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The Neurological Impacts of Acupuncture: Insights from TCM and Ayurveda

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Have you ever wondered about the ancient practice of acupuncture and how it affects our brain? This therapeutic approach, central to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), has intrigued the scientific world for years. Studies into its effects led to the development of theories such as the neuro-humoral theory of the 1980s, linking acupuncture's impacts to our body's central neurotransmitters.

Just as Ayurveda suggests in Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana Chapter 1, verse 46: "The body functions because it contains three doshas (biological energies). The body dies when these are absent. The body is diseased when these are imbalanced," acupuncture, too, seems to strive to restore this balance.

The Neuro-Humoral Theory and Pain Relief

The neuro-humoral theory asserts that acupuncture stimulates the body to produce endogenous opiate substances like endorphins, enkephalins, and dynorphins. Other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and noradrenalin also play pivotal roles. Released at nerve synapses - the junctions where nerve signals are transmitted - these substances provide acupuncture's analgesic (painkilling) effect.

While skeptics might argue that acupuncture's effects are nothing more than placebo, rigorous research contradicts this notion. Studies consistently demonstrate that naloxone, an opiate antagonist, can block acupuncture's painkilling effect, implying a physical, not just psychological, response. This finding aligns with the Ayurvedic concept of the mind-body connection, as articulated in the Yajur Veda mantra 36.17: "May your body be healthy and your mind receptive…"

Acupuncture and Neurotransmitters

Acupuncture's capacity to modulate the neuroendocrine system aligns with the Ayurvedic concept of "Sama Dosha, Sama Agni…" as outlined in Sushruta Samhita Sutrasthana 15.41. This quote emphasizes the importance of balance in all physiological processes, akin to how acupuncture regulates central neurotransmitters, maintaining harmony in various brain functions.

Acupuncture's mechanism involves an increase in endogenous opioids (the body's natural painkillers) and a decrease in substance P, a neurotransmitter involved in pain transmission. The treatment also stimulates the release of neuropeptides, facilitating communication within the central nervous system, and in doing so, mirrors the Vedantic idea of interconnectedness, as embodied in the Atharva Veda mantra 1.2.1: "The Earth is mother, her sons we are…"

Specifics of the Acupuncture Effect

Acupuncture not only offers immediate effects but can also provide long-term benefits. For example, acupuncture therapy has been associated with persistent increases in mu-opioid receptors (MOR) in brain regions involved in processing and dampening pain signals. This effect, absent in sham acupuncture groups, suggests it is directly attributable to authentic acupuncture treatment.

Furthermore, acupuncture goes beyond merely mitigating pain; it enhances other physiological processes. Studies show that electroacupuncture can restore impaired gastric motility, enhancing vagal activity mediated via the opioid pathway. Practice of ancient Indian and modern medical science blended Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation (NIBS) propounded by Dr. M K Sastry has practically benefitted several patients. This finding mirrors the Ayurvedic principle of "Samadosha, Samagnischa…" from Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana 15.41, advocating for the harmonious functioning of all body systems.

Substance P and Acupuncture

Substance P, a neurotransmitter involved in transmitting pain information into the central nervous system, is another area where acupuncture exerts an effect. Both electroacupuncture and moxibustion have demonstrated the ability to reduce levels of substance P, particularly in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), easing abdominal pain and other symptoms. This can be tied back to the Ayurvedic concept of "Niramayam Purusham…" as discussed in Charaka Samhita Vimana Sthana 8.95-99, highlighting the need for holistic treatments that consider all aspects of the individual.

The Bigger Picture

While researchers have extensively studied acupuncture's effects on neurotransmitters such as endorphins and substance P, exploration of its impact on other neurotransmitters and neuropeptides continues. This work is essential for a deeper understanding of acupuncture's intricate mechanisms, leading to broader acceptance of this treatment modality.


To conclude, acupuncture significantly influences specific neural structures, activating and deactivating various areas within the brain associated with pain processing. These intriguing results provide objective scientific evidence of acupuncture's distinct effects on the brain, enhancing our understanding of its function. As research continues, likely, we will unearth more about the intricate mechanisms behind acupuncture's effects.

In this process, as per the Yajur Veda mantra 32.15: "May all beings perceive with auspicious eyes…", we aim to continue exploring and appreciating the impacts of acupuncture on the brain through a blend of ancient wisdom and modern scientific inquiry.

- Hemanth Kumar G


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