives, a pressure to ‘keep-up’. It’s a desire to keep all the plates spinning that we worked so hard to get, but the struggle to maintain them gets too much. As we get older the stakes get higher and it takes more work than ever to maintain what we’ve got.

Physical signs of stress

Acupuncturists practice pulse taking, not just feeling for the pulse-rate but also the quality. Often in highly stressed-out patients the pulse will take on a wiry quality, feeling much like a guitar string, taught. Over the course of acupuncture treatment I often feel this change and the pulse softens. This is a simple investigation but one of many which uncovers the telltale signs of stress.

Stress can be insidious when it comes to our health. It’s a palpitation on the way to a meeting, losing your appetite when there’s a deadline or getting a migraine when there’s a last minute change of plans. This is our body’s way of letting us know we need to take a step back. When the symptoms become chronic, the stress has gotten too much and it’s time to get help.

For some people, stress eventually becomes a default setting. The behaviours they develop in the face of mounting stress work their way into their persona, to the point where they prepare to find stress in every situation. This is what’s often referred to as ‘adrenal fatigue’. We can become constantly ‘switched-on’ to stress. If you think this is you, read my article, E=MC²: Adrenal Fatigue and Traditional Chinese Medicine, for tips on how to interrupt the cycle.

Anxiety is the manifestation of stress in our behaviour. When we have been exposed to severe stress (this is relative to the individual) over time we can develop unhealthy coping behaviours, such as shallow breathing, compulsions and negative thinking. Childhood exposure to adults who are stressed can leave a lasting impression too and can lead to anxiety in the child, which is normally where therapy becomes very important.

Stress leads to anxiety and furthermore it often leads to bad habits. There may be alcohol or drug dependence, chain smoking or comfort eating, amongst many others habits in an effort to switch off from the stress. Hand in hand with these go lifestyle-driven health complaints such as weight gain/loss, itchy skin lesions, chest infections and headaches and nervousness from withdrawal.

How acupuncture is used

I use acupuncture, the insertion of very fine needles at strategic points on the body, to support each stage of the treatment of stress which often involves:

  • Treating withdrawal from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, drugs and food
  • Treating sleep disturbance
  • Treating continuously for anxiety while lifestyle changes are being made in terms of hours worked, place of work, family dynamics etc.
  • Treating alongside counselling or CBT

I will normally see the patient no less than weekly and encourage them to commit to at least 8-10 sessions to achieve the cumulative benefits of acupuncture.

Acupuncture releases beta-endorphin into the bloodstream, an important pain-killing and mood-enhacing chemical. When we get enough of this endorphin release, in a setting where we feel relaxed (cue the dimly-lit room and candles) our bodies are much better equipped to make use of it. It is effective in dampening the effect of stress hormones in the body, particularly cortisol. Repeated sessions of acupuncture are proven to have a cumulative effect, but they should be regular and carried out at a time in the week that you can relax.

Acupuncture is relaxing for most people at the time that the needles are in, and often they will go home to a markedly better night’s sleep. Sleeping well is often the first step to change.

The research 

The following is a briefing of the research that supports the use of acupuncture to help stress and it’s associated symptoms, as published by the British Acupuncture Council on their website, where you can view the full research paper sources.

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry (Hui 2010; Hui 2009);
  • Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing AchE reactivity in the hippocampus (Kim 2011);
  • Reducing serum levels of corticosterone and the number of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells (Park 2010);
  • Regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states (Lee 2009; Cheng 2009; Zhou 2008);
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system (Arranz 2007). Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response;
  • Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions (Arranz 2007);
  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
  • Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry (Kim 2009).

If you are suffering from anxiety, stress or burn-out I would recommend acupuncture. It’s a highly unique technique for healing ourselves, naturally, with no side-effects or hangovers. If you are taking a prescription medication and want to try to reduce the dosage (with the input of your GP) you should consider acupuncture weekly.

I am an overseas member of the British Acupuncture Council. I hold clinics in Dublin Holistic Centre and Conscious Health in the centre of the city.

Call 085 153 7089 or email for appointments.



E=MC²: Adrenal Fatigue and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Adrenal fatigue is the modern stress syndrome nobody talks about. We look at the Chinese Medicine view of this problem.


Feeling wired, stressed and burned out all at the same time? Do you have secondary symptoms that seem unrelated like soreness in the lower back, tinnitus or thinning hair? Chinese Medicine recognises this as the symptoms of an internal imbalance involving the kidney system and in Western Medicine we refer to it as adrenal fatigue. Whatever name we give it, the symptoms are the same and left unaddressed, adrenal fatigue will give rise to chronic ill health. In this article we will explore a little Chinese theory and discover why we should ditch fruit juice in favour of chicken soup with this condition…


In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the Kidneys are the seat of ‘original qi ‘in the body. Qi is our universal vital life-force, élan or energy. Qi is the force behind our cellular activity and can be somewhat likened to our mitochondria in Western Medicine. Without our qi we are inert. We are born with a reserve of qi in the Kidneys and we deplete that reserve over our lifetime. This original qi is not replenished over our lives, but we can slow the burn. Remember this is a concept, rather than a quantifiable substance in the body, so we have to use a measure of self-awareness to understand the theory. Western Medicine recognises this same function in the body as that of the adrenals, the little pyramid shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys. (Nb. Those more familiar with TCM theory here will appreciate the simplified view provided above, where Kidney yin or Kidney yang deficiency are more likely diagnoses.)

The adrenals are definitely the unsung heroes of the endocrine family. So often the rebellious thyroid and bossy hypothalamus steal the show. These hard-working glands are responsible for our stress responses, the big stresses and the daily, low-level constant ones.

Cortisol is a key adrenal hormone, known as the ‘stress hormone’ and serves a vast array of functions in the body from anti-inflammation to blood sugar regulation. Cortisol also has a hand in many important physical presentations such as fat distribution, gastrointestinal function and immune regulation.

Like other glands in our bodies, the adrenals suffer disease and decay. However this is not recognised well by doctors until the disease represents something that can be treated, medically or surgically. There are only two major diseases of the adrenals which are routinely treated, Addision’s disease (chronic adrenal insufficiency) and Cushing’s disease (more common, chronic hyper-stimulation of the adrenals). These represent either extreme of the malfunctioning adrenals, but what about the bit in between? This is called adrenal fatigue and there is no pharmaceutical medicine for it. Don’t be surprised if your doctor doesn’t recognise it as a condition…

Adrenal Fatigue

Dr James L Wilson is an established authority on adrenal fatigue in the US and has made it his life’s work to raise awareness and support patients who are otherwise marginalised by the medical system. Dr Wilson’s criteria for assessing adrenal fatigue is largely reliant on clinical signs and symptoms. He does advocate tests such as a 24 hour urinary cortisol tests in conjunction with the Adrenal Corticotrophin Hormone test for lab confirmation of this, though this is not really emphasised as necessary and with the lack of support from most GPs in diagnosing this syndrome in the first place, it will likely be viewed as an unnecessary cost.

The symptoms of this syndrome are physical fatigue, difficulty getting up in the morning and not feeling refreshed by sleep, craving salty foods, decreased sex-drive, lower stress-threshold and postural hypotension or faint feelings on standing up. Sufferers report blood sugar metabolism issues, such as critically low energy between 3 and 4pm and a surge of energy after the evening meal. Mood problems are heightened and sufferers experience more irritability, frustration and brain-fog. Visible symptoms include dark circles under the eyes and failing the iris test, which you can find at the end of this article.

Although a lot of the symptoms above will have come to be accepted as part of normal everyday life, collectively these symptoms are indicative of hypoadrenia and you can do something about it. We may choose to live in the rat-race but we can use traditional and natural treatments to bring ourselves back to a place of relative calm and balanced health.

The Mindset Challenge


Of course you do! But first, let’s work on the mindset. Let’s think about what measures we impose upon ourselves that bring us stress. Usually this starts with our jobs, then our identity with our age and then it’s the small stuff like bills and health anxiety (tongue firmly in cheek)…

Please ask yourself these questions:

Am I career-driven person and if so, do I get real enjoyment from my career? Or, am I a practical type, happy to have a job that pays my bills and gives me the quality of life I want? Either way, am I happy with my daily job?

Am I where I want to be at this point in my life? Do I consider others my age as having less or more than me? Do I measure my happiness against what other people expect or have themselves?

Do I have boundaries in my relationships with other people? Do I measure my own self-worth by what others think of me and the way I live my life? Do I allow people to talk to me in a way that makes me unhappy? Can I stand up for myself?

So there they are, the big questions. Society, the rat-race, first world problems, whatever you want to call it, ensure that these questions weigh heavily on our minds. Holistic medicine tells us that our minds and bodies are one, so if one of them is exhausted it predisposes the other. Stress from our jobs, families and finances make sure our adrenals, our stress mediators, are taxed to the max. The pressure we place upon ourselves is immense and until the mindset changes, the adrenals will continue to take a battering, raise your stress hormone (cortisol) levels and make you tired, fat and miserable. From a TCM point of view we are exhausting our qi. We cannot survive if always in fight mode, sometimes we have to take flight.

Do you need to change your mindset?

Sleep and stimulants: Be the slinky

Stimulants. We love them. Coffee, tea, sugar, nicotine, alcohol and drugs. Then there’s deadlines, schedules, commitments and dates. What gives us an adrenaline rush gives us purpose. What’s the opposite of this? Sleep. How often are our days filled with either stimulants or sleep? We are truly living like yoyos.

Take the slinky for an example of an energy-efficient alternative to emulate. Tightly sprung, the slinky will utilise it’s natural environment and operate on a downward slope, optimising it’s own energy potential. It does not defy it’s engineering by turning corners, unless it is about to career out of control and lose inertia.

We need to learn to harvest our own energy by making our bodies run like the machines they are. Just because we are adaptable, intelligent organisms, doesn’t mean we are indestructible. To run like a machine you have to efficiently upcycle and down cycle your batteries. In medical terms this means you have to observe the circadian cycle, go to bed at regular times, around 10.30pm and sleep until 9am as often as possible. This is especially important in those with adrenal fatigue as sleep is incredibly restorative to the adrenals. Sleeping too much is seen to be counterproductive, as it is important to regulate blood sugar by eating breakfast before 10am. Irregular sleep patterns send signals to your body that you are not in control and raises cortisol levels. Listen to your body. Be the slinky that comes to a rest when the energy potential has been realised.

You are what you eat

The bottom line in diet for adrenal fatigue is to choose foods that do not require more of your body’s nutrients than they supply. Processed, artificially coloured or sweetened and chemical laced foods will drain your energy just to get them through your system.

Dr Marylin Glenville’s book Fat Around the Middle details how reducing intake of processed, fatty, sugary and stimulant foods reduces serum cortisol levels and helps patients lose weight that stays off. This is because cortisol tells the body that you are stressed, and in case of impending fight or flight, you retain fat stores for quick energy when the time comes. The need for fuel essentially comes in small bouts, never really requiring the fat that has been stored and there you have it, the spare tyre.

People with true adrenal fatigue are problematically tired during the morning and afternoon, so they choose foods which allow them an energy boost as a survival method. If this is you, Fat Around the Middle should be your bible – even if you are not fat – yet!

Dr Wilson is a nutritional expert on the subject of adrenal fatigue and he highlights dietary fads that contribute to the problem in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. He picks up on the trend toward low sodium intake in modern diets, as salt is viewed to be contributory to high blood pressure. In fact, he says, unless your blood pressure is regularly raised above 140/90, adding salt to your diet will benefit you if you have symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Suffice to say, the reason for this is complex, but in brief aldosterone (another adrenal hormone) maintains fluid balance in roughly the same concentration as sea water, with sodium the dominant mineral in the interstitial fluid and potassium the dominant mineral within the cells. The ratio between sodium and potassium is all important. In adrenal fatigue, the lack of adequate aldosterone means the concentration of sodium in the fluids reduces in response to the cellular demand and results in a craving for salt. Dr Wilson also advises against high intake of potassium rich foods, such as bananas, due to this same aldosterone mechanism.

Dr Wilson also highlights the role of good quality, natural protein in the diet to aid adrenal recovery through adequate amino acid intake. He advises against processed meats and substitutes like texturised vegetable protein. He highlights the difficulties faced by vegetarians in taking in sufficient protein to recover from adrenal fatigue and suggests the inclusion of eggs, sea vegetables and yoghurts to help in the challenge.

Also a note about carbohydrates. We know that complex carbs are going to be more beneficial than simple sugar carbs, because we have already seen the impact that adrenal fatigue has on blood sugar levels. Fruit should be taken in moderation and fruit juices avoided where possible, to avoid driving the blood sugar up too quickly (only to have the inevitable crash). But also we need to appreciate that so much of our foods are made with white flour. White flour is a hazard because it represents the tasty, quick fuel, inner part of the grain and none of the starchy shell which slows the delivery of its energy. This is dreadful for adrenal fatigue as it impacts on blood sugar metabolism and slows our digestive processes – and all this at a time when we are trying to recover energy – give us a break!

The Acupuncture Effect

Chinese Medicine teaches us to have regularity in our daily habits, to perform them with a calm spirit and enjoy the simplicity of sleep and food when taken in moderate amounts. Anything short of or in excess of this will deplete qi. It is not complex and perhaps that is why we get it so wrong, we are hard-wired to see life as a challenge.

We as a society are now hungrily seeking out practices from the East. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong have never been so popular and are practically available on every street in central Dublin where I practice acupuncture, which is also incredibly popular. These health systems each have a philosophical underpinning – that living with nature is to learn from what we see around us and that we are materially connected with the world, which just like us, is cyclical and habitual in nature.

Acupuncture helps those suffering with adrenal fatigue by normalising the HPA (hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal) axis via the regulatory effect on neurotransmitters and neurohormones, affecting our brain chemistry. We get an endorphin release from the insertion of the very fine needles, which promote relaxation and pain relief.

My patients with adrenal fatigue are told to stop and review their lives, identify the stressors and follow the regularity approach to sleeping and eating. They are advised to exercise in moderation and not to the point of exhaustion. They are encouraged to come down from the stimulants and attend for regular acupuncture to support the process. I always advise making bone broth soup, which is a Chinese Medicine health food for nourishing the Kidneys (Western adrenals).

So if you are crying out ‘I WANT MORE ENERGY!’ and you can identify with the symptoms mentioned above, it’s time to put a sound strategy in place. Come to see me in one of my my clinics, 19 Pembroke Road, Dublin 4 or Dublin Holistic Centre, South William Street, Dublin 2. Appointments 085 153 7089. I am here to help.

See here a link to Dr James Wilson’s iris test for adrenal insufficiency. Dr Marylin Glenville’s stress supplements can be found here.