Modern living is something of a catch-22, there are so many incredible things about it, but then there’s the endless journey to complete tasks and achieve goals, faster and faster. Add in a global pandemic, and you have the recipe for higher stress levels than usual. 

The good news is that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are practices that can help alleviate modern world stressors. The ancient practices have been around for over 3,000 years, and take a holistic approach to getting to the root causes of symptoms, beyond physical issues like pain. The goal is to keep your body in balance to handle what may come your way. 

EBONY asked Dr. Sian James, a licensed acupuncturist at ORA, an NYC-based wellness spot, to share her tips on how we can incorporate these traditional Eastern practices into our lives to help relieve us of stress.

EBONY: How does stress manifest in the body? What are some of the effects?

Dr. Sian James: What happens when your body is experiencing stress is that your adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol. A certain level of these two hormones, when balanced, gives you energy and focus on accomplishing activities of daily living. However, when out of balance, a person can have trouble sleeping, irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and even fatigue. 

In addition to that, digestion or appetite is affected, causing cravings and weight gain; and, you can experience a decline in your immune and sexual function as well. You also experience more tension in your body due to a decrease in circulation from muscles being tight. 

How do we find harmony or balance within our body?

Qi is harnessed by helping the body function with the least resistance possible. Once the body is balanced and all systems are functioning optimally, your Qi can be preserved and produced with less effort. Fatigue is a sign of an imbalance, and your systems are lagging, or it takes more effort to recalibrate. I like to compare Qi to a savings account. Your body has a reserve of Qi, and daily activities require withdrawing from that reserve. However, stress contributes to draining that reserve, and it gets more difficult to make deposits of Qi to bring the savings account back into balance. Harnessing your Qi means you must always deposit the same or more Qi back into the reserves and manage stress so that healing can occur and not drain that reserve to the point of depletion. The goal of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is to facilitate the body’s ability to deposit Qi back into the reserve so that you’re functioning optimally.

What is a typical treatment plan? How many treatments will it take to see long-term results? 

The goal of this kind of healing is working with your body’s innate wisdom to establish a balance within, biochemically, to achieve a state of health. It builds upon itself over time, meaning it may take anywhere from 5 to 6 treatments to start to see lasting results. Typically, someone is placed on a formula for a duration of two weeks to three months maximum. 

How does acupuncture help to counter stress?

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine help by balancing the effects stress has on your nervous system. There are two parts of the nervous system: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. They both serve the purpose of keeping you alive and functioning. What happens when you’re under stress is that the sympathetic nervous system gets the green light to stimulate your fight or flight reaction to survive. This response was great back in the day if you had to escape a major threat to your life because it makes you think quickly and respond to the threat. 

In the modern world, things like deadlines, major life changes—like moving, getting a new job, or a divorce or a breakup, or handling anything that causes the need for worry for extended periods of time—stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and causes you to have more stress hormones floating around in your blood. 

Acupuncture comes into play by stimulating the other side of your nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also known as the rest and digest. Think about when you’re on vacation, and you’re able to relax; your appetite, sleep, and sexual function are at their best. This is because you don’t have high amounts of adrenaline or cortisol, triggering your other systems to be out of balance. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the effect that acupuncture has on the body's that you feel relaxed; your appetite is good; you are happier and less irritable. 

Acupuncture stimulates the production of endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins are increased, and the receptors in the brain and body that absorb this hormone elicit a calming, pain-reducing sensation in the body. Oxytocin is also known as the bonding or love hormone. 

This break in the stress response has long-lasting effects on your health. You feel more balanced and experience less anxiety, depression, and burnout, increasing your ability to handle day-to-day responsibilities more easily. Acupuncture helps with regulating sleep which can be the first thing to become disrupted when stressed. Acupuncture increases nocturnal secretion of melatonin, meaning you’ll get a better night’s rest after a treatment. 

What are some of the herbal remedies for stress?

Chinese herbal medicine is plant-based for the most part and combines various herbs to create formulas that are great for addressing stress. The herbs work by biochemically balancing the ill effects of stress hormones and assisting the body’s ability to produce balanced amounts of stress-relieving hormones naturally. At ORA, we carry a variety of Chinese herbal medicine formulas. A common one prescribed by acupuncturists is Xiao Yao San for stress. ORA has fabulous teas created from Chinese herbs which cater to aiding the body during stressful times. I would recommend Calm & Carry On or Find Your Focus. Calm & Carry On soothes the spirit, calms the mind, and alleviates pain and tension. Find Your Focus generates Qi production, aka energy, and clears up brain fog due to fatigue. ORA carries tonics that contain Chinese herbal tinctures in either coconut water or coconut milk base, which reduces stress. My favorites are Blessed Not Stressed, Anti-Aging, or Pick Me Up, which have adaptogenic herbs that help your body bounce back into balance from the ill effects of stress and boost Qi, meaning you walk away with more vitality. These tonics are delicious, easy to take, and are made in-house daily. We also carry a range of essential oils by Campo, a concentrated form of herbal medicine applied topically or used as aromatherapy that affects your olfactory nerve and signals to your brain to enter relaxed states.

Campo Relax, Campo Sleep, and Campo Energy are essential oils I recommend for stress reduction. Stress wipes your energy, affects your ability to regenerate with good quality sleep, and causes you to feel irritable or wound up. These oils are released via a small roll-on bottle to balance these symptoms.

How can Traditional Chinese Medicine treat sleep issues and insomnia?

Traditional Chinese medicine treats sleep issues, such as restlessness and insomnia, by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which secretes endorphins and stress-relieving hormones such as melatonin and oxytocin. It decreases the heightened activity of the fight or flight aspect of the nervous system, which keeps us up at night with thoughts.

What can we do at home to improve our sleep?

At home, creating a routine to wind down, also known as sleep hygiene, is very helpful. The brain is very rhythmic, and regularity will help your circadian rhythm or sleep cycle. Trying to eat large meals or drink alcohol three hours before one expects to go to sleep is helpful. Turning off devices that stimulate the mind like cell phones, tablets, and computers will help—lighting a candle, taking a bath, playing soothing music, or doing deep breathing to calm the body. I recommend eating a good source of light protein before bed, like nuts, sliced turkey, or a piece of cheese. This way, you are not having difficulty sleeping or staying asleep due to blood sugar levels dropping throughout the night. 

ORA carries excellent essential oils and beautiful diffusers that can create a relaxing setting. Smells soothe the nervous system. Applying a light scented lotion before bed or using a room spray can set the mood for the body to know it’s time to wind down for bed. ORA has great body lotion from Saya.

How can Traditional Chinese Medicine treat digestive issues?

Traditional Chinese medicine treats digestive issues by balancing out what is causing the symptoms. If it is loss of appetite, cravings, bloating, or IBS, acupuncture goes to the root of each person’s presentation. Typically, many digestive issues, if not due to food allergies, tend to stem from the effects of stress on the digestive system. The gut is easily thrown out of balance by it. Stress can cause the cells in the stomach to overproduce or underproduce acid, or stress can weaken the immune system causing an imbalance in healthy gut flora to flourish. When this happens, you have acid reflux, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. Herbal medicine is great for addressing these internal imbalances. If it is related to stress, of course, treating the stress is primary.

What can we do at home to help our digestion?

At home, eating regular healthy meals and managing stress will bring the digestive system back into balance. Traditional Chinese medicine emphasizes eating seasonal foods. So in the warmer months eating more raw or lighter foods, and in the colder months eating more warming and cooked foods. Everything is always about balance. One doesn’t want to eat too many spicy foods, sweet foods, salty foods, or fried foods because this will deplete the digestive system. If someone has an issue that presents as excessive heat, then cooling herbs or acupuncture points would be recommended. Foods may be recommended to counteract the issue presenting as well. Food is viewed as medicine in TCM.

How does Traditional Chinese Medicine treat depression and anxiety?

Traditional Chinese medicine treats depression and anxiety by balancing stress hormones and promoting the production of stress-relieving hormones. There are specific acupuncture points that together create a variety of point protocols that alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What can we do at home to help treat anxiety and depression?

At home, someone can control a great deal, but there will also be things out of someone’s control. With anxiety and depression, a major part of approaching both is to accept wherever you are with either. Having a perspective that there may be good days or bad days helps because you will not judge or criticize yourself as harshly. Finding ways that help you build a routine, however small, will help, whether it’s meal prep, sleep hygiene, and/or exercise. Finding a way to manage stress will help because the body will appreciate any support in helping it rebalance itself.

Acupressure is a great way to relieve tension and positively affect the nervous system, like acupuncture. A very powerful area that holds tension is the top of the shoulders, and this area is called Gall Bladder 21. Gently rubbing this area can decompress stress. A great spot to gently rub is the wrist crease which has calming acupuncture points. Together they create a point combination called Buddha Triangle.

Teas and oils are great for calming the mind and body or invigorating the mind or body during low points. Nothing beats a cup of chamomile or mint tea after a long stressful day. Green tea to start the day is also an excellent healthy option to jumpstart the body through any brain fog or sluggishness. 

ORA has a great bath salt blended with dead sea salts and essential oils, which calm and uplift the mind. Woodsy essential oils help calm the mind, and citrus scents invigorate and energize. The ORA bath salts incorporate both. 

Creating a self-care routine with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine and then supporting that at home by creating a calming space where you can sit and have a cup of tea, light a candle, use a diffuser for aromatherapy or a bath will help balance your mind and body.