By Li Zheng, Ph.D., Lic. Acu.
Coincident with the equilibrium theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine, many studies have
demonstrated that acupuncture treatments contribute to the maintenance of the balance of biological
chemicals such as serotonin, endorphin, dopamine, cortisol, and many other hormones in the central
nervous system. Endocrine glands secrete hormones directly into the lymph
and the bloodstream. The
endocrine system is an orchestra that requires all of its players to be fully engaged. The quick
alleviation of symptoms of various diseases by acupuncture is partially fulfilled via the
simultaneous improvement of the functions of endocrine glands, such as adrenal gland, provided that
there is no structural abnormality in the endocrine system. The following is a brief summary of
some scientific evidence that acupuncture can optimize adrenal gland function.
1. Anti-inflammatory function of adrenal gland
RX Zheng published a paper in the Journal of Alternative Complement Medicine regarding acupuncture’s effect
on adrenal gland function. Electroacupuncture at 10 Hz significantly reduced chemically induced hind paw
edema in rats. The effect was partially blocked by adrenalectomy (removing adrenal gland).
Electroacupuncture significantly increased plasma levels of cortisol but caused no noticeable signs of
stress, such as increased blood sugar level. Electroacupuncture at 10 Hz may activate the
hypothalamus-pituitary- adrenal axis and enhance adrenal gland function to produce more endogenous
2. Balancing different hormones from the adrenal gland.
Dr. HS Lee of the Republic of Korea did extensive research on the effects of acupuncture on water
metabolism and high blood pressure. Applying manual acupuncture on the UB15 decreased plasma levels of
aldosterone (a chemical stimulating the body to retain more water and sodium), whereas acupuncture on the
UB23 decreased plasma renin activity (a chemical stimulating blood vessels to constrict in order to
increase blood pressure). Both points helped lower blood pressure. These results suggest that acupuncture
on specific points may have site-specific regulatory effects on hormone levels and that the meridian
points, UB23 and UB15, are associated with the regulation of body fluids and of electrolyte balance to
optimize the blood pressure level.
3. Optimize cortisol level
Acupuncture can also reduce stress-induced increases of the blood cortisol level. QG, Yang et al. conducted
some research on a group of people undergoing heart and lung surgery. Thirty patients with atrial septal
defects were divided into 3 groups: the general anesthesia group (A), the acupuncture anesthesia group (B),
and the group of general anesthesia combined with electroacupuncture (C). Peripheral blood samples were
collected at times before anesthesia, before surgery, and 30 minutes after surgery to determine the levels
of plasma ß-endorphin, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) (a hormone that stimulates the adrenal gland to
produce more cortisol), serum cortisol, and blood glucose. Plasma beta-endorphin, ACTH, and serum cortisol
increased significantly in both Groups A and B 30 minutes after surgery, but there were no significant
changes in Group C. Blood glucose increased in all the 3 groups 30 minutes after surgery but increased
much less in Group C. When our bodies go through surgeries, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, the
important stress coping system, will act up. Thus, cortisol and glucose levels will generally increase
because of stress. This response can lead to suppressed immune function and therefore infection, high
blood sugar levels, or other complications after surgery. Combining acupuncture with general anesthesia
can inhibit this stress response so that the stress hormone cortisol is adjusted to precisely the right
level: not too high to cause tissue damage and not too low to create chronic inflammation. People can even
recover from the open-heart surgery more quickly.
How can acupuncture increase cortisone level in one condition and reduce the same hormone in another? This
happens because acupuncture can generally balance thyroid, adrenal gland, and other gland functions so that
the levels of the different hormones are optimized. When inflammation continues, our bodies need more
cortisol. Acupuncture stimulates the adrenal gland to produce more by enhancing its function instead of
exhausting it as caffeine does. When our bodies produce too much cortisol to cope with stress, acupuncture
reduces cortisol production by eliminating the stress factor and enhancing liver and kidney function to
quickly discharge the extra stress hormones. H. Mori of the Department of Acupuncture at the Tsukuba
College of Technology, Japan used electroacupuncture to stimulate a rat’s hind paw with different
intensities. He found that the adrenal gland could produce more or less adrenaline depending on what kind
of manipulation is applied to the points. This mechanism may be associated with improved adrenal gland
function. Generally, hand manipulation tends to relax people more than electrical stimulation. If the main
purpose is to lower stress levels and the patients are already very tight with a lot of blocked energy,
mild hand manipulation should be used to help reduce the stress hormone. If the patients are exhausted from
chronic illness and the adrenal gland is depleted with a very low production of cortisol, then, an
application of low frequency electrical stimulation will enhance the adrenal gland function.
In Chinese medicine, the kidney is a very important organ closely related with reproductive function, bone
formation, urinary function, and hormone balance. Many kidney points are located on the foot. When we
stimulate these points, most patients say they become more energetic even with the same amount of sleep.
Perhaps this is the result of a temporary increase in cortisol level. Although we just mentioned that
high cortisol levels are not good, a normal adrenal gland can only increase cortisol levels within a
certain range that does not cause any tissue damage. Acupuncture adjusts the adrenal gland function to
produce the optimized amount of adrenaline in order to dilate the trachea and increase heart rate when our
body is physically challenged. If people have too much adrenaline, they will end up with palpitations or a
panic attack. If adrenaline is insufficient, people will have exercise-triggered asthma attacks. Since the
adrenal gland plays such an important role in our lives, a famous scientist, Dr. Omura, conduct a lot of
research to determine how the adrenal gland correlates with the Chinese meridian systems. He found that the
Pericardium meridian, running along the midline of the ventral part of the arm and the chest area, is
closely associated with adrenal gland function, and that the Triple Burner meridian, running along the
midline of the dorsal part of the arm, shoulder and head area, is associated with ovary or adrenal gland
function in the female and with testes or adrenal gland function in the male.
Li Zheng is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, a graduate of the Beijing University of Chinese
Medicine with 11 years of formal training, including 6 years of residency, a Ph.D. degree holder in medical
sciences from the US, a Harvard Medical School trained researcher, a professor at the New England School of
Acupuncture, and a staff acupuncturist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Her website is
and her clinic is located at 475 hillside avenue, Needham, MA02494.