By Mary Vincent, L.Ac
September has arrived, and for educators and parents alike this means one obvious thing in particular—back to school time is here! And while there are plenty of viruses and bacteria to go around all year long, many people (especially parents and teachers of younger children) also view back to school time as the inevitable kickoff to cold and flu season (because, let’s face it, kids aren’t exactly known for their stellar hand washing). For this reason in particular we get lots of questions this time of year as to whether or not acupuncture can help boost and support the immune system.
Whether you have young kids, work in an office where everyone around you is sick, are undergoing chemotherapy, or simply have been feeling “run-down”, we believe that acupuncture (in addition to a healthy diet, exercise, and adequate sleep) can help strengthen the immune system and possibly stave off some of those looming fall and winter illnesses!
There have been many small scale randomized, controlled studies regarding acupuncture and the immune system. These studies typically look at cancer patients due to the fact that individuals undergoing chemotherapy often have drastic lowering of white blood cells and are highly susceptible to infectious diseases. One study of interest followed 40 postoperative cancer patients for 3 days (20 patients received daily acupuncture and 20 serves as the control group).
At the end of the 3 days, when compared to the control group, those patients who had received acupuncture had a higher instance of leukocyte phagocytosis than those who did not receive treatments.  Another study looked at interleukin-2 and natural killer cell activity in a group of patients with malignant tumors. Of this group, 25 patients received acupuncture treatments for 10 consecutive days, while 20 received no acupuncture at all. At the end of the 10 days the results showed that interleukin-2 and natural killer cell activity were significantly increased in the acupuncture group, compared to the control group. 
What does this mean, exactly?
▪ Acupuncture may help the specific white blood cells responsible for seeking out, engulfing, and destroying harmful microorganisms to do this more effectively (i.e. leukocyte phagocytosis).
▪ It may help increase a protein in the body that regulates the immune system (i.e. interleukin-2).
▪ It may also increase the amount of a specific type of immune system cell that can bind to and kill certain types of tumor cells and virally-infected cells.
How many treatments are recommended?
▪ If you’re getting sick on a regular basis or know that certain times of the year/stressful events lead to you falling ill more frequently, then we would suggest coming in 1-2 times a week to boost up your immune system. Hopefully this will help you to avoid and fight off illnesses more rapidly. We may give you herbs based on your specific symptoms or overall frequency of illnesses, but in our experience people typically respond well simply with the addition of acupuncture into their general health regimen.
▪ If you are undergoing chemotherapy and have low white blood counts, we recommend 3 treatments a week.
Going on a flight and want an immune boost?
We recommend getting a treatment the day before you fly and another treatment when you come back!
1. Zhou RX, Huang FL, Jiang SR, et al.: The effect of acupuncture on the phagocytic activity of human leukocytes. J Tradit Chin Med 8 (2): 83-4, 1988.
1. Wu B, Zhou RX, Zhou MS: [Effect of acupuncture on interleukin-2 level and NK cell immunoactivity of peripheral blood of malignant tumor patients] Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi 14 (9): 537-9, 1994.