Acupuncture is commonly explained in terms of a network of energy meridians or channels. This network is a convenient map of all the points that can influence the body’s functions. The benefit of energy meridians is that they visually integrate the body so that it may be seen as a single unit rather than a collection of isolated parts. But physically isolating these meridians has been elusive.
Less elusive, is thinking of this energy network as a series of ion channels and synaptic clefts. Ion channels are the pathways through cell membranes that allow charged particles (ions) to flow and the cells to function. Synaptic clefts are the spaces between neurons and tissues that charged particles and neurochemicals flow through, resulting in the propagation of nerve signals.
In this light, we can still view the body as integrated. But as a unit of cells rather than meridian lines, that communicate with each other via electrical energy. We are literally bioelectric plants, and acupuncture helps maintain our circuits. Thinking in terms of cells also helps us understand how acupuncture works.
It is said that acupuncture helps restore body functions. But how? Well, how does a cell function? It is dependent on the state of charged particles within the cell. The current state is the script that the cell follows in order to act a certain way. Acupuncture affects the electrical state of cells by way of piezoelectricity.
Piezoelectricity is produced in our bodies by proteins in our connective tissue that are capable of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. Tissue fibers wind around an acupuncture needle after insertion. When that needle is manipulated, a mechanical force is applied. This is transduced into an electrical impulse that opens the ion channels on cells, and thus mediates body functions. [For more on the piezoelectric effect, read: “The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine”]
In local needling (i.e. needling at the site of dysfunction or pain), it may be understood how an electrical impulse can pass between adjacent cells that have the same function. This is less evident in distal needling, or needling away from the site of dysfunction or pain.
The mediation of body functions also relies on the cascade effect. This helps explain the effectiveness of distal needling. Aside from any local effects, the force applied by needling can be transferred along connective tissue planes to areas relatively far away from the needle site. (Tension along connective tissue planes often overlaps with acupuncture meridians.) Wherever that force ends up, the same piezoelectric principle applies.
A cascade effect can also occur through the circulatory or nervous systems. As changes take place, hormones or ions may travel in the bloodstream to give feedback to either a vital organ or the central nervous system. Information may also travel along the nerves themselves.
Whether local or distal needling, the connective tissue is the lynchpin of acupuncture’s effectiveness.
This is Part 1. For the effect of acupuncture on opioid and cannabinoid receptors, read, “Acupuncture Bridges the Synaptic Cleft.”