A group of researchers have found that performing acupuncture regularly could help reduce high blood pressure in patients by stimulating the release of an opioid in the brainstem.

High blood pressure or hypertension is seen in one in three adults in the world. Hypertension is one of the serious health problems since it can result in potentially fatal outcomes like heart attack and stroke.

It was found in previous studies that electro-acupuncture (EA) was effective in reducing mild to moderate levels of hypertension. Systolic blood pressure was reported to have reduced by 10-12 mmHg by applying EA once a week or with an eight-week course. The effect of the therapy was also observed to have persisted for four additional weeks.

A team of researchers led by Zhi-Ling Guo from UCI Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine conducted a rat experiment where rats with cold-induced hypertension (CIH) were used. On exposure to cold, the systolic and diastolic blood pressure in rats increased within four weeks and sustained hypertension developed in six weeks.

When EA was applied to the rats with CIH, both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure reduced significantly through the course of the treatment whereas the rats with untreated hypertension had elevated blood pressure of 11 weeks.

When EA is applied, it stimulates the expression of the gene responsible for producing enkephalins. As a matter of fact, enkephalin is one of the three opioids found in the body. Enkephalins are the body's natural painkiller just like endorphins. Enkephalins are found in the thalamus of the brain and in some parts of spinal cord.

Though the blood pressure of the EA treated rats was elevated immediately after the closure of the therapy, the blood pressure was found to have reduced in three consecutive days when compared to sham EA control group. It was also noted that the blood pressure of the normal rats that weren't subjected to EA or exposed to cold remained stable throughout the 11-week study period.

The study findings have it that repetitive EA not only helps in reducing hypertension but also gives a long-lasting relief, reported in press release.

"In conclusion, repetitive EA attenuates CIH. The BP lowering action of EA lasts at least three days after cessation of EA. The inhibitory effect of EA is related to the increases in enkephalin levels in the rVLM (rostral ventrolateral medulla). The present study suggests that acupuncture may be a viable non-pharmacological option to treat chronic hypertension," read the report published online in the journal Scientific Reports on Oct. 24.

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