In the practice of acupuncture, there are very few conditions that are not related to an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In fact, acupuncture helps regulate the imbalance in the ANS. Very little scientific study, however, has been conducted to investigate the autonomic response induced by various technical applications of acupuncture that have been traditionally handed down from generation to generation without scientific evaluation. Due to the recent work of Professor Kazushi Nishijo at Tsukuba College of Technology in Japan, the understanding of various autonomic responses induced by acupuncture has been substantially advanced.
Nishijo discovered a specific method that positively utilises the patient’s biological rhythms to induce consistent, prolonged parasympathetic activation. In brief: Following the discovery of various autonomic activities dependent on the respiratory state and posture through experiments utilising ganglion blocking agents, Nishijo conducted a study on nine subjects using combinations of factors, such as different posture (sitting, lying) and respiratory states (exhalation, inhalation) during acupuncture stimulation (superficial, deep). Each subject’s response following acupuncture under these different conditions was analysed and, based on the results, Nishijo concluded that only superficial needling during the subject’s exhalation phase in a sitting position (SES) induces a consistent parasympathetic activation response.
According to Nishijo, there were three important factors behind parasympathetic activation following SES administration: First, the stimulation site must be superficial e.g., restricted to skin and subcutaneous tissue because they contain receptors of stimulation using the parasympathetic system as a centrifugal path. Second, the ANS is further activated in a sitting position. The third factor is the respiratory state. During the exhalation phase, parasympathetic activity is elevated; this is in contrast to the suppression of parasympathetic function during inhalation. By combining and coordinating these three factors, the action of acupuncture stimulation can synchronise with a patient’s physiological state, which in turn causes parasympathetic activity.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for the regulation of visceral function. Activation of the parasympathetic system affects the relaxation response. Increase in PNS activity decreases the heart rate and blood pressure, and positively influences many stress-related conditions. Many people experience lack of energy and restlessness. Nishijo found that in majority of such cases parasympathetic system is inhibited. Since the parasympathetic system regulates internal function and influences the state of our mind and body, it is reasonable to presume that prolonged parasympathetic inhibition eventually suppresses the body’s own healing ability. Therefore in the practice of acupuncture, the knowledge of a specific method to induce consistent parasympathetic activation is important.
(The author is Head of Acupuncture at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi)