Acupuncture can be a very helpful tool in the management of Type 1 diabetes.
What is it?
Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine in which tiny needles are placed at various points on the body to treat and prevent illness. In TCM, the body is viewed in a holistic way, and treatments are individualized to each patient’s presenting symptoms.
Several research studies have shown that acupuncture can be helpful in the maintenance of Type 1 diabetes by:
- lowering blood glucose and regulating endocrine function 
- decreasing anxiety and depression
- alleviating painful peripheral neuropathy and preserving nerve function
- increasing gastric emptying time (gastropareisis)
- increasing circulation and range of motion in musculoskeletal conditions like frozen shoulder and trigger finger
In addition, acupuncture also works in a preventative capacity by supporting the body’s immune system to fight off colds and viruses. And as we T1Ds know, getting sick can cause major fluctuations in blood sugar control.
How does it work?
The exact mechanisms of acupuncture aren’t fully understood, but scientific research has proven that acupuncture triggers the body’s regulatory systems to release chemicals that reduce pain and inflammation, stimulate the secretion of neurohormones and neurotransmitters to help the body restore homeostasis. The blood sugar lowering effects of acupuncture are believed to be due to the down-regulation of corstisol, a stress hormone that encourages the liver to create glucose, and by decreasing free-fatty acid concentration in the blood, which is believed to increase insulin sensitivity.
What is a treatment like?
A typical acupuncture treatment will include a consultation in which the practitioner will ask a variety of questions about all the systems of the body. This is a holistic medicine, meaning that everything going on in the body is related and all of this information is important when coming up with a TCM diagnosis. After this consultation, the acupuncturist will insert anywhere from 4-20 needles and leave you to rest for about 30 minutes.
Does it hurt?
I know that the idea of MORE needles can be daunting to anyone with T1D, but these needles are about the width of a cat’s whisker and the insertion is generally painless although some points may elicit a dull, throbbing sensation. After the needles are inserted, most people fall into a state of deep relaxation and some even fall right to sleep.
How often do I need to go?
Your acupuncturist will work with you to figure out a treatment schedule that will best meet your health goals, but generally 1-2 times a week for the first few weeks to see how your body responds. From there, if major symptoms have been alleviated, patients move to a maintenance schedule of every few weeks to every few months. Your acupuncturist may also discuss the use of herbs (there are a few formulas that are great for diabetes and include herbs that assist in reducing insulin resistance) and dietary changes.
Of course, it’s always important to discuss healthcare changes with your endocrinologist. And be aware that the blood sugar drops can occur during and after a treatment, so it’s best to plan for this by carrying extra glucose tabs or gels with you! (I’ve found that reducing my basal rate just slightly during and after an acupuncture treatment works really well for me.)
More from Sarah Swanberg “How Acupuncture Changed My Life”
 Electroacupuncture for Control of Blood Glucose in Diabetes: Literature Review
Peplow, Philip V. et al.Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies , Volume 5 , Issue 1 , 1 – 10
 Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: A meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials?
Wang, Hao et al.Journal of Affective Disorders , Volume 111 , Issue 2 , 125 – 134
 Lin D, De La Pena I, Lin L, Zhou S-F, Borlongan CV, Cao C. The Neuroprotective Role of Acupuncture and Activation of the BDNF Signaling Pathway. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2014;15(2):3234-3252. doi:10.3390/ijms15023234.
 M A Hamza, P F White, W F Craig, E S Ghoname, H E Ahmed, T J Proctor, C E Noe, A S Vakharia, and N Gajraj: Percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation: a novel analgesic therapy for diabetic neuropathic pain.Diabetes Care March 2000 23:3 365-370; doi:10.2337/diacare.23.3.365