The purpose of this blog is to provide you with some information about popular approaches to holistic health, including acupuncture, aromatherapy, and weighted blankets.
There is a self-help movement going on, and mental health professionals couldn’t be happier. The stigma around seeking help is going down, and the number of people taking charge of their own mental resilience is going up. But while it’s relatively commonplace to overhear conversations about therapy over brunch, especially in major cities like New York and L.A., many people still associate complementary therapies -- like acupuncture and aromatherapy -- with exoticism or being a “hippie.” This association isn’t an accident: acupuncture is an ancient eastern tradition that gained popularity in the US during the hippie movement. But given their growing popularity, let’s move past our preconceived notions about these complementary therapies and see if we can discern their efficacy and potential.
Acupuncture (Good for: Stress and Pain Management)
Acupuncture was originally an ancient form of Chinese medicine. It involves inserting between 5 to 20 needles along “meridians,” or energy channels, to help restore the body’s flow of energy (called “chi”) -- the disruptions of which was believed to cause disease. Modernly, acupuncture looks relatively the same in practice, but we now have a different understanding of why, how, and how well it works.
Here’s the science behind it:
Basically your body is full of nerves, the purpose of which is to collect sensory information from the body and convert it to a signal to your brain. Your brain can then respond to that information by releasing the appropriate neurohormones (e.g. oxytocin, dopamine, and epinephrine).
When you stick a needle into your skin, even one that is so thin you can barely feel it, your nerves are sensitive enough to detect a change in your body. Your brain also gets help from your other senses, vision and sound, that tell you “Hey, your acupuncturist just stuck a needle in your leg -- but there is really calming music playing, and they are a licensed professional, so don’t freak out.” Your brain responds by paying attention to those areas, to figure out what neurohormone(s) to release, so that the body can return to its normal state (a.k.a. homeostasis).
In the case of acupuncture, the initial stress of being poked causes a spike of epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), but because you perceive the stressor (the needle) as a positive thing (instead of the threat to your wellbeing that such a spike is usually triggered by), you feel energized by the experience instead of stressed. Additionally, when your epinephrine spikes, because you are in survival mode, you body becomes less sensitive to pain, hence acupunctures tendency to mitigate pain.
So even if ancient Chinese doctors were wrong about how acupuncture worked, and how many conditions could be treated by it, they were right about its potential. Especially now that some forms of medical insurance while at least partially cover acupuncture, it is a worthwhile complementary treatment to explore.
Furthermore, acupuncture is relatively low risk as a form of stress and pain management. There is a small risk of infection, as there always is with needles, but so long as you work with a licensed practitioner who washes their hands, sterilizes the insertion sites, and use sterile needles (most of which are now single-use disposable needles anyway), your only real risk is if you have some sort of bleeding condition -- but even that should come up and be evaluated in your intake paperwork or consultation.
P.S. I am usually a highly needle-phobic person -- like ugly-crying and hyperventilation every time I have to get a shot or my blood drawn -- so I would not have recommended this without having tried acupuncture myself. But I sucked it up and gave it a shot (no pun intended...), and actually had a really positive experience. I’m going to try it a few more times just to see if it feels like it’s working for my stress because it costs about the same as getting my nails done, so it’s a worthwhile trade-off if it reduces my stress more.
Aromatherapy (Good for: Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia)
Aromatherapy seems to be really trending right now. Essential oils and diffusers used to really only be found in spas, but now you’ll see them used by various businesses, and individuals homes, offices, and even cars. I don’t think I ever placed much stock into the benefits of aromatherapy, but I’ve always liked perfumes and essential oils having grown up around aromatic eucalyptus trees, Sugar Pines, and Douglas Firs. In recent years I’ve: started cleaning my yoga mat with a mix of warm water, baking soda, and a few drops of tea tree essential oil; using a diffuser to tailor my environment for concentration or relaxation; and using (citronella) essential oils as non-toxic substitute for mosquito repellant.
So as you can imagine, I was delighted (and somewhat relieved) to learn that aromatherapy wasn’t all hype. While there’s really only good evidence behind a few specific scents (lemon, lavender, and peppermint), and there are many many essential oils out there, it’s still interesting to understand how and why aromatherapy can be somewhat effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and improving sleep.
Aromatherapy works similarly to acupuncture, except instead of the nerves in your skin detecting and signaling your brain, it’s the smell receptors in your nose doing the work.
Here’s the science behind it:
Your smell receptors signal to your brain, which then activates the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotions), and then the limbic system triggers a response in your endocrine system (which regulates the body's hormones) and autonomic nervous system (which regulates the body's stress response, as described in our blog on stress).
In response to lemon essential oil, your brain releases hormones which boost your mood. In response to smelling lavender, your brain releases hormones which reverse the effects of stress, and reduce the experience of anxiety. Your brain has the same response to peppermint as to lavender, only for some reason peppermint essential oil is more effective in the treatment of tension headaches.
There is very little risk associated with aromatherapy, especially if a diffuser is used, because then there is no direct contact with your skin, which might otherwise be sensitive (causing an allergic reaction, or sun sensitivity). Still it’s advised that you practice moderation in the use of aromatherapy especially if you live with young children or pets who may be uniquely sensitive. We also don’t recommend taking essential oils by mouth as they are not FDA approved, which is a nice way of saying you can’t really be sure that the ingredients are what they say they are. So if you do want to try out aromatherapy, look for essential oils sold in small dark brown or blue glass bottles -- they tend to be of a higher quality.
Weighted Blankets (Good for: Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia)
Weighted blankets are also trending right now in the wellness world, including among hospitals. They are literally weighted blankets, ranging from 5 - 25 pounds, evenly distributed throughout the material. The ideal weight depends on your body weight -- it’s recommended to be 5 - 10% of your body weight (so if you weigh 150 lbs, you want an 18 lbs blanket). They are considered a “sensory-based treatment” method, and are commonly used by occupational therapists, who specialize in troubleshooting daily routines for individuals with conditions that cause dysfunction in the home, academic, and/or occupational environment (e.g. everyone from the elderly, to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder).
Here’s the science behind it:
Weighted blankets provide a deep pressure (similar to the feeling of that lead vest you wear at the dentist’s office when you are getting an X-Ray) that helps with anxiety, stress, attention, sleep, and mood. When you body detects deep pressure it responds by releasing serotonin (the hormone that regulates sleep), and melatonin (the hormone that signals your body to relax because it’s time for sleep), and reducing the production of cortisol (the stress hormone.)
Some people see a difference right away, for others it takes some getting used to. My brother actually got me one for Christmas two years ago, which was really sweet of him, but it took me finding the right brand, weight, and warmth for me to start using a weighted blanket with any regularity. I also didn’t understand that to use the blanket for stress reduction, instead of just as a sleeping aid, it has to be used and available throughout the day, for ten minutes to an hour at a time, in response to stressors as they arise.
Costs vary -- as well as medical insurance coverage, but you can always go online to find out how to make your own if you are really interested. Admittedly, washing them is a real pain in the butt, because they are so heavy soaking wet, moving them from the washer to the dryer can be quite a feat; they also can fall off the bed in the middle of the night and when you are half asleep, putting them back on is a struggle. Otherwise, weighted blankets seem to hold a lot of promise for a wide array of mental health struggles, and are worth trying out.
Caution: Do not wrap anyone in a weighted blanket, you always want it layed over them in a way that still allows for movement. Do not use weighted blankets on anyone who is cognitively or physically unable to remove the blanket (a sense of control is vital to a weighted blanket being a destressor, and not a stressor.) Do not cover anyone’s head with a weighted blanket. Consult a doctor before using if you have any repository problems. Use the lowest weight possible that still achieves therapeutic benefits.
Pro Tip: warm it up in the dryer (not the microwave -- plastic doesn’t go in microwaves).
We hope this has increased your knowledge of resources available to you that can be used in complement with therapy for maximum benefit. The main takeaway is to be open to trying things that could help you, because often the risks are very limited, but the potential to reduce your suffering is great.
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Written By Sophie Wright
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