The Benefits of Acupuncture for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Dorine Lam, RDN, MS, MPH

The benefits of acupuncture and other TCM therapies help with Adrenal FatigueTraditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China more than 2,500 years ago and is based on the principle that human life is a balance of wellness and harmony. In theory and practice, traditional Chinese medicine, including TCM acupuncture, is completely different from Western medicine, both in terms of considering how the human body works and how illness occurs and should be treated. The benefits of acupuncture impact many systems of the body, including the nervous system. The use of TCM acupuncture for Adrenal Fatigue has shown great results.

Two concepts that are unique and fundamental to TCM are Qi (internal vital energy) and yin and yang (the harmony of all the opposite elements and forces that make up existence). These two concepts form what we might call the roots of Chinese medicine. The Chinese concept of Qi (pronounced chee) is that there is an invincible life force that spontaneously flows freely throughout the body through the Five Elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Watereach representing a distinct quality of the Qi energy that is vital to the continual good health and flow of nature. TCM asserts that Qi is weakened or blocked when a person is ill. Specifically, the illness is a result of the blockage, rather than the blockage being the result of the illness.  The theory of yin and yang states that the two opposites inherent in every object or phenomena in the universe, counterbalance each other; and that one enjoys good health when yin and yang are in balance but when they are out of sync, one becomes sick. TCM asserts that a balance of the opposing forces of yin and yang is necessary for a healthy life and disease arises when they are not. Finally, TCM practitioners believe in curing the root of a disease and not merely in treating its symptoms.

TCM is a broad term encompassing many different modalities and traditions of healing including TCM acupuncture, acupressure, dietary adjustment, qi gong (movements or postures to generate qi), moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin inside a closed container to transmit heat to acupuncture points), herbal medicine, and tui na (Chinese therapeutic tissue massage).

TCM vs. Western Medicine

Compared to Western allopathic medicine, TCM places little emphasis on gross anatomical structure, but is mainly concerned with identification of functional entities such as breathing, digestion, and energy flow.

Good health is seen as a harmonious interaction of these entities within the body and with the outside world. Disease or illness is a result of disharmony. As mentioned before the key is therefore to re-balance the two opposing but complementary energy forces: yin and yang. When yin and yang are balanced, a disease-free healthy body exists. The benefits of acupuncture, qi gong, and other TCM approaches are viewed as aligning the body, increasing energy flow, and balancing the energies of the body.

The TCM diagnostic process traces symptoms to certain patterns of underlying disharmony. This is done by physical examination of palms, inspection of the tongue, palpation of the pulse characteristics, observation of skin tone and eyes, and examining the eating and sleeping habits in relation to other systems.

The Benefits Of Acupuncture

Balancing your kidneys is one of the benefits of acupuncture and is a good strategy for Adrenal FatigueAcupuncture can therefore be seen as a mechanical way to activate the body’s internal energy or de-qi which in turn, automatically travels through the ECM network to locate pathological areas of dysfunction and initiates spontaneous self-healing. Because the ECM is all encompassing within the body, a complete TCM acupuncture program would necessarily involve the whole body. Research into the benefits of acupuncture have shown to have a positive affect on many systems of the body. Intense and frequent acupuncture sessions addressing different parts of the body are required for optimum healing over months if a systemic change is desired. This can be considered by those who are healthy or in mild adrenal fatigue. Those who are weak or in advance stages of AFS fare quite differently. Their ECM is usually congested. Intense sessions can trigger adrenal crashes, fatigue, and anxiety.

The benefits of acupuncture are occurred over time. A single organ focused acupuncture treatment approach carried out once a week for a few weeks usually only yields temporary relief at best and seldom leads to long-term healing. However, the benefits of acupuncture can aid is alleviating some symptoms while other treatments, such as diet changes and nutritional supplementation, are implemented. In this way the greatest benefits of acupuncture is relief, even if short lived, while other treatments have time to begin working. Other benefits of acupuncture include reducing stress and its affect on the body, decreasing anxiety, and increasing a greater sense of well being.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Energy Flow

For Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is no specific element or system in the body that is tied into the adrenal gland itself. The adrenal gland is part of the water elements. It is related to the kidney Qi because it physically sits on top of the kidneys. The kidney area is seen as a key organ that determines the quality of life because the kidneys control the internal Qi, and thus regulates the yin and yang balance.

From the TCM perspective, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), chronic fatigue, depression, low thyroid function, reduced sexual function, can all be seen as the kidneys yang deficiency state. To address this, TCM focuses on ways to warm the kidneys by increasing yang Qi. This can include acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal remedies. Dietary recommendations include avoiding cold foods and liquids, sugar, and antibiotics.

From the Western medicine perspective, the way to stimulate more energy flow from the adrenal glands involves increasing basal metabolic rate of the body and hormonal production from the adrenals. Compounds used include hydrocortisone, testosterone, DHEA, and pregnenolone, and thyroid medications, to name a few. The goal is to facilitate a higher energy flow in order to overcome fatigue.

The concept of energy flow is foreign to allopathic medicine. The closest equivalent would be to view the yang force as excitatory, driven by anabolic hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, along with stimulatory neurotransmitters including adrenaline and norepinephrine mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. On the other hand, the opposing yin force is calming in nature, mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system and its neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Excitation Strategy

The benefits of acupuncture focus on balanceAFS at its core represents the body’s neuroendocrine response to stress from the Western medicine perspective. In the early stages of AFS, the adrenal glands are able to put out more cortisol, the main anti-stress hormone. As a result, cortisol output goes up. Looking from the TCM perspective, the kidney’s normal balance between yang and yin force becomes biased towards a state of yang-dominance in the early stages of AFS. To put it simply, the increase in cortisol output is somewhat analogous to an increase in yang forces.

If stress continues unabated beyond the body’s internal handling capability, AFS progresses to more advanced stages. Here, cortisol output ultimately reaches its peak and starts falling as the adrenal glands become exhausted. A state of cortisol depletion then sets in.From the TCM perspective, yin force excessiveness becomes the dominant backdrop as the body becomes depleted of the once dominant yang force.

Simplistically, TCM looks upon AFS as a condition where supplementation of the qi is necessary to up-regulate or boost the kidney system. Western medicine looks at AFS as deficient in cortisol, and thus the use of anabolic and stimulating hormones is indicated. Both TCM and Western medicine therefore see excitation of the adrenal glands as the route to AFS recovery regardless of the severity of AFS. The road to recovery is simple: increase energy flow.

The more fatigue is clinically presented the more aggressively this approach is advocated. As a result, the more severe the weakness, the more TCM acupuncture treatment is prescribed by the TCM practitioner. Similarly, the Western trained physician when faced with unexplained extreme fatigue prescribes more hormones such as thyroid, testosterone, pregnenolone and DHEA.

Without dissecting Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome into various stages and treating each stage uniquely, the danger of continuous and unrelenting stimulation of the adrenal glands by both TCM and allopathic physicians can cause more harm than good over time. This approach can push the body well beyond what it can physiologically handle while the underlying stressor remains. Those who are already weak are at the most risk.

Over excitation can lead to a state of wired and tired. Anxiety increases throughout the day, and insomnia becomes unbearable at night. Without good sleep fatigue gets worse, and a vicious downward cycle gathers steam. The body then activates the alarm response, triggering numerous paradoxical (opposing) reactions, where any attempt at healing will elicit the opposite effect. Calming nutritional supplements may become excitatory. Sleep medications can produce a state of alertness. The final cascade of decompensation can lead to frequent adrenal crashes where the sufferer is ultimately incapacitated.
Let us see how this happens.

Nutritional and Energy Reserves

Proper nutrition in conjunction the benefits of acupuncture are great for Adrenal Fatigue recoveryThe body is an intricate complicated machine with a wonderful self-regulating system. It is very much like a car, which only runs when the gas tank is filled with fuel or gasoline.  When the body is starved of food and sleep, it will not be able to function and carry out many important life functions This is why many people sleep more and go on an eating binge when they are under great stress. Healthy Qi from TCM acupuncture therapy will often help the body replenish its fuel reserves.

Everyday stressors will generally drain the body’s energy and nutritional reserves, so that when the reserve is low, the body will experience a breakdown and great fatigue. With TCM acupuncture therapy, the body continues to experience a never-ending cycle of drain and replenishment of its internal reserves. Healthy and young individuals who are able to eat a nutritious diet and have adequate sleep seem to do the best with acupuncture therapy. Those young adults in the early stages of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, who only suffer from mild fatigue, often experience an intense sense of well-being and increased energy flow after each acupuncture session. They will often notice improved mental focus and can sleep better than before.  It may appear that TCM acupuncture therapy does really help these young adults refill their energy reserves and return them to a life of calm and serenity.

Read Part 2 Now!
© Copyright 2014 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The weaker your body, the higher the risk. You need to be careful because the body can be sensitive.

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  • Randie says:

    Even though acupuncture tends to be very good for people, i know firsthand how BAD it can be if you have SEVERE adrenal issues! great article

  • Qi Li says:

    It was interesting to read the impact of eastern practices on AFS! Thanks for this write up!

  • Chasity says:

    I heard acupuncture blocks nerves that send pain – like for muscle and joint aches – but does it actually help heal the real problem?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      It depends on what the real problem is. It is hard to heal structural problems.

      Dr. Lam

  • Mandy says:

    If acupuncture can help balance my adrenal glands, is it safe to say that it could also benefit a hormonal imbalance?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Generally, it can be beneficial, but can also make you worse. It really depends on the person, the technique, timing, and the professional skills. Severe hormonal imbalances do need medical intervention and not simply acupuncture.


  • Meredith says:

    Are there particular areas you want to focus on if you have AFS?

  • Ray says:

    I have adrenal fatigue and it seems to be somewhere in stage 3… can acupuncture be over stimulating for me?

  • Chris says:

    Can acupuncture make me worse?

  • Lawrence says:

    Can acupuncture cause rashes for someone with sensitive skin?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Yes, it can, especially if you are sensitive to the metal of the needle, which can happen to some people.

      Dr Lam

  • Jayashree says:

    I suspect my father is suffering from AFS. He is type II diabetic for 20+ years and has lead a very stressful life as a politician in India. He has been complaining of a heaviness in head, fatigue, anxiety and sleeplessness. All his medical reports are normal with no diagnosis. Pl suggest if treating it with Acupuncture and adrenal supplements like B12, Vit C etc would be a good idea to start with? or should we start with the supplements and then proceed with Acupunture/TCM once he has regained his strength to some extent.

    Thank you Dr. Lam. Glad I was directed to your site. It definitely has very insightful information on this topic.

  • R. Crumb says:

    I’ve never realized the value of acupuncture. I would only use it for therapy. Glad I ran across this article, it made me feel better about having this done.

  • Ken says:

    How does Japanese kampo medicine compare to traditional Chinese medicine? I know kampo started out as TCM, but no one practices TCM where I live (that I can afford) but I did find a kampo practitioner.

  • james says:

    When is the best time to get started with acupuncture?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      That is a hard question because everyone is differnet. In genearl, the weaker you are, the more careful you should be because the body can be sensitive.

      Dr Lam

  • Keagan says:

    I’d like to try acupuncture but I’m not sure how to choose an acupuncturist. Any advise on what questions I should ask them?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      That is a difficult question because acupuncture is a skill that takes decades to fully master. This is one profession that the older one gets may be a definite advantage.

      Dr Lam

  • Andy says:

    I love acupuncture but im am concerned it will make me detox too fast. is it that possible ? and if it is would that hinde my adrenal fatigue recovery?

  • sharon says:

    Dr. Lam. I wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your cook book. Its not just the healthy recipes but the great information you provide as well. Thank you so much for writing your cook book and sharing the information you have learned with us. I have adrenal fatigue and it is very hard to deal with and getting good information is hard. thank you so much for your help. Sharon California

  • Marcus says:

    The idea to treat the root cause of the problem should be the ideals of all. I know it’s Dr Lam’s!

  • Melissa says:

    I have almost constant anxiety that began shortly after what was the beginning of a year long UTI – still get UTIs and have been to the doctor several times, they’ve given me a prescription for full range antibiotics I can call to fill anytime I get one and have said nothing further since. Do you think the anxiety is related, and would acupuncture help either of these conditions? I have had pain off and on in the kidneys which they related to the UTI, could it stem from congestion?

  • Jensen says:

    Greetings, Dr. Lam. Do you recommend cupping for detox with Adrenal Fatigue? I’m not sure what will help and what will hurt. Thanks for everything you offer!

  • Eddy says:

    At what point in adrenal fatigue recovery would you recommend doing acupuncture?

  • George says:


    Ive been trying to figure out why, for the last 2 years, I have had these bursts of anger that feel like they are Physical rather than mental. My body enters a heightened state where I am ready for/looking to fight and aggitated by everyone and everything, i completely Lose myself in it and I have no love or sympathy for anyone, It feels like it is completely my reptilian brain taking over. It happens most often in the mornings, some days it is not there at all (more recently) Ive been taking Herbs and getting treated with Acupuncture for almost 2 years now, I do notice that usually the symptoms are not as strong or completely subside on days with Acupuncture, and I STOPPed for 2 weeks and noticed that I had more bad than good days.

    My theory is that it is a cortisol/Adrenal issue, for years I have had diet issues, doing too much fasting (since 2006) and for two years I went from Night time to midday (Sometimes till 3pm) only drinking tea with Coconut oil (the new paleo craze) and going super low carb. Long story short, I only noticed these “insanity rushes” or anger, in the years when I started on that craze of not eating, and the emotions do often get much better after eating heavy meals of red meat and veg but not always. but I have spent my whole life being very stressful and living in high stress emotional situations.

    You probably havent got a lot of time to read this but I reached out to you because I have gone to at least 6 different TCM specialists and I dont feel like they had hit the problem right so I was curious if YOU think this could be an adrenal hormonal thing?

    Thank you If you are able to answer

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Certainly adrenal weakness can contribute to some signficant component of your issues. Whether it is indeed AFS remains to be seen as not enough info and a detailed history will show. Continue your search for answers. TCM may not be the best starting point.

      Dr Lam

  • Eugene Arnald says:

    When cortisol is increased during the Excitation period, how can one tell ? If you are having an increase in stress and your cortisol levels increase to compensate , is that not a good thing ? Or is that the cortisol increase does not slow down, when the stress had reduced, that makes it a problem ?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      The cortisol level increase or decrease is a slow process that have no immediate and signficant outward sign that you can point to specifically. The body , as a whole, will feel stronger as your adrenal improves. Fatigue will reduce, a sense of calm will return , among other signs. A professional will be able to alert you on what to look for , and everyone is different.

      Dr Lam

  • Joe Medina says:

    Very interesting article , written so eloquently. Thank you for outlining the similarities of Adrenal fatigue applied to both Eastern and Western ideologies. Inspirational.

  • Prentice says:

    When will I know that it is okay to add acupuncture to my recovery plan?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Most people who are not closely in tune with the body will often find it difficult to know. An experieinced clinician knowing your detailed history and the way you respond will be able to tell you.

      Dr Lam

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Its hard to know by yourself. We have a qualitative tracking system to help us make that decision, and it has to be incporated to part of your overall history to really be able to point to the right direction in timing, intensity, and frequency.

      Dr Lam

  • Jenna says:

    I had acupuncture about a month ago. Since then , I’ve been experiencing panic attacks and insomnia and now feel lIke I am so exhausted, I’m practically bedridden. Is there anything I can do ? My acupuncturist said they can try to help me, but I’m scared to go back.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      That is a sign that it is not for you. There are many reasons,from the way it is done to the state of your body at that point in time. Click Acupuncture, TCM, & Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome for more information.

      Dr Lam

      • Jenna says:

        Thank you. Am really angry with myself that I got it done in the first place. Will I ever recover? I’m not able to rest because I have two toddlers. Anxiety is at its worst and I can barely move.

    • Secret weapon for the pro's says:

      Jenna, I’m sure you’re system can be put back on track. Please consider proper hormone tests from your endocrinologist to determine your current state. Your thyroid could be a factor. In addition a qualified nutritionist can provide you with a very effective continual liver cleanse and effective dietary changes. Acupuncture itself was not the issue, that practitioner was. Sad to say, but someone had to graduate last…send you’ll never know if it was them.

  • Philomena P. says:

    I tried acupuncture in my early stages of adrenal fatigue and did find it helpful for a while, but as i became weaker the acupuncture seemed to cause more problems. It’s only now I am finally understanding why!

  • Amanda says:

    I love getting acupuncture but have started to feel anxious afterwards. Is there anything I can do before to help prevent this from happening?

    • Newsletter says:

      That is a sign that the meridians are opening up too much. you can ask your acupuncturist to reduce the intensity, or do some meditation or slow breathing ( such as the adrenal breathing exercise) before. you can also take some gaba ahead of time, but that is not recommended unless the anxiety is very bad. The key is to understand that anxiety as what you have described points to underlying issuess of autonomic nervous system imbalance due to over activation of the sympathetic nervous system. ( this happens frequently in those with advance adrenal fatigue ). If your body is sensitive and toxic, opening up the meridian will also lead to metabolite overflow and if you have liver or extra cellular matrix congestion, they can “back up” to these spaces and cause anxiety.

      The lesson is that this is a warning sign for you to deeper into what is going on. Laboratory test will not be useful. A detailed history will. Hope this helps.

      Dr Lam.

      • Elizabeth says:

        What do you recommend for some in advanced stages of adrenal fatigue who experiences crashes when trying light acupuncture, or herbs, ect. How does one get started to heal when everything sets them off.

        • Dr.Lam says:

          When you get to this level of sensitivity, self navigating can often make you worse. Professional care is needed. A very comprehensive plan is needed.

          Dr Lam