A few clients recently asked me about the purpose of ear acupuncture points, so I decided to offer a little explanation about why I use them and how they work. One of the functions of ear points is to induce the relaxation response.
“Repeated activation of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress.”
– Herbert Benson, MD and author
The relaxation response does not just feel good, it also heals the body. Ever notice symptoms tend to feel better and sometimes vanish when you go on vacation? That’s the relaxation response in action. Alas, most of us cannot go on vacation every week.
Ear acupuncture can also be used to direct healing to specific areas of the body. The image at the beginning of this article is a “homunculus,” which is an image of a human fetus superimposed on the ear. Stimulating points corresponding to the particular body part underlying the homunculus elicit healing in that area of the body. Ear acupuncture is so powerful that some acupuncturists use ear points exclusively. We call these folks auricular acupuncturists.
The primary reason ear acupuncture has such a tremendous healing impact lies in the fact that the ear is only location at which a branch of the vagus nerve approaches the surface of the body. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and is key to regulating our autonomic nervous system, or ANS (the part of our nervous system that operates beyond our conscious control.) The vagus nerve supplies 80-90% of the information our central nervous system receives about the state of our internal organs. So, it’s kind of important.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS). If you imagine our nervous system as a motor, think of the sympathetic as the gas, and the parasympathetic as the brakes (this is an oversimplification of the way these systems work, but will suffice for the purposes of this discussion.)
The SNS gets us ready for action and regulates arousal and increases activity during times of stress or arousal, be it positive or negative. It is active when we are alert, excited, engaged in physical activity or perceive ourselves to be under threat. This is called a stress response. In our modern fast paced life, this response gets activated quite frequently. The SNS increases our heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and shifts blood flow from our digestive system to our muscles. SNS activation also drains blood away from the surface of the skin to mitigate blood loss in case of injury.
The PNS, on the other hand helps us let go of muscle tension, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, warms our skin, aids in digestion, and induces slow and deep breathing. The PNS also enables the immune system to fully function. PNS activation is called a relaxation response.
A key feature to understand as it relates to establishing a healthy nervous system response is that the stress response is much more easily elicited than the relaxation response. A loud noise, a car suddenly braking in front of us, or even recollecting an argument from earlier in the day immediately sets the stress response in motion. While the stress response is automatic, the relaxation response must be sought out.
Enter ear points. Ear acupuncture is the quickest physical intervention I know of to induce relaxation. If you have been treated at L.A. Wellness, you may have noticed feeling an immediate wave of relaxation at the beginning of the treatment. This is because the first needles to be inserted are usually in the ears. So, if you or someone you know is stressed and could use a little nervous system reset, some ear acupuncture could be just the ticket!