Acupuncture is a form of medicine that has been practiced for roughly 3000 years in China. Acupuncturists believe people’s health depends on a strong flow of life energy (chi) through the body. According to this theory, diseases and symptoms come when chi is blocked or unbalanced.
Acupuncturists insert tiny needles into specific points on the body to balance chi and get it flowing smoothly. In addition to traditional acupuncture with regular needles, some practitioners now use electro-acupuncture, in which a very low electrical current is applied to the needles. In herbal acupuncture, tiny doses of medicinal herbs are inserted into acupuncture points.
The two main types of energy in this framework are called yin, the nurturing, cooling, female energy, and yang, the protective, hot, male energy. We need both energies to be healthy. An in-depth overview of acupuncture and how it works is available in the journal Diabetes Spectrum.
Benefits of acupuncture in diabetes
Studies show that acupuncture can improve both diabetes and its complications. These benefits include:
Lowering blood sugar levels
An analysis by two Korean scientists of seven studies with a total of 598 subjects found that fasting and after-meal blood sugars were lower in people who had their diabetes treated with acupuncture. Their A1C levels were also lower.
Reducing insulin resistance.
A study from Sweden found that electro-acupuncture reduced insulin resistance (IR).
This is an important finding because insulin resistance leads to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, in addition to raising glucose levels.
Susan Swanberg, an acupuncturist who has Type 1 diabetes, says, “The blood sugar lowering effects of acupuncture are believed to be due to the down-regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone that encourages the liver to create glucose, and by decreasing free-fatty acid concentration in the blood, which is believed to increase insulin sensitivity.”
Many scientists who doubt the concept of chi believe instead that acupuncture works directly on the nerves. So it’s not surprising that needles may help manage the pain of neuropathy.
A German study found that, over one year of treatment, acupuncture improved nerve function and reduced nerve pain in the feet for 76% of people who received the therapy, compared to 15% in the group that got standard care.
Cleaning out blocked arteries.
Two recent Chinese studies found that acupuncture helped heal arteries blocked by fat deposits (atherosclerosis), a major problem in diabetes.
Side effects and risks
Acupuncture is generally very safe. According to one source, the main side effects are soreness, bruises, or minor bleeding where the needles are inserted.
Sometimes there may be mild headache or emotional changes in the first day after treatment. Many therapists consider this a sign of healing.
What to expect at an appointment
First acupuncture appointments usually start with a consultation. This can include asking questions about all aspects of your health. The physical portion of the exam may include pulse reading, examining the tongue and eyes, and other observations.
Then between four and 20 needles are inserted. According to acupuncturist Swanberg, “The needles are about the width of a cat’s whisker and the insertion is generally painless, although some points may elicit a dull throbbing sensation. After the needles are inserted, most people fall into a state of deep relaxation and some even fall right to sleep.”
The acupuncturist may prescribe herbs and give dietary advice to help balance your chi. Follow-up appointments may go right to needling after a brief check-in.
How to find a good acupuncturist
Finding an acupuncturist is easy, but finding one who knows about diabetes, electro-acupuncture, or herbal acupuncture may take some work. You can start on referral pages such as that of the Acupuncture Now Foundation or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Most health insurance does not cover acupuncture, though some are starting to because of increased demand. Basic Medicare does not cover acupuncture, but several Medicare advantage plans do.
Not a replacement for medical care
Acupuncture is a complementary treatment. Nobody claims it cures diabetes, though it seems to help reduce blood sugar and possibly help prevent complications.
You should not stop prescribed medications when using acupuncture and should let your doctor know if you’re considering trying this form of treatment. You should also keep exercising and eating the healthiest food you can. Self-management is still the most important treatment for diabetes.
Want to learn more about alternative approaches to treating diabetes? Read “Alternative and Complementary Therapies for Diabetes,” “Apple Cider Vinegar and Diabetes,” and “Cinnamon and Diabetes: An Update.”