Chinese medicine is old, thousands of years old. The physiology, pathology, methods, and mechanisms of treatment are described in ways that are very different and seemingly whimsical when compared to their counterparts in western medicine. Case in point, catching a cold in Chinese medicine is called “a wind invasion.” The points used to treat the common cold have functions such as “expel wind” and “release exterior.” Harry Potter diagnosis aside, evidence-based research reveals that acupuncture works. But how and why? It’s the answers to these questions people have a hard time with. Yet, numerous “western” studies have documented mechanical evidence of what is physiologically happening during an acupuncture treatment. When these studies are published, it is not only vindicating, it’s another nudge toward acupuncture’s broader integration into western medicine.
The remainder of this blog entry is about one acupuncture point.
Zu San Li, also known as Stomach 36 to English-speaking doctors, is an acupuncture point approximately 4 finger widths below the knee and one finger width lateral to the anterior crest of the tibia. Zu San Li translates to “Leg Three Miles”. This name stems from an ancient story about how Chinese warriors would wear a bag with stones around their waist when they would hike across the country to engage in battles. When a soldier became too tired to continue walking, he would kneel causing the bag of stones to hit the shin right at this acupuncture point. When the soldier stood back up, they would be invigorated enough to walk at least three more miles.
I don’t know if this story is true, I do know that one of the many indications for this point is to increase endurance. Increasing endurance in Chinese medicine is a function of strengthening the spleen, stomach, and invigorating Qi. This sounds like gibberish to most, especially to western doctors. However, there have been studies as recent as 2008, 2009 and 2018 that were able to measure a significant decrease in blood lactic acid in athletes after using this acupuncture point. In 2019, a study to measure the efficacy of using acupuncture to treat COPD was published. The authors of the study found acupuncture protocols stimulating Stomach 36 significantly increased peak oxygen uptake. Decreased lactic acid build-up in your muscles and an increased utilization of oxygen certainly help with endurance. (Isn’t one of the long-term side effects of Covid a decreased oxygen blood level?)
Historically, Stomach 36 was known as a longevity point. Myths existed telling stories of people extending their life by 100 years by stimulating this point on a daily basis. While longevity encompasses many different aspects of health, one component that is certainly important is the body’s ability to fight off infection and viruses.
Hubei University of Chinese Medicine researchers discovered that electroacupuncture stimulation of acupuncture point Stomach 36 enhanced the level of immune cytokines and splenic CD4+ T cells through TRPV channels. Results were confirmed using immunohistochemical analysis. The researchers precisely identified that electroacupuncture at Stomach 36 enhances cytokines, which are proteins secreted by cells that have a specific effect on the interactions and communications between cells. The researchers discovered that acupuncture enhancement of cytokines and helper T cells (CD4+ T cells) is through TRPV (transient receptor potential vanilloid) channels. TRPV channels are cellular sensors for a variety of physical and chemical stimuli. These findings are significant because CD4+ T cells are of paramount importance in human immune systems. These cells are referred to as helper T cells and are active in the immune system’s defense against microbes, including viruses.
Because of Covid, this research is currently more relevant. Stomach 36’s influence on digestion is actually its main indication. The Journal of Autonomic Neuroscience published an article on this point’s effect on gastrointestinal motility.
All this research on one acupuncture point is meaningful. There is much more than what is mentioned here. With all of its therapeutic functions, it is humbling to think that its just one among hundreds.