Original publication on Acupuncture Today May 2019
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“Qigong and acupuncture will not only make you smarter, but also make you sexier and get better dates” touted the late Dr. Daju Suzanne Friedman to her students. They always laughed at this joke, but also knew there was definitely some merit to it, because after practicing qigong or receiving an acupuncture treatment the results were obvious; feeling better, a clarity of mind and an improved overall appearance. When a person completes a meditation retreat it’s not uncommon for their peers to see them as not just looking more clear and relaxed, but also looking more youthful and more present. Mindfulness works, it helps us to relax, let go of stress and actually takes the body into a regenerative brainwave state, and doing this has an incredible anti-aging effect throughout the entire body, from improved clarity of mind, to preserving telomeres and visible improvements in the skin and appearance.
In the same way meditation helps to take the brain and body to a restorative state, acupuncture does so as well; it’s part of the reason why patients get off the table feeling great, looking relaxed and talking about how incredibly relaxing the treatment was. There are different types of brainwaves the human body experiences, they affect different levels of consciousness and serve different purposes - all relevant and important. In today’s society, the stressed out sympathetic nervous system is ever dominant, so taking time to wind down and drop in to a regenerative state is incredibly important, although it can often be difficult for some to get into that relaxed state. Acupuncture can help almost anyone drop in to a relaxed state without the effort, making acupuncture a great tool, like mindfulness meditation to help people experience renewal and healthy aging.
WHAT TYPES OF BRAIN WAVES ARE THERE?
Electrical activity in the brain is displayed as brain waves, there are four dominant types of brain waves each corresponding to a level of activity and output in the brain. Brainwaves start as a low amplitude - high frequency wave and progress into higher amplitude - lower frequency as they continue on the scale. Every type of brainwave is associated with certain characteristics and benefits (or non-benefits in excess) to the human body (The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2010). There are also additional types of brainwaves not commonly seen, which are at the two ends of the scale including Lambda and Gamma waves very low amplitude very high frequency and Epsilon very high amplitude very low frequency.
Gamma Waves40hz - 100hz - This brainwave type is not common or strong in most humans and is associated with insight and expanded consciousness. It’s the state of hyper-focused tranquil meditation, which sounds like an oxymoron but is a similar state observed in master musicians and meditators like the Tibetan monks.
Beta Waves 12hz - 38hz - Likely our most common waking brainwave state, Beta waves are related to conscious thinking, learning and concentration. This is the state we are in while studying and is also associated with anxiety and stress. Beta waves serve a very important function for the body - to help us learn and understand, but in excess we can get stuck in this brainwave state and experience anxiety and an overly stressed system in fight or flight mode which can erode creativity and energy. (Herrman December 1997).
Alpha Waves 8hz - 12hz - The next step down in brain wave activity is the Alpha state, this is our typical relaxation state where we relax, recharge and reflect in an awake state, it’s winding down at the end of the day before bedtime. This state has an increase of serotonin production and is associated with relaxed focus, it’s the beginning of access to an unconscious mind.
Theta Waves 4h-8hz - Theta state is associated with deep meditation and relaxation or light sleep including the REM cycle of sleep. Great inspiration and profound learning can take place in this state of brain activity including healing and a general experience of ‘oneness.’ Meditation, yoga and acupuncture can all help a person drop down into this theta state and this is where profound healing and in some cases mystical type experiences can be accessed. Theta waves may also be present during times of emotional distress like frustration and disappointment and in degenerative brain disorders (Cabıoğlu, M., 2016).
Delta Waves 0.5hz-4hz - Associated with deep, dreamless sleep Delta waves are the lowest in frequency but highest in amplitude. The brainwave state helps us access the unconscious mind and universal consciousness, release of the human growth hormone and is also associated and necessary for deep healing which occurs during that deep sleep phase, it’s also the dominant pattern in infants and persons with serious organic brain disease.
Epsilon Waves <0.5hz - Epsilon brainwaves are often linked with Gamma and Lambda waves and are associated with similar effects and patterns - integration and universal consciousness. They are rarely observed and many measuring devices are not equipped to pick up this low frequency wave.
How does acupuncture effect brain waves?
In practice, the effect of acupuncture is obvious, patients walk in in a stressed sympathetic nervous system state and leave lighter and relaxed. The effect acupuncture has on the body, physiologically speaking, is producing an increased level of beneficial chemicals in the brain and body including endogenous opioids, serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline which all help the body reach a relaxed state and decrease pain. When we think about the association of brainwaves states with states of stress (beta), relaxation (alpha), deep relaxation (theta) and restoration (delta) it’s an easy jump to assume that acupuncture likely has some effects on the brainwave pattern.
In a review of acupuncture studies on the effects of acupuncture and brainwaves the dominant outcome was that acupuncture treatment decreased beta waves and increased the alpha wave state, there was also evidence that alpha waves became synchronized during acupuncture treatment in one of the studies; pointing to the role of acupuncture’s effect on the autonomic nervous system (Cabıoğlu, M., 2016). Without extra meditation or relaxation techniques, acupuncture helps drop our patients into alpha brainwave states which promotes the body’s natural healing responses and is also linked to anti-aging properties like preserving telomeres and slowing cellular aging. There is abundant information regarding the connection between telomeres and cellular aging in association with meditation and mindfulness practices. Due to the similar brainwave states that acupuncture and meditation produce in the brain it’s likely that acupuncture also has this similar benefit to preserving telomeres and slowing cellular death which promotes healthy aging (Epel E1, Daubenmier J, Moskowitz JT, Folkman S, Blackburn E., August 2009). Shortened telomere length has been linked to chronic stress and depression, two things that mindfulness and acupuncture can both help a patient with. Telomeres are compound structures at the end of DNA strands, that serve as ‘caps’ or protection against fraying at the end of DNA strands, when they shorten and dissolve this leaves the DNA in a fragile state that can easily unravel and decompose, therefore preserving telomere length and integrity is essential to the body’s anti-aging capabilities.
Is this the fountain of youth?
Telomeres certainly play a role in how and when a body ages, they can be associated with cognitive decline as well as physical decline, so any treatment that can help preserve telomeres is accessing an essential anti-aging component of the human body. Using acupuncture to drop down brainwave states to states that are essential to restoration and relaxation inherently have the side-benefit of preserving telomeres and slowing cellular aging. Reaching alpha - theta brainwave states may be what’s responsible for the efficacy of acupuncture treatments, at least in part. It’s in reaching these states that the Qi of the body can re-align, and meridians can restore the smooth flow of Qi and function. As for looking forward it would be interesting to see more research on how regular acupuncture effects brainwave states over time, do patients experience less beta state or experience dropping into alpha - theta states more easily? In our society of concern (and perhaps over-concern) about aging, knowing how to blend the conversation of East and West to explain how acupuncture in and of itself is a potentially powerful anti-aging or rather, ‘healthy aging’ practice is a gateway to increased healing potential and patient compliance.
Dr. Kim Peirano, DACM, LAc is the owner and Acupuncturist behind Lion's Heart Wellness in San Rafael, CA and Integrative Cosmetic Acupuncture Technique for training Acupuncturists in Cosmetic Acupuncture methods. Dr. Kim is a licensed Acupuncturist and Intuitive Healer.