Marcy Cottrell Houle, MS, is a professional biologist and award-winning author of four books and numerous articles. Her most recent book, The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents—and Ourselves—from the Perils of Modern Healthcare, coauthored with geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, MACP, shares the latest medical knowledge and best ways we can advocate for our loved one’s health care as well as our own. Once so active and vital, Marcy’s father developed Alzheimer’s disease in his late 70s, and her mother grew frail from a variety of medical conditions. In her 14 years as caregiver (all while raising two young children), Marcy saw just about everything that could go wrong…or right. Today, she is a frequently featured speaker helping others prepare for and navigate the journey of caring for those we love. MarcyCottrellhoule.com
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Neiguan and Jianshi. Zusanli and Shangiuxu.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to remember these Chinese names for acupuncture points. But they might become key components in your personal plan to control high blood pressure…naturally.
Stimulating these four little points on your body can reduce your blood pressure, modestly but significantly, without drugs…and keep it lowered for a month, according to new research.
Here’s why it matters: 90% of Americans will eventually get high blood pressure, putting them at risk for heart attacks, peripheral artery disease, heart failure and strokes. Yet current drug therapies come with a host of side effects, especially for older adults. They can make you dizzy, cause fatigue, contribute to depression and lead to falls.
Finding a blood pressure therapy with no side effects would be revolutionary.
What’s most exciting about the new research is that it paves the way for acupuncture to become part of mainstream medicine as a long-lasting, drug-free treatment for high blood pressure. It may take years for that to happen on a wide scale…but you can benefit from the research right now. Here’s how…
A SLOW BUILD TO A SUSTAINED BENEFIT
Researchers at the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California School of Medicine already knew from a decade of research which acupuncture points can reduce blood pressure and how it works in the body—but only in animals. Clinical studies in humans had had mixed results, in part because study protocols had not been very rigorous.
So they set out to do a high-quality study of 65 men and women, ranging in age from 38 to 75, with “mild to moderate” high blood pressure, defined as a systolic (upper) number in the 140-to-180-mm/Hg range and a lower (diastolic) number in the 90-to-99-mm/Hg range. None of the subjects were taking blood pressure medications.
All of them were treated with electroacupuncture, an increasingly popular form of acupuncture (used to treat a variety of conditions) that incorporates low-intensity electrical stimulation into the needles, once a week for eight weeks. It can be more effective than standard acupuncture with needles only. Half of the subjects got electroacupuncture in the above four acupoints known to be involved in cardiovascular conditions—Neiguan and Jianshi (pericardial meridian, PC 6 and 5 points), just below the wrist, and Zusanli and Shangiuxu (stomach meridian, ST 36 and 37), just below the knee. The other half of the subjects got “sham” electroacupuncture at four points unrelated to the heart. Subjects didn’t know whether they were getting the real or the inactive treatment.
For the sham group, there was no effect on blood chemistry or blood pressure. No surprise there. For the treated group, there were reduced levels of norepinephrine, which constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure (and glucose levels), and renin, an enzyme that indirectly raises blood pressure.
Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure went down after treatment. At first, the blood pressure drop didn’t last, but by about the fourth week, blood pressure stayed lower consistently between sessions. After the eighth and final session, the results were even more sustained…
• An average drop in systolic pressure of six points and a drop in peak spikes of eight points. Average diastolic pressure (the lower number) went down by four points.
• About 70% of the patients were “high responders”—average systolic readings went down nine points and peak spikes went down 14 points, while average diastolic went down four points. (High responders tended to have higher levels of norepinephrine and renin to start with.)
• One month after the treatment ended, blood pressure remained lower, rising only a very small amount.
Two months after treatment, blood pressure levels went back up, although systolic (upper) readings still stayed somewhat lower than they were before the trial started. To the researchers, the results suggest a treatment approach—weekly 30-minute sessions for eight weeks, followed by maintenance electroacupuncture monthly. They tried that on a pilot basis for seven people in the study, and six months later their average systolic levels were down by 16 points, and peak levels by 25 points, compared with their pretrial readings.
That’s a schedule that could work in a real-world setting for many people. The researchers plan to study it in a larger study next.
BRINGING ACUPUNCTURE TO EVERYONE
It’s one thing to show that acupuncture can reduce blood pressure without drugs…it’s another to bring that treatment into everyday medicine. Here again, the study moved the needle. One of the goals was to find a treatment that any provider trained in acupuncture could do simply by following the protocol rather than having to be trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
TCM is a respected tradition, with its own principles of diagnosis and treatment, which may include acupuncture as well as herbal medicine, moxibustion and other treatments. It’s worth exploring for high blood pressure and other ailments, but it’s hard to integrate into standard medical practice. Based on your diagnosis and symptoms, for example, your TCM practitioner may insert needles at different places.
The new approach, on the other hand, can be applied by any doctor with training in acupuncture. Electroacupuncture can be more effective than traditional acupuncture, and it’s less dependent on the skill of the practitioner in finding exactly the right spot.
A growing number of Western-style physicians are being trained in acupuncture without being fully trained in TCM. By following the protocol in this study, these physicians can use acupuncture to reduce hypertension in patients with mild-to-moderate high blood pressure. You can find a physician trained in acupuncture on the website of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Of course, a fully trained TCM practitioner can also implement this treatment.
SHOULD YOU TRY IT?
A half-hour weekly treatment, followed by monthly maintenance sessions…that can be done by any medical doctor with proper acupuncture training…that would have a substantial effect on a health problem that affects one-third of Americans…is a very exciting prospect. Even if it’s proven in longer-term studies, however, electroacupuncture is not likely to be a complete solution to treating high blood pressure. Exercise, a healthful diet, weight loss, stress reduction and certain supplements can each help reduce high blood pressure, so you need an integrated plan. To learn more, see Bottom Line’s Guide to Preventing and Lowering High Blood Pressure Naturally. To explore acupuncture’s many other benefits, see Bottom Line’sGuide to Acupuncture: What it Does.
Even if you still need medication, these approaches are important. Reducing blood pressure even modestly may mean cutting back from, say, three drugs to two, or from two to one. One word ofwarning, however: Don’t stop taking your blood pressure medication without working with your doctor. That can be dangerous. Instead, if you’re interested in trying this approach, talk to your doctor about it first, give it a try under medical supervision, and see how it affects your blood pressure.