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Acupuncture is a therapy which is becoming more and more popular all the time. But not many people understand why and how it can help with such a wide range of different health issues.

In this article, we cover everything you need to know from the ancient principles of acupuncture to how modern science is unravelling the way this mysterious medicine works.

What is the theory behind acupuncture?

It is impossible to fully describe the principles of acupuncture in one short article, but it is possible to provide a brief overview. Some of the most fundamental, traditional theories behind how acupuncture works are as follows:

Yin and Yang

One of the most important principles of acupuncture is the theory of yin and yang. Yin and yang are two opposite yet complementary forces of nature. They represent night and day, water and fire, female and male, and so on.

Yin and yang are seen as being present in the human body as well as in the natural world. In order to stay healthy, the body’s yin and yang must remain in a state of balance at all times.

Yin and yang unbalance and rebalance themselves on a daily basis, but when they fail to rebalance sufficiently, disease can occur. One of the most essential principles of acupuncture is helping to maintain harmony between yin and yang, and thus promoting good health.

The Five Elements

Another key principle of acupuncture is five element theory. The five elements are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Each of these corresponds to a season, a color, a smell, a taste, and a pair of organs.

Like yin and yang, the five elements need to be in a state of constant balance to prevent disease. The five elements are a useful diagnostic tool and are also used for treatment in certain styles of acupuncture.

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The Vital Substances

Another important theory behind acupuncture is the vital substances. There are five major vital substances in Chinese medicine:

  • Body fluids
  • Essence
  • Blood
  • Qi
  • Spirit

The term ‘body fluids’ is quite self-explanatory. It refers to saliva, sweat, tears, and so on.  However, the other substances require a little more description.


Essence is a substance which is stored by the Kidneys and is vital for growth, development, and fertility. It is sometimes compared to your genetic make-up.


In acupuncture, blood is seen as more than just a red liquid that runs through your veins. It is warming, moistening, and nourishing, and essential for the health of both body and mind.


Qi is sometimes translated as ‘energy’ and although this does not fully sum up the meaning of qi, it is a simple way to understand its functions. Qi provides warmth, nourishment, and movement within the body. It also plays a crucial role in protecting us from disease. Learn more about qi and blood here.


In Chinese medicine, the mind and spirit are not seen as being separate from the body. Physical and mental health are closely related to one another and the emotions have a major impact on your overall health.

When all of these vital substances are plentiful, the body and mind are healthy and free from disease. However, if any one of them becomes deficient or cannot circulate around the body as it should, symptoms will quickly follow.

The Twelve Organs

There are twelve major organs in acupuncture theory and these are paired together under each of the five elements. The only exception is the fire element which governs two pairs of organs.

The organs and their corresponding elements are:

  • The Lungs and Large Intestine (metal)
  • The Stomach and Spleen (earth)
  • The Heart and Small Intestine (fire)
  • The Bladder and Kidneys (water)
  • The Pericardium and Triple Burner (fire)
  • The Gallbladder and Liver (wood)

Each of these organs has its own acupuncture channel, sometimes known as meridians. These meridians allow qi to flow around the body and reach every cell from the top of the head to the tips of the toes.

The meridians are also where we find acupuncture points. These allow acupuncturists to access the qi using fine needles and have a dramatic influence over the whole body.

How does acupuncture work scientifically?

Acupuncture_Doctor_Holds_NeedlesWhen acupuncturists describe the principles of acupuncture, they often use terms like yin deficiency or qi stagnation to explain the cause of a disease. These terms are very different from those used in western medicine, but have been used since acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago.

However, it is possible to explain the theory behind how acupuncture works scientifically too. For years, the way that acupuncture works remained a mystery, but modern research has finally begun to unlock many of its secrets.

We now know that acupuncture has a significant influence over the central nervous system. This is why it is such an effective treatment for pain among its many other uses. Acupuncture affects various types of nerve fibers to influence the way that the brain receives pain messages. It also regulates the release of various biochemicals including endorphins and neurotransmitters.

A new discovery about how acupuncture works scientifically involves something called purinergic signaling. This process involves a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is found in high concentrations inside cells and provides them with a source of energy.

When a cell gets damaged, ATP leaks out into the surrounding area and a chemical reaction converts it into another molecule called adenosine. This signals that the body has been injured, sending pain messages to the brain and kicking the immune system into action.

Purinergic signaling has been linked with a wide variety of health conditions including:

  • Inflammation
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Endocrine (hormonal) dysfunction
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular disease

The exact way that acupuncture affects purinergic signaling is still being explored, but this link could very well explain why acupuncture is effective for so many different problems. Some acupuncturists have even speculated that ATP could be what the ancient Chinese were referring to when they talked about qi.

The way that acupuncture works is extremely complex, whether you look at it from a traditional or scientific perspective. One thing that these two schools of thought agree on, though, is that acupuncture does work. So, whether you prefer the classical principles of Chinese medicine or the more scientific view, it is definitely worth trying out for yourself.


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