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We live in a constant state of fluid exchange with our environment. Whether conscious or not, our bodies, minds and spirits are consistently being asked to respond and react to stimuli all around us. We call this stimuli stress. In fact, the very definition of health encompasses how adeptly we are able to respond to stress. But within this, we need to understand what stress looks like, how it affects us, and how we can better cope with and adapt to the challenges it puts before us. After all, we cannot change the waves; we can only learn to better navigate through them.

Acute vs. Chronic Stress

For the vast majority of our time on this planet as a species we had a very obvious and recognizable type of acute stress involving survival. We needed to run away from physical danger; we needed to hunt for game, protect ourselves and our tribe. The part of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that aids us in this is called our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), or what is commonly called our Fight or Flight Response. When we sense danger, our heart rate increases pumping blood away from systems non-vital to survival to our limbs to feed our muscles so we may then either fight the stressor or flee; our respiration rate increases to better oxygenate that blood; our pupils dilate for better vision; our hands and feet begin to perspire to help release some of that heat and our mouth dries as our resources are diverted away from digestion. This is a very appropriate response to acute stress. Even today, though we may be habituated to freeway driving, the alertness we have on the road is a hint of such an appropriate survival response to stress. Our bodies are very well-designed to respond to and recover from such acute physical stress.

But long gone are the days when we had big bears chasing us around the forest, where physical danger was a regular and prominent occurrence in our daily lives. Instead, we have created dozens of small and, at times, imperceptible bears constantly attacking us from all angles. They take the form of pollution, poor food choices, long work hours, overuse of stimulants, poor sleep habits, the constant on-the-go pace of our hectic work lives, and the general low-grade psychological stress and strain that such living inflicts on us. We have become so accustomed and acclimated to these chronic stressors that we tend to overlook how damaging they are to our overall health and well-being.

When stressed, our adrenal glands that sit atop our kidneys secrete a hormone called cortisol, which acts on our entire body to produce the physiological changes active during the fight or flight response. Again, in the acute handling of stress, cortisol is our friend. But if we are living in this stressful state, constant secretion of cortisol can over time decrease bone and red blood cell formation, protein and collagen synthesis, immune function, blood sugar handling, and kidney function. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a system that is not adversely affected by long-term chronic stress.

The Chinese Medicine Perspective

In Chinese Medicine, we speak of the relationships between organ systems. And by systems I mean that an organ like the liver has a channel or meridian associated with it along which the acupuncture points lie. It also has various functions and connections to the larger body. So for the sake of clarity, when I speak of the organ I will call it “liver,” but when I speak of the larger system, I will call it “Liver.”

The Liver is the traffic cop of the body, ie the Central Nervous System. When it is happy and healthy, traffic flows smoothly in all directions, nerves are even. When it is having a bad day and is experiencing the tightening, contracting, erratic influences of stress, you start to see traffic jams, fender benders, too many cars over here and not many over there. Confusion and panic sets in. Fight or flight. Your nerves are frayed and fuses get short.

In the body, the Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of energy to all systems. So when it is stressed and not functioning smoothly, it can “attack”:

• Itself: toxic build-up, high blood pressure, irritability, anger, vision problems, elevated liver enzymes;
• your Stomach and Spleen: indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Colitis and Crohn’s, intestinal dysbiosis, etc.
• your Heart: palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, unusual sweating, canker sores;
• your Lungs: decreased immunity, allergies, asthma, decreased respiratory function;
• your Uterus: Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), painful or irregular periods, clotting, fibroids;
• and most damaging of all, the Kidney: low back pain, adrenal fatigue, exhaustion and overall depletion.

In fact, some of my Chinese teachers in school say that the main difference between treating American patients and Chinese is that here, it is all about stress. Sometimes I feel that in addition to the therapeutic effects of my treatments, just getting my patients to come to my quiet, stress-free, and relaxing office, turn off their cell phones and disappear for an hour and a half is reason enough for people to see me.

What Acupuncture Can Do to Help

To counter the tightening and contracting quality of stress, you promote circulation, in the form of exercise, massage, meditation, and acupuncture. Most of the points I use are located from the knee and elbow down. In other words, in addition to the points’ own individual functions, because of how far away from the center they are located, they help spread energy away from the center, thereby relieving tightness and constraint.

Two of the most common points used for stress, when used bilaterally, are called the Four Gates. When energy flows smoothly in and out of the gates of our home, we can come and go as we please in a state of relaxation. The first point is Large Intestine 4 (He Gu, Mountain Valley) and is located in the muscle tissue between each index finger and thumb. This point is like the aspirin for the body as it relieves pain anywhere in the body by strongly promoting the free flow of Qi, or energy in the body. Its partner is Liver 3 (Tai Chong, or Great Rushing), named for its strong influence on the flow of Blood throughout the body. It is located in the depression between the big toe and the second toe. When used together, they can release tension, ease the nervous system and strongly promote the smooth flow of Qi and Blood throughout the body.

No matter what your stress-induced pattern is, I customize your treatments to respond to your needs. First and foremost, we relieve tension, or “Spread Liver Qi.” Then, we seek to offset the damaging effects such stress has been inflicting on you and your body.

Stress is necessary; it motivates us and helps us make clear decisions about what lifestyle is right for us. But when left unchecked, misunderstood, and the deleterious affects simply denied, long-term chronic stress wreaks havoc on our health and well-being. It is up to each of us to look within and realize that we do indeed have a choice about how we cope with chronic stress. No one is immune from its affects, and with a little awareness, we can find more skillful ways to handle it. Acupuncture offers us one such way.


© Jordan Hoffman, L.Ac., Dipl. OM, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information presented here is not medical advice, is not intended as medical advice, and is intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture and is not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of this information.

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2001 S. Barrington Ave. Ste 116 Los Angeles, CA 90025  l  310-729-9061  l  © Jordan Hoffman Acupuncture 2010
This site and any articles on this site are not medical advice and are not intended as medical advice and are intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and acupuncture and are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of the information on this site and any articles.