One doctor, whose family has practiced acupuncture for a millennia, says acupuncture has been an effective go-to therapy for people living with cognitive decline for centuries. Being Patient reporter Genevieve Glass looks at the science behind the practice.
The ancient practice of acupuncture is believed to have originated in China approximately 3,000 years ago. Acupuncture is an integrative practice where a licensed practitioner uses fine needles to stimulate specific anatomic areas — known as acupuncture points — just under the skin surface. While needle-based therapy may sound painful, the method is not only safe and minimally invasive — many people find the experience relaxing.
Perhaps that is validation for the ancient Chinese adage that guides the practice: “Bu tong ze tong, tong ze bu tong,” which roughly translates to “if there is no free flow, there is pain; if there is free flow, there is no pain.” Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners believe that the better the blood and energy flow in one’s body, the healthier and happier a person is. Recent research points to the possibility that people living with Alzheimer’s may benefit from what acupuncture has to offer, too.
Mao Shing Ni, known to his patients as Dr. Mao, has a Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine and is the co-founder of Yo San University and the Tao of Wellness, where he performs roughly 50,000 acupuncture treatments every year, herbal teas and supplements. He believes when treating advanced neurodegenerative diseases, the key is melding Eastern and Western medicine in order to produce the best results. “Eastern medicine is not a replacement in this instance, it’s a complement,” Mao explained.
That said, he has dedicated his life to acupuncture, following in the footsteps of his family’s unbroken lineage of 38 generations of TCM practitioners. His specialty lies in longevity medicine. Two of his most recent books, Secrets of Longevity: Hundreds of Ways to Live to Be 100, and the “Secrets of Longevity Cookbook” offers a simple, no nonsense approach to living a longer, healthier and happier life.
“I’ve always been a proponent of making acupuncture available on-site at assisted living places, because it improves mood, reduces agitation, helps them sleep and calms them down without any drugs. You can see a visible relaxation,” Mao described.
Admittingly, the word ‘relaxation’ is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about someone poking needles into your skin. But rest assured, the needles are thin, flexible and about the same thickness of a strand of hair. While each insertion is relatively painless to the receiver, it’s enough to signal an immune response from the body, stimulating the body’s self-healing process and releasing stagnant energy, or “qi” as they call it in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
With regards to Alzheimer’s and dementia, Mao said that acupuncture has been shown to improve brain function by increasing circulation to the brain, improving oxygen flow and reducing stress hormones like cortisol while increasing serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter specific to memory.
Recent research supports this claim: A recent clinical trial in Hebei, China tracked the progress of 50 people with Alzheimer’s. The control group received donepezil at a dosage of 5 mg daily and nimodipine at a dosage of 30 mg three times a day, while the experimental group took a Chinese herbal formula twice a day and had daily, 30-minute acupuncture sessions. After three-months, both groups had improved cognitive function, but the experimental group saw significantly greater improvements. This led researchers to note that acupuncture, when combined with herbal medicine, is an “effective treatment option for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Mao attributes cognitive decline to diminished levels of blood circulation, toxin build up and oxidative stress, causing inflammation. “Beta-amyloid plaques are sticky proteins. That’s build-up in the brain – a waste product. If garbage doesn’t go out, then you have an issue.” He said acupuncture aids the removal of these toxins by stimulating cleansing organs like the kidneys, colon and liver to do their jobs more effectively.
Dr. Changlin Yang, a research assistant scientist at the University of Florida, recently reviewed a trial involving 2,045 patients, which showed that acupuncture, when paired with drug therapy may be more beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s disease than drug therapy alone.
Yang did, however, acknowledge some limitations: “Acupuncture is beneficial for those with neurodegenerative disease, as seen from the published data,” he told Being Patient. “However, the treatment’s effect depends on the severity of dementia, the expertise of the operator and so on.”
He added, “The effect of acupuncture alone without combining other treatments of Alzheimer’s remains controversial.”
While Chinese medicine and acupuncture are generally safe and with minimal contraindications, experts say that when performing acupuncture for someone with Alzheimer’s, it is best to assess their comfort level with needles and use the practice as a tool in conjunction with Western medicine, as opposed to solitary treatment.
Christy Turner, a dementia caregiving consultant, said that while there still aren’t enough large-scale, Western studies to have established acupuncture’s true effects on Alzheimer’s symptoms, she advises her clients to consult with their physicians and to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“Generally speaking, if something isn’t a scam (financial exploitation, abuse or making wild promises) or harmful, and can potentially help people feel better physically or alleviate anxiety or feel more serene or at peace, then I tend to think it’s worth a try,” Turner told Being Patient. “I look forward to seeing what the NIH study launched in fall 2019 finds on this topic.”