Could Acupuncture Work in Ways Similar to Psychiatric Drugs?

Acupuncture therapist applying acupuncture needleA variety of studies suggest that acupuncture can successfully treat mental health symptoms such as depression, but it remains an “alternative” remedy, not a mainstream one. Research from the Georgetown University Medical Center may be about to change that. A recent animal study suggests that acupuncture has a mechanism of action similar to that of some psychiatric drugs.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

To test how acupuncture might work, researchers worked with rats that had been exposed to chronic stress, a condition that can produce symptoms similar to those associated with depression in humans. The team administered electro-acupuncture to an acupuncture spot known as stomach meridian point 36 (St36). A second group of rats underwent acupuncture not targeted to an acupuncture point, while a third received no acupuncture at all. A fourth group was not exposed to chronic stress or acupuncture.

Scientists divided the study into two separate trials. In the first, rats underwent regular acupuncture treatments before experiencing the stressful event of chronic exposure to cold. In the second study, rats received acupuncture treatments shortly after the stressful event.

In both trials, researchers found that the rats who underwent acupuncture administered to St36 saw a decrease in activity in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This stress pathway in the brain plays a key role in mood, as well as immune system function and chronic pain. Rats who underwent acupuncture also produced fewer stress hormones—something some antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications also do.

To further demonstrate the power of acupuncture, researchers also gave the rats a drug designed to block the effects acupuncture has on the HPA axis. When the effects of acupuncture were blocked, stress hormone production was the same across all groups, suggesting that acupuncture’s effectiveness is due to its effects on the HPA axis, not some other mechanism of action.

The study team argues that acupuncture can both mitigate the effects of chronic stress after it occurs and protect against some of the physiological effects of stress.


  1. Acupuncture has ‘similar mode of action to psychiatric drugs’ (2015, July 22). Retrieved from
  2. Röschke, J., Wolf, C., Müller, M., Wagner, P., Mann, K., Grözinger, M., & Bech, S. (2000). The benefit from whole body acupuncture in major depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 57(1-3), 73-81. doi:10.1016/s0165-0327(99)00061-0

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  • paige


    July 27th, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    I have not ever tried acupuncture, not because I don’t believe in the validity of the practice, just that I guess I never think that much about it. I am so narrow minded I guess that I only think of the traditional things like go to the doctor, get a prescription and just never think outside of the box quite enough.

  • Mrs Jones

    Mrs Jones

    July 28th, 2015 at 3:08 PM

    If it does this good of a job then it sounds like it is something that we should all give some thought to doing!

  • slim


    July 29th, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    I would not even know how to begin to find someone in the area where I live who could perform acupuncture.
    I live in a pretty rural area so even though I think that it could be beneficial, the problem for me is going to be finding a licensed provider.

  • meag


    August 2nd, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    I started going to acupuncture to help with my diabetes years ago, and I eventually had to stop b/c I was unemployed and paying out of pocket. But when I couldn’t shake my SAD this year, I started going again. What I love about acu is that ANY problem I have can be addressed with it. Anything from low energy, pain from an injury, mood, to elevated microalbumin, low TSH. Acu helps balance and regulate body process reactions. Each appointment, I tell her about my lab results if I have any new ones, as well as how much I’m eating/metabolising, if I’ve pain from my old injuries or new ones (I try to play sports, but I’m a klutz lol) and how I’m dealing with everything emotionally (I’ve been grieving losses of 3 loved ones who passed in 2014), and based on my responses, my practitioner designs my treatment.

    If you’re afraid of needles, look for acupressure massage. I also know of an acupuncturist who uses magnets instead of needles.

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