The Effect of Acupuncture on the Immune System

By Craig Amrine

Acupuncture and Immune Cells: A brief literature review

Several studies were conducted on both healthy adults and adults afflicted with malignant tumors. Blood analysis was taken on both control groups as well as groups treated with acupuncture. In some of the studies, acupuncture was conducted several times. In other studies, acupuncture was performed just once.

The first study1 showed how a single acupuncture session treated at various points showed show no changes on relative amounts of certain lymphocytes but also showed statistically significant increases in several types of cytokines, interferon, and NK-cells. The temporary increase returned to normal levels, however, after about 30 days. While this study provided detailed blood analysis of its subjects before and for several intervals after the acupuncture treatment, it lacked important details that could have provided even more powerful conclusions such as a “control” group or a “sham” group where patients were treated with acupuncture points NOT designed for boosting immune function.

Another study2 compared T-lymphocytes showed how acupuncture treatments on patients with malignant tumors showed statistically significantly increases in T-lymphocyte subsets OKT3+, OKT4+, OKT8+.

A third study3 investigated levels of T-lymphocytes subgroups (CD3+, CD4+, CD8+), soluble interleukin-2 receptor (SIL-2R) and beta-endorphin in the peripheral blood of patients with malignant tumors. Half of the group received NO acupuncture (control Group). The other group received daily acupuncture treatments for 10 days (treatment group). After 10 daily acupuncture treatments, significant increases in peripheral blood plasma levels of CD3+, CD4+, CD8+, and beta-endorphin were noted. Interestingly, a remarkable decrease in levels of SIL-2R was measured. No changes were noted in the untreated (control) group. Serum sIL-2R level is a sensitive marker of circulating peripheral blood mononuclear cell activation or specific tumor cell growth including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL)4. In other words, lower levels of SIL-2R is a good thing. Studies suggest that lower levels of SIL-2R indicate increase chance of surviving certain types of cancer.

The final reference I want to mention is actually a wonderfully written paper that references several studies examining the effect of acupuncture on levels of NK (natural killer cells)5. Within this paper, one study examined cytotoxicity levels of NK cells in both healthy women as well as a group of women with high levels of anxiety. Interestingly, the women with chronic anxiety showed 3-fold lower NK cell activity than those with no reported anxiety. After 10 acupuncture treatments however, the anxious women showed a full restoration of NK-cell activity up to normal levels!

An interesting observation is how both presence of malignant tumors AND stressed emotional states (anxiety) have been shown to lower the levels of immunity enhancing cell activity such as NK-cells. Remarkably, acupuncture treatments have consistently been shown to counteract the negative impact of emotional (anxiety) and physical (cancer) states on the immune-cell quantities and function.

This paper further references several other studies highlighting how acupuncture treatments (most often referencing acupuncture point zusanli) have shown remarkable increases in NK-cells, Interferon-gamma, and interleukine-2 (IL-2). Some of these studies do, in fact, utilize “sham” points and control groups to further strengthen the argument that specific acupuncture points are directly responsible for these increases in immune function

These studies provide an overwhelming body of evidence that acupuncture does have a strong effect in enhancing immune-cell function in the body, even in those with immunocompromised conditions.

What does this mean to my health?

Now, the big question is: Does acupuncture shrink tumors? Does it prevent cancer? Does it prevent infectious diseases like the flu? The common cold? As of yet, I haven’t been able to be find any studies specifically measure the tumor reducing effects of acupuncture. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means I’ve been unable to find them. But, we can safely conclude that acupuncture can affect our immune system in a “positive” way. It can be used as another weapon in our fight against disease and cancer, both as a preventative as well as an adjunctive therapy for current cancer treatments. I can also say with confidence that patients who see me on a regular acupuncture schedule will claim to get far fewer colds and flus during their course of treatments. The also seem to recover much faster and suffer far fewer symptoms flu-like symptoms including fever, aches, and sinus congestion.

Stay tuned for the follow-up article to understand how immune function, cancer, and infectious diseases (such as influenza) are viewed from a Traditional Chinese Medical perspective.

Craig Amrine is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Arizona (L.Ac.) and has received his Masters of Science degree in acupuncture from the accredited Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture (PIHMA) in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also a nationally board certified Diplomate in Acupuncture with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), and operates a successful clinic in Tempe, Arizona. His clinic, Hidden Rhythm Acupuncture, uses a combination of both traditional methods including the use of acupuncture, cupping, moxabustion, tui-na (body-work) as well as modern techniques using electrical stimulation and cold-laser therapy to treat a host of afflictions ranging from physical pain to respiratory, digestive, sleep, or neurological disorders. For questions or comments, he can be reached through his website at


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