Acupuncture – a good choice for histamine intolerance and mast cell activation?
A mounting body of research tells us that acupuncture may help alleviate symptoms of histamine intolerance, mast cell activation and related issues like eczema. I share my own experiences and thoughts towards the end of the post.
A study published in 2008 in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine (by Elsevier) found acupuncture to be significantly effective at reducing allergen induced itch in patients with atopic eczema, but only when needles were applied to real acupuncture points as practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Those in the “sham” acupuncture group, who had needles placed on random points and the no intervention group experienced less relief .
In other findings that appeared in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2012, researchers from Harvard Medical school conducted a really thorough study pitting acupuncture against H1 receptor antagonist cetirizine/Zyrtec as treatments for atopic dermatitis .
Itching intensity, wheal size and how people did on a D2 attention test which is a “neuropsychological measure of selective and sustained attention and visual scanning speed” were their measures .
I hear ya on that last one. As I’ve explained to my nearest and dearest: if you see me a-scratchin’ don’t bother askin’ me to remember, or do, anything at all; because there’s nothing on my mind but looking for a way to rip off my skin to furnish the fire ants with an exit strategy.
Ok so Harvard guys compared the effects of:
Real acupuncture before and after itching was induced
Placebo/sham acupuncture before and after itching was induced
H1 receptor antagonist cetirizine/Zyrtec
Placebo cetirizine/Zyrtec (giving people a sugar pill that looked like it)
They found that:
Real acupuncture after exposure lowered average itch intensity significantly compared to all other groups (including the antihistamine), even compared to acupuncture administered before exposure
There was no difference in results between real acupuncture before exposure and the antihistamine
NOTE: the study authors suggest that acupuncture after the exposure was more effective than before because of distraction (something I employed back in the itchy days) and counterirritation.
An article published in the journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2015 combed 2530 articles from journal databases (up to June 2014), looking for randomised controlled studies comparing real and sham acupuncture and no intervention for the treatment of itch .
Their conclusion: “we cautiously suggest that acupuncture therapy could improve the clinical efficacy of itch. However this conclusion needs more studies on various ethnic samples to confirm our final conclusion.”
I came across two more interesting studies – both of which were conducted on very small sample sizes of between 10 and 16 subjects.
A 2006 study published in the Swedish dermatology journal Acta dermato-venereologica found that electrical acupuncture significantly reduced or completely inhibited visible effects of histamine injected into 16 subjects’ arms .
Another study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2005 showed a significant reduction of histamine induced itch and wheal formation after real acupuncture in comparison to sham acupuncture and no intervention. The authors say that there’s not much research yet into how the acupuncture works but some data indicate that acupuncture might influcend itch-associated mediator effects (including mast cell ones) caused by: opioids, serotonin, prostaglandins, TNF-a, IgE and various interleukins . The first mention of mast cell mediators that I came across.
For those new to this: mast cells are a part of the white blood cell system. They house or create inflammatory meditators like histamine, interleukins, prostaglandins and leukotrines (to name a few). Some people have unstable/leaky mast cells, or just too many of them. Stress is a big trigger that causes mast cells to freak out which is what really threw me a curve ball in the early years. I had addressed diet, but it caused me so much stress, in add-on to stress being sick and just generally being s high stress person, that my body was just being continually flooded with histamine.
On the flip side I also found some bad news.
A 2008 study in Explore: the journal of science and healing, published by Elsevier, researchers attempted to figure out how their manipulation of the zusanli acupuncture point yielded an analgesic/painkilling effect on rats. Tissue slices revealed that the density of mast cells and the degree of degranulation was higher at the real acupuncture point than the sham one .
A final tidbit. I found an interesting article published on an alternative health website by a doctor of oriental medicine and acupuncturist who has been on staff at UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine. Donald Kendall, O.M.D., L.Ac. CV says he has been on the boards of several state and national professional organisations for acupuncture and oriental medicine.
This article is excerpted from his paper A Scientific Model for Acupuncture, published in 1989 in the American Journal of Acupuncture. There’s no online access for this article so I can’t check his sources, but the study is referenced in studies published in the Journal of Evidence Based Complementary Medicine . In my world that isn’t enough to count as a source but I’m hoping Donald will find my post at some point and offer a copy of it. (No answer to my email, but in the era of spam folders it’s not unusual).
The article states that human and animal research studies show acupuncture points contain a significantly higher concentration of mast cells, fine lymphatics, blood capillaries and nerves. This makes them very reactive to the tiny damage caused by the acupuncture needles. He goes on to say that histamine, prostaglandins, serotonin and leukotrienes are important initial mediators of the acupuncture effect, with plasma prostaglandin E increasing when “excellent acupuncture analgesia” is achieved for surgery, with histamine, cAMP and others, showing a corresponding decrease. In cases of poorly administered acupuncture, plasma levels of histamine, cAMP and others increase.
A number of other studies have found mast cells in abundance at acupuncture sites and that their degranulation is responsible for symptom relief of various conditions. How this translates to us remains to be seen. My totally unscientific opinion would be mast cell degranulation stimulated by acupuncture or real needs of the body (digestion, healing) causes different physiological outcomes than those we deal with when suffering reactions caused by just generally faulty/leaky mast cells or those triggered by stress hormones .
I would definitely get a doctor to sign off on this before committing to a session and look for someone very highly trained, preferably affiliated with a well-respected institution (like UCLA). A few tips: make it clear to your acupuncturist, before coming in, that you are not interested in any herbs or incense acupuncture, at least not without your doctor’s approval. Mast cell/histamine folks are very sensitive and can be triggered by supplements.
My own experience
I have only tried acupuncture a few times:
Once in Egypt with a practitioner who came highly recommended. Sadly she decided to focus on sticking everything in my head, which I took to mean that she believed I was dealing with something psychosomatic. That, coupled with the herbal remedy she insisted I buy, resulted in a couple of horrible weeks and I never went back.
The second time was in Bangkok where I literally jumped off the table because I suddenly thought – “Am I really gonna let this non-English speaking random dude pincushion me? I’m in a spa for Chrissakes!!”
The third time was promising: a doctor from Beijing University whom my boyfriend swore was healing him. I had the most amazing string of sessions over a few months till I had a very weird experience. I’ve described my anaphylactic episodes as a wormhole suddenly appearing in my feet and my life force is being sucked out through them as I’m pulled into it. Then all that great stuff like loss of consciousness and vision. Well, I was lying on the table looking like a Hellraiser extra and suddenly felt something open up at my feet and soon I was softly being pulled into it. I felt like I was losing consciousness but kept pulling back by using meditation to keep me in my body and my body fixed to the table. I kept breathing into it trying to work out if I was really in trouble or just having a weird stress incident.
But I never went back.
I’ve thought long and hard about that session and what might have happened. In a weird way I think my body was releasing some kind of memory I had locked deep into my cells for fear of facing it. I certainly don’t feel, now, that I was in trouble, and I would definitely go back once I’m back somewhere I can find a an excellent practitioner.
Why no herbs? If you can show me the medical studies and get me an MD who is an acupuncturist, I will consider it. But like with ayurveda, though I have seen medical studies backing the use of certain traditional herbs, I need to know the person I’m working with has an understanding of modern physiology rather than telling me that my pitta/vatta nature or the flow of my meridians indicates this remedy will cure me.
———————- REFERENCES ——————–
 LINK http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22313287
 LINK https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D2_Test_of_Attention