The Immune System and Acupuncture

What does it mean to be healthy? A Chinese Medicine/ Acupuncture perspective



What is the Immune System


The immune system protects the body from harm. The main components that make up this system are, the spleen, the thymus, blood marrow, white blood cells, antibodies, and the lymphatic system. There are many different functions that occur to protect the body against infection. There are issues of an overactive immune system (autoimmune issues, allergic reactions) and underactive immune system (immunodeficiency from genetics, medical treatment, or other illnesses). (1). Our bodies are able to respond to different stressors to maintain wellness and homeostasis. With age and illness the immune system loses flexibility and can be less than optimal. A meta analysis on stress and the immune system found that short durations of stress can promote the immune system but chronic stress can have negative impacts. The authors say,

“Stressors with the temporal parameters of the fight-or-flight situations faced by humans’ evolutionary ancestors elicited potentially beneficial changes in the immune system. The more a stressor deviated from those parameters by becoming more chronic, however, the more components of the immune system were affected in a potentially detrimental way.” (2).

The body also has other mechanisms in place to defend against microbes that can cause infection, including the functions of the skin, lungs, digestive system, and other body fluids. The skin acts as a protective barrier with oils that kill bacteria. Mucus in the lungs trap microbes that can then be coughed out. Acid in the stomach kills most microbes and the mucus lining of the GI tract release antibodies. Our body is pretty amazing when it comes to protecting itself. There are so many mechanisms that are happening all the time that we are not even aware of. The goal of this post is to reflect on how acupuncture views health and is able to aid our body in its natural defense mechanisms, easing our body closer to homeostasis and it’s optimal functioning capabilities.


Acupuncture helps the body to function optimally


The simplest way to express the affect acupuncture has on the body is that it helps the body to function better. While that statement is broad, it really encompasses the regulating dynamic of acupuncture. For example, there are certain acupuncture points known to have an affect on stomach acid and depending on what points are used and what is needed to create optimal functioning of the body the acupuncture points will either stimulate the body to decrease or increase stomach acid. The human body is very complex with many things happening that are not fully understood by science. The immune system is no different. We all know that we want a strong and healthy immune system that is able to “fight” harmful foreign invaders (viruses, bacteria, etc.) but then there are cases of the immune system going into overdrive and creating too much of a defense that can then be harmful for the body, like the cytokine storm, or fighting for seemingly no reason at all (or no reason modern medicine is able to discern) such as in autoimmune conditions and allergies. Acupuncture’s regulating affect is important when it comes to the immune system and allows acupuncture to be used safely in most conditions. Instead of thinking about acupuncture “boosting” the immune system, I believe it is more accurate to think of it as improving the function of the immune system. This means different things for different people and the use and effects of acupuncture are different based on the individual. Acupuncture may calm down an overactive highly sensitive immune system in some and strengthen the body’s natural defenses in others. The main goal of acupuncture is to help the body create an equilibrium. This is the main goal of the body as well and there are many processes that are occurring all the time in order to achieve this homeostasis. But, because of traumas to the body, pathogens (viruses, bacteria), daily habits that impair body functioning (sedentary lifestyle, eating unhealthy, stress, drugs) the body may struggle to achieve this balance and symptoms and health conditions may arise. Acupuncture acts as a signal to the body to have an effect on the areas that are out of balance through stimulating natural mechanisms. Acupuncture also indirectly helps the functioning of the immune system by addressing other issues that may be burdening the body, such as improving sleep and digestion and helping with stress and anxiety management. When sleep and digestion are both optimal the body is able to focus on other things to maintain homeostasis. Generally, less burdens (health issues) to the body means a stronger immune system.


In acupuncture there are many components that make up what we would perceive as the immune system, including the Lungs, the Spleen, the Kidneys, the Blood, the Jing Qi (nutritive energy) and the Wei Qi (defensive energy). The Wei Qi (defensive energy) is the first line of defense from a pathogen (bacteria or virus). Acupuncture treatments for the immune system focus on strengthening this defensive energy and if currently sick, releasing the pathogen from the body through the body functions of elimination, urination, sweat, and increasing circulation.


Another aspect of how acupuncture affects the immune system is through helping the body to function better. If there are current health issues, such as pain and injury, chronic stress, digestive issues (constipation, diarrhea, etc.), insomnia, anxiety, or something else, that issue is going to demand attention and energy from your body. For example, if a patient comes for treatment and they want to focus on overall wellness and immune health but suffer from insomnia, the treatment will first focus on improving the sleep and any other issues to make sure the body is functioning at an optimal level and then move to focus on wellness and prevention. It is well known that sleep quality and quantity affects health and the immune system so for this patient, the best way to help the immune system is to resolve the insomnia and help them sleep better. It is always emphasized in an acupuncture treatment to address the root issue as well as the symptoms.


How Acupuncture looks at Health


What does it mean to be healthy? This simple, often overlooked question is actually very complex. There are so many things that we do not know about the human body, and many cases of seemingly healthy people getting sick. With so many different influences on health and wellness- diet, environmental, genetics, etc. it is hard to gauge how healthy one is and how someone can improve their health. We can only control so much, but every little thing that we are able to affect will help the body. Start by taking a good look at your body and how you feel. Just because you have had a symptom for as long as you can remember does not mean that it is normal. Or just because you are taking a medication that reduces a health issue does not mean your body is healthy. I see many people that tell me their digestion is normal, and then it comes out that they have acid reflux and take medication for it. There is a physiological process happening in your body that is resulting in acid reflux and that is not healthy, causing inflammation and stress on your body. The root issue of why the acid reflux is happening needs to be addressed in order for the body to be in homeostasis. Another common occurrence is women experiencing menstrual cramps and thinking that is normal. That is another sign of disharmony in your body, blood should flow smoothly and when there is pain there is stagnation. These patients are often amazed when with acupuncture treatment their cramps get much less noticeable and disappear.


So what are the things that an acupuncturist looks at to determine overall health?

1.) How is your sleep? Do you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up frequently to urinate, night sweats, or dream disturbed sleep?

2.) How is your energy? Do you wake up feeling unrefreshed, need a nap during the day, or feel tired throughout the day?

3.) How is your digestion? Do you have a daily bowel movement? Is there discomfort when going to the bathroom, is it loose, is it hard, is there excess gas, is it foul smelling? Do you have stomach discomfort, pain, acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion?

4.) How do you feel temperature wise? Do you have cold hand and/or feet, do you feel cold or warm when other people tend not to? Do you oversweat, have night sweats, or don’t sweat at all even upon exertion?

5.) Do you have any pain in your body? Low back pain, neck pain, headaches, knee pain, etc.?

6.) Do you have any dizziness?

7.) Do you feel stressed, anxious? Do you have panic attacks?

8.) Do you have any issues with urination? Is it frequent, painful, UTI?

9.) Women: Do you have any menstrual or genital issues? PMS, cramping, clotting, irregular menstruation, heavy blood flow, yeast infections? If in menopause, any hot flashes, night sweats, moodiness?

10.) Men: Any genital issues?


These questions are part of what is traditionally known as the 10 questions in Chinese medicine, and a variation of this is usually asked at the initial acupuncture visit. If you have any of the issues above, it signals that something is not functioning properly and needs to be addressed in order to achieve homeostasis. Of course, there are more things that could be going on and generally you can tell if something is off, so the best thing is to listen to your body and seek treatment or lifestyle adjustments accordingly. It may not be a big issue if you have one of these things here and there, such as getting one bad nights sleep, but a pattern of not sleeping well can affect your overall wellness.


Research showing Acupuncture’s effect on the Immune System


As more research is being done on acupuncture, we are able to have a better understanding on the biomedical affects of acupuncture. The study and systematic review below show that acupuncture has beneficial effects on the immune system, including reducing inflammation and increasing natural killer cell activity and other positive immune functions. Showing that acupuncture does have a modulating, balancing affect on the immune system.


A 2007 study on women with anxiety getting acupuncture showed through blood testing that healthy immune system markers improved and harmful immune system markers decreased after getting acupuncture.

The results showed that the most favorable effects of acupuncture on the immune functions appear 72 hours after the single session and persist one month after the end of the complete treatment. Impaired immune functions in anxious women (chemotaxis, phagocytosis, lymphoproliferation and NK activity) were significantly improved by acupuncture, and augmented immune parameters (superoxide anion levels and lymphoproliferation of the patient subgroup whose values had been too high) were significantly diminished. Acupuncture brought the above mentioned parameters to values closer to those of healthy controls, exerting a modulatory effect on the immune system.” (3).


In a 2020 systematic review on the use of acupuncture to help treat sepsis, the authors found the use of acupuncture may reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, affecting circulation, as well as maintaining immune balance (possibly through activation of production of dopamine) (4).


While validating acupuncture through evidence based research is important and a relatively recent phenomena, acupuncture has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and there is strong empirical (observational) evidence for its effectiveness.


Acupuncture treatment for immune system


So what would an acupuncture treatment for your immune system look like? First of all, acupuncture is holistic, and affects the entire body. No matter what your main complaint is the whole body will be addressed and this includes the immune system and the underlying factors that influence immunity. At the start of a series of treatments I will ask you many questions similar to the questions listed above. We will talk about your health history and delve deeper into any issues you have right now. If it is found through questioning and palpation that the immune system is out of balance, points will be used in the first treatment to address that because of the importance of the functioning of the immune system to overall health. Overall the goal of the treatment is to help the body function optimally. That may mean reducing and resolving any symptoms you are currently experiencing and addressing the root cause according to acupuncture theory. Or if you are healthy with no symptoms, I will use the diagnostic tools of feeling the radial pulse, looking at the tongue, and palpating areas of the body to see if there are any blockages and assess the weaknesses or potential areas of issues in your body that can be strengthened to prevent illness, aiding the body overall.