As an acupuncturist, this is the question I am asked most frequently. The mechanisms of how acupuncture works can be explained in great length and detail from many different perspectives. I particularly love the poetic beauty as described in classical Chinese culture. However, I find that this explanation rarely satisfies the anatomically and physiologically oriented western mind of most of my patients. The classical Chinese description comes from a different language, culture, and period of time. I have researched different perspectives to come up with an explanation that is clear for my patients, and that is the main purpose of this article.
I believe acupuncture to be a method of stem cell therapy. I credit Dr. Dan Keown and his fantastic book “The Spark in the Machine” for clearly explaining this in an easy to understand and scientific manner. A stem cell is a primitive cell, that has not yet been organized and differentiated into a particular type of cell. It therefore has the potential of organizing and developing itself into any particular type of cell and has the ability to reproduce. In order to understand how Acupuncture is a form of stem cell therapy, we need to first define what is the difference between a live human being and one that is not. Anatomically, they are the same. However, the live version is functioning. What makes it function? What defines something as being alive?
I believe that answer to be what the Chinese have referred to as Qi 氣. Most people define Qi as energy. While that is a pretty good definition it is not complete. To understand Qi, one must first understand the character 氣. The top part of the character represents air, wind, and breath. The bottom portion represents fire cooking rice. So together they represent a combining of oxygen and food, and a transformation of both into something formless like a vapor but functional and vital.
This substance Qi 氣is the function of life, and it is energetic. It can be measured as light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. This is the defining characteristic of a live human being. It is bio-electro-magnetic and this is at the core of regulating and organizing the functions of the body. This is not foreign to western science and medicine.
The human body is electric and generates electricity. We would cease to function with out it. When we breathe in oxygen, and eat food, a transformation takes place. Larger molecules are broken down in to smaller ones that have a specific electrical charge based on their specific number of electrons and protons. These charged particles bond with one another and react to other molecules and in doing so create energy. This energy is used by our cells and is called cellular respiration. All molecules and elements have the potential to create electrical impulses. One example of the electrical body in action is in how the heart keeps its rhythm or pace through the electrical impulse of the Sino Atrial (SA) Node.
Now, it is hopefully clear that Qi is not mysterious or superstitious. The Chinese definition is clearly describing the same thing as western medical science. Cells need energy and communicate with one another to do work and send signals.
To continue the answer to how acupuncture works, we next need to examine what system acupuncture uses that effects cellular respiration. The answer lies within the embryological system.
Human reproduction begins with the formation of a zygote, an entirety formed by the meeting of a sperm and an egg. What follows is a series of cell division, that on day 3 forms an 8-celled embryo. At this stage, the cells compact against one another. They do this to communicate through the spaces between the cells. Scientists have filmed flashes of electricity occurring in the developing embryo, during these stages of development.
In Chinese medicine, the acupuncture channel systems begin from these spaces between cells and are used as information thoroughfares where Qi/electricity and energy flow through to organize, differentiate, and compartmentalize the different tissues, structures, systems and associated functions into a growing fetus. As the fetus continues to develop, these information and energy highways develop into more complex channel networks supplying all the energy and information required for development and functionality of all the other systems of the body.
Now, you may be wondering where are these channels of energy and information in the developed human being? Can they be seen, and examined? To answer that let’s first examine the Chinese characters for these channel networks. The 12 major acupuncture channels are defined as Jing 經 Luo 絡. Notice that both characters share the same sub-character on the left. This sub-character translates as silk or threads. The right side of the character Jing 經 , translates to a pass or a river, stream. Now look at the right side of the character Luo絡, this translates as web, mesh, or network. Therefore, Jing Luo 經絡 means silky thread like channel network. The Huang Di Nei Jing is the seminal Chinese medical text (the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine). It says the anatomy of the Jing Luo 經絡 was elucidated by dissection, meaning it has a physical structure that can be seen with the naked eye. It is not formless or immaterial.
When looking at connective tissue and fascia, it has a silky thread like look and texture. It can be dissected and seen with the naked eye. It weaves and threads through out, organizing, and compartmentalizing the different systems of the body. It also follows the acupuncture channel pathways as detailed in the classic Chinese Medical texts.
Surgeons use these fascial pathways to conduct keyhole surgery. They are areas of space without blood, where surgeons can go through to access different parts of the body. Western medical science has been researching fascia and connective tissue with great interest in recent years. It suggests that fascia makes up the matrix of the body. It is the maturation of the embryological system; pathways of energy and information. In so doing, it is responsible for the structure, and organization of all the other tissues and systems. It is highly conductive and exists as a gel like fluid pathway. In a past article I wrote specifically about the importance of fascia and connective tissue and how it is the mother of the immune system. You can read that article here.
Fascia, connective tissue, and bone are mostly made up of collagen. Actually collagen is the largest tissue type making up 30% of the body. Collagen is stronger than steal and extremely flexible. It is crystalline and piezoelectric. Piezoelectricity refers to an electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials, such as crystals, bones, DNA, and various proteins in response to mechanical stress. That means stress to bone, the fascia and connective tissue releases electricity (Qi). Piezoelectricity from crystals are found in many useful applications, from generating sound and voltage to everyday uses, like barbecue lighters and quartz watches.
Fascia is the negative space of the body, and space is the critical aspect of its location and function. It envelops the space between cells, providing an avenue for energy, and communication. Every acupuncture point lies within a space. And these spaces are typically in places where there is a change in organization and compartmentalization. For instance, powerful points lie next to the nail bed, a place where there is considerable change in cellular function and type. Points at the wrist, where the arm and hand meet, another change in form and function. This continues everywhere.
So, how does acupuncture work?
When inserting and stimulating a needle in a particular location, fascial tissue cells called fibroblasts are stressed, releasing ATP, electricity (Qi). This travels through the fascial network, allowing communication and signaling to other cells, which in turn affect all the other systems of the body. Most importantly affecting the nervous system, cardiovascular, and endocrine. The location of needle insertion and the stimulation determine how and where the therapeutic effect will take place.
Acupuncture works via the embryological system, effecting cellular communication and organization. It really is stem cell therapy, because it is working with the mechanisms that directly effect cellular respiration, repair and organization. It is information at this cellular level that stimulates a therapeutic effect. This can manifest as analgesic pain relief, increased blood flow, nervous system response, and hormonal release. What an amazing and sophisticated science and medicine!
Alchemy Wellness Centre is located in Byron Bay, NSW Australia
RJ Singer is a registered Acupuncturist, and Chinese Medicine Doctor with AHPRA and AACMA. His also a highly regarded QiGong Healer and Teacher, and Feng Shui Consultant. RJ’s area of special interest is in the treatment of stubborn and difficult chronic disease, and all types of painful conditions.
Katrina Hillis is a registered Remedial & Relaxation Massage Therapist with AMT. Katrina is also an experienced Intuitive Reader and an accredited Zhineng Qigong Practitioner. Katrina specialises in helping people overcome emotional issues and life transitions working holistically to balance the body, mind and spirit.