Unveiling the Heart-Healthy Effects of Acupuncture
Cardiovascular disease is a leading killer in the U.S., making heart health a serious focus for Americans and medical researchers. Acupuncture, already a proven treatment option for pain, anxiety, and dozens of other health conditions, is also being studied for its effects on heart health. So far, research shows that this ancient medical practice is well-suited for modern Americans experiencing heart problems.
What Heart Conditions Can Acupuncture Help With?
Acupuncture can support better heart and cardiovascular function in most people, not just medical patients. However, physicians are increasingly recommending the practice for various cardiovascular conditions, including:
- Hypertension and elevated blood pressure
- Congestive heart failure
- Heart attack prevention
- Coronary heart disease
Acupuncture’s known efficacy in pain management means it can also help people suffering from chronic angina (chest pains).
Acupuncture Can Help Anyone with Their Heart Health, Not Just Those with Cardiovascular Disease
Again, acupuncture treatments aren’t limited to people managing one or more heart disorders. Acupuncture can also protect otherwise healthy people who may have risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For example, those with a family history of heart problems or people who are overweight.
Acupuncture offers heart benefits to a wide spectrum of people because its effects are systemic in nature. This aligns with Chinese medicine’s overall philosophy of treating the body as a system – one where treatment in one area of the body can produce beneficial effects in another, distant part of the body. During acupuncture treatment, needles are inserted into points that link these distant organ and body structures together via the nervous system. Stimulating these pathways has several positive effects on cardiovascular performance.
Three Ways Acupuncture Improves Heart Health
With the above in mind, here are three ways that acupuncture’s systemic approach has tangible benefits on heart health:
- Improved heart rate variability (HRV) – Heart rate variability refers to the heart’s ability to adjust its own rhythm in response to changing conditions in the body. This isn’t an arrhythmia, but the heart’s built-in self-regulatory capacity. As such, a low HRV may suggest future health problems, as the heart can’t adjust when it needs to. Patients with chronic cardiovascular disease are at an even higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest if their HRV is outside of normal range.
Acupuncture enhances HRV in patients, likely due to its ability to modulate nervous system function. Acupuncture needles activate local and distal nerve tissue, some of which play a role in regulating electrical activity in the heart. This can help the heart respond faster when conditions in the body change.
- Improved autonomic nervous system function – The autonomic nervous system is made up of two subsystems – the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system places the body in an alert or threat state that increases heart rate, respiratory rate, and is generally associated with a stress response. The parasympathetic system does the opposite – it places the body in a relaxed state that brings down pulse and respiration.
These two “aspects” of the nervous system are in a constant tug-of-war in most people, but for some, the tug-of-war can be intense enough to cause dysregulation in organs governed by the autonomic nervous system – including the heart.
Acupuncture can help modulate activity between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, allowing for smoother autonomic regulation of the heart.
- Improved cardiovascular performance – Acupuncture also has positive effects on cardiovascular structures outside of the heart. For example, when inserted into the skin, acupuncture needles stimulate the local release of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator. In other words, it stimulates blood vessels into relaxing, improving efficiency inside vessels and cardiovascular performance, as a result. This can reduce strain on the heart, among many other benefits associated with better circulation.
In addition to these heart-specific benefits, acupuncture treatment also has proven positive effects on stress reduction and inflammation reduction, both of which can also play a role in boosting heart health.
What the Medical Research Says About Acupuncture and Heart Health
There is a ream of research studies demonstrating the above effects. And though more high-quality research is needed, several promising studies – authored by western research teams and institutions – have been published. A few of them include:
- A September 2023 pilot study authored by a Northwest Medicine team. This study looked at acupuncture’s effects on heart surgery patient outcomes. While obviously lifesaving, heart surgery can produce serious complications, including atrial fibrillation. In this study, postsurgical patients were administered acupuncture therapy on a daily basis until patients were sent home.
The research team found that acupuncture reduced postoperative atrial fibrillation by 58 percent and the need for arrhythmia medication by 68 percent. The researchers also noted a statistically significant decrease in stress and nausea, and reduced time spent in intensive care.
- A 2017 study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This study took a professional soccer team undergoing offseason training and split them into two groups – one that received sham acupuncture during a four-week training regimen, and one that received true acupuncture at cardiac-specific points.
Following four weeks of intense physical training and regular acupuncture treatments, the true acupuncture group displayed a notable decrease in HRV.
- A 2012, double-blinded pilot study authored at the Barbara Streisand Women’s Heart Center. This study took 151 patients and split them into three groups – a control group that didn’t receive treatment, a group that received “sham” acupuncture (a placebo effect), and a group that received true acupuncture at acupuncture points targeted for their cardiac effects.
The researchers found that the true acupuncture group experienced a significant improvement in HRV, compared to the control and sham acupuncture groups.
Acupuncture is Effective for Helping with Heart Health
As the leading cause of death in the U.S., cardiovascular disease is a primary health concern for western physicians. Although medication and surgery can provide life-supporting benefits to patients, they come with their own adverse effects.
No patient should halt their heart medication without first consulting with their Houston physician, of course, but many patients are adding acupuncture to their heart health regimen, as it can serve as an effective adjunct therapy. With its many positive effects on heart function, acupuncture fits this role extremely well.