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Acupuncture lowers hypertension by activating natural opioids, UC Irvine study shows

October 28, 2016
UC Irvine researchers at the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine find that acupuncture lowers hypertension by activating natural opioids.
UC Irvine researchers show how repetitive electroacupuncture evokes a long-lasting effect in lowering high blood pressure.  Photo by Chris Nugent / UC Irvine Strategic Communications.

Irvine, Calif. — UC Irvine Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine researchers report that regular electroacupuncture treatment can lower hypertension by increasing the release of a kind of opioid in the brainstem region that controls blood pressure.

In tests on rats, UC Irvine School of Medicine cardiology researcher Zhi-Ling Guo and colleagues noted that blood pressure reductions lasted for at least three days after electroacupuncture by increasing the gene expression of enkephalin, one of three major opioid peptides produced by the body.

The study, which appears in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports, presents the first evidence of the molecular activity behind electroacupuncture’s hypertension-lowering benefits.

Last year, the Samueli Center team reported that patients treated with acupuncture at certain wrist locations experienced drops in their blood pressure. The present study shows that repetitive electroacupuncture evokes a long-lasting action in lowering blood pressure in hypertension, suggesting that this therapy may be suitable for treating clinical hypertension. 

Hypertension affects about one third of the world's adult population and its consequences, such as stroke and heart attacks, are enormous public health problems. The potential advantages of acupuncture over conventional medical therapy include few, if any, side effects.

The open access study is available at: http://www.nature.com/articles/srep35791. It was supported by National Institutes of Health grants HL-072125, AT009347 and AHA 10POST4190125.