An Evolutionary View of Acupuncture
An Evolutionary View of Acupuncture
What is acupuncture, from an evolutionary perspective? Why and how can it benefit us?
Many studies have been performed on the ancient practice of inserting fine solid needles into the human body for the purposes of treating disease and generating deeper health and wellness. Today science clearly understands that the practice of acupuncture is one of the most effective and powerful ways to treat a wide variety of ailments, including pain of all kinds, stress, neurological conditions like Bell’s palsy, and many others.
Dozens of physiological mechanisms that explain the efficacy of acupuncture have been studied and described. They include decreased cortisol, increased blood oxygenation, decreased galvanic or electrical resistance in the skin, decreased inflammation, more even flow of blood, improved heart rate variability, and many, many more.
Yet so far, no one has put forth an overarching theory as to why acupuncture works. Why would evolution grant the body the ability to gain adaptive capacity, gain healing efficiency, improved physiological function, simply by inserting fine metal needles at strategic locations in the body?
Acupuncture as Hormesis
One theory connects acupuncture’s effects to the physiological effect known as hormesis, the scientific way of saying, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Exercise is a classic example of hormesis. The magic of exercise to improve your health comes not from the movements themselves, but is generated by the recovery and adaptation period following your workout. So the mild or moderate physiological stress of exercise causes damage that our bodies super-compensate for, creating more health and vital energy.
For many hormetic stressors, the adaptation to the stress causes the body to become stronger as a result. This is sometimes called “Wolf’s law,” stating the human body models the stresses that it experiences. This is why muscle responds to strength training, but even moreso, our bones are remodeled by the process. The bony attachment points for each muscle grow in response to exercise, just as the muscles do.
The idea then, is that acupuncture treatments create tiny wounds to which the body super-compensates by activating regenerative physiological pathways. On the surface, hormesis provides a satisfactory explanation for acupuncture’s general effects, and likely carries much truth. But it tells us more how acupuncture works, not why.
To use a blunt mechanical metaphor, the hormesis theory of acupuncture tells us that the mechanic fixes our cars by using wrenches and other tools to remove and replace broken parts, but does not explain the tremendous specificity of acupuncture points as we know them today.
To understand point specificity, we need to know why acupuncture works. For this, we need to understand evolution itself. And to understand evolution, we need to understand embryology.
Darwin, Haeckel, and Piaget’s Insight
Today we take the theory of evolution for granted. We still call it a theory in homage to the scientific method, but it’s as solid and demonstrable as the theory of gravity. We see evolution demonstrated around us constantly, from the way that bacteria develop antibiotic resistance, to the way that animals are bred and domesticated through artificial selection.
One of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries, Ernst Haeckel, made the observation in the laboratory that embryos go through a process that mimics the evolution of life on earth. That is, all of life on earth started out as single celled organisms, just as we start off as single-celled organisms, a single fertilized egg.
In Haeckel’s view, in the womb, humans go through the same evolutionary stages as life those that all of life on earth did, as the earth developed and organisms became more complex, evolving into higher and higher orders of being. The single-celled fertilized egg, the zygote, first becomes a simple multicellular organism, gradually becoming more complex, resembling at one point an earthworm, a fish, a small monkey, until we become fully-baked humans just prior to birth.
Haeckel had a pithy phrase that sticks in one’s mind, once you get the meaning of the five-dollar words: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Ontogeny is the study of the way we are and the ways in which we become what we are. Recapitulation is a fancy way to describe an accurate remembering process. And phylogeny is the study of life on earth, divided up into distinct groups of life forms, or phylum.
Haeckel’s received a lot of criticism from the peanut gallery during his day, even up to the present time. Most of this criticism is centered around minor technical details of embryology that are minutely different from the way that we currently understand the evolution of life on Earth. It’s a bit of an autistic criticism, as it neglects the forest to focus on pine needle shape.
Enter developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who edited the pithy aphorism to state “ontology parallels phylogeny,” a statement which seems to appease myopic critics.
That’s neat, but What does Embryology Have to Do with Acupuncture?
I’m glad you asked. In the 1980’s, Japanese and other Asian acupuncture researchers began experimenting with radiographic dye, as chronicled by a pioneering practitioner, Kiiko Matsumoto in several books, notably Reflections on the Sea.
These radiographic dye experiments took several forms. In one form, a barium contrast medium was injected into acupoints in healthy volunteers. Some of that dye entered venous circulation, or into the lymph, to be carried away from the injection site.
However a notable portion of the dye traveled via fascial networks, traveling through cellular gap junctions, moving between layers of fascial connective tissue, in pathways that, lo and behold, traversed the body just as the ancient maps of the meridian network showed.
In other experiments, monkey embryos were injected with the dye from the very first cell division, and researchers tracked the flow of dye as the cells divided. From these experiments, the researchers were able to surmise that the meridians themselves were forming in the womb along lines of embryological development.
A careful comparative study of embryology and anatomy shows that the facial planes that construct our bodies do overlay perfectly with the meridian map. Anatomists like Tom Meyers in his work Anatomy Trains have developed entire clinical protocols based on these facial planes. Asian acupuncturists have developed extensive and detailed meridian maps and treatment protocols using these fine networks to treat a vast array of clinical conditions.
OK, But You Still Haven’t Explained What Embryology Has To With Acupuncture
Patience, young Jedi.
In order to link the fascial planes, acupuncture, and embryology, we must look at some specific acupuncture locations, and understand the physiological effect of acupuncture at each site.
First, we’ll look at an acupuncture point, Urinary Bladder 62, which is located on the lateral aspect of the pinky toe. It has been used for centuries to treat visual disorders, on the premise that the other end of the meridian, Urinary Bladder 1, is located at the inner cants of the eye. Researchers at the University of California-Irvine, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, found that stimulating UB62 causes beneficial changes in the occipital cortex of the brain—where visual processing takes place. Astoundingly, the researchers used the fMRI data to calculate the speed of transmission, and found that the speed of the signal moving from the foot to the brain exceeded the possible speed of neurological transmission by a significant degree—faster even than the speed of sound. They theorize that the signal is moving through fascia by a semiconductor effect, the electromagnetic phenomenon that allows all our microchip-powered fancy modern technology like cell phones, computers, and talking greeting cards.
A similar effect is seen when stimulating the acupuncture point Stomach 36, which has been shown to have powerful regulatory effects on gastric motility. My personal favorite example is the acupuncture point Heart 7, located near the pisiform bone in the wrist. This point, when stimulated, shows an ability to increase Heart Rate Variability, which is a significant measure of neurological and hormonal health and balance. Heart Rate Variability, a statistical measurement of the electrical activity of the heart, illustrates mathematically how well the heart and brain are communicating, as well as the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Research shows many other examples of specific physiological effects. The highest density location of these points is found in the ear, the only place on the surface of the body where all three embryological layers are found in adults.
OK, You’re At Least Talking About Acupuncture Points.. but.. How Does that Tie In To Embryology??
Several studies have shown that electromagnetic fields can damage developing chicken embryos. The mechanism is not understood yet, but it appears that electromagnetic fields interact with all of life, and likely direct the embryological process. The legendary British biologist Rupert Sheldrake has postulated that living organisms tap into an information-rich electromagnetic field that shapes our embryological development, as well as behavioral development via an effect called Morphic Responance. Sheldrake and others call this subtle information network the morphogenetic field. Sheldrake describes its non-local and profound effects via numerous experiments in his seminal book, New Science of Life: Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance.
One fascinating example illustrates morphic resonance in the embryology of sea urchins. Researchers cut sea urchin embryos in half, and showed that the embryos would re-organize into complete, perfectly formed, but smaller embryos.
Extrapolating then, to the human embryological process, I hypothesize that the fascial planes and its semiconducting connective tissue acts as a living, growing, self-directed antenna that accesses morphogenetic information via subtle electromagnetic fields to direct the embryological process. I call these “embryological reflexes,” because the changes this field creates seem to be an automatic or reflexive process similar to our deep tendon reflexes and other reflexes.
Further, we likely maintain access throughout life to these embryological reflexes, because these reflexes likely help our body heal from injury and disease. Biology has shown that our cells store memory via a variety of well-described mechanisms such as gene expression coding in the nuclear membrane.
Taking the example of the action of acupoint Stomach 36, stimulating this point restores gastric motility to its normal movement, which mimics exactly the movement in embryological formation from a linear tube into the complex four-dimensional (three dimensions plus movement) form seen in adults. Therefore it’s plausible that stimulation of Stomach 36 electromagnetically accesses the memory of embryological formation, thereby restoring normal motile function.
What Does This Mean for Patients, Practitioners, and Researchers?
The theory of embryological reflex acupoint stimulation provides a conceptual framework with which to understand the complex and specific effects of acupuncture at a given site. It allows us to understand the mechanisms by which acupuncture can help restore health and vitality and promote normal function in humans and other animals.
Patients can begin to understand why acupuncture benefits such a wide variety of health challenges with startling specificity. With an open mind to the nearly limitless possibilities of acupuncture’s potential effects, we can explore new avenues of research and clinical application.
For more information on the Evolutionary approach to health, visit my page on educational opportunities, classes, and lectures.