The Acupuncture-Adenosine Connection: Implications for Addiction Treatment and Research

By Alex Brumbaugh

June, 2010

Research results on auricular acupuncture detox protocols have been mixed in part because studies often focused solely on outcomes beyond the management of acute and post-acute withdrawal symptoms. However, many treatment programs using acupuncture have long maintained that the procedure successfully manages stress, craving, anxiety, sleep problems, and other classic withdrawal symptoms for virtually all program clients and for all classes of drugs, including preventing seizure in alcoholic and benzodiazepine patients.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center (Goldman, 2010) have now identified a molecule, called adenosine, that appears to be involved in the physical effects seen in acupuncture. Adenosine is a natural substance known for helping to regulate sleep and for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is active in deep tissues and also acts as a natural painkiller, developing in the body after an injury to stop the transmission of pain signals. In the study, mice showed levels of adenosine that were 24 times greater than normal following a 30-minute acupuncture treatment.

In other animal studies (Bensoussan, 1991), acupuncture has been shown to prompt the production of beta- endorphins – the body’s “endogenous opiates.” The transmitter or “information” substances for which research data has established a connection with acupuncture include alpha- and beta-endorphins, leu- and met-enkephalins, dynorphin A and B, substance P, serotonin, epinephrine, noradrenalin, dopamine, acetylcholine, adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), glycine, glutamic acid, the prostaglandins, and cyclic AMP and GMP.

Acupuncture is not a stand-alone therapy in the treatment of substance use disorders (Brumbaugh, 1993). Withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal symptoms should be carefully monitored through a combination of self-reporting, observation, and urine testing, and if these symptoms cannot be successfully managed with acupuncture alone, pharmacotherapy should be used as a complement.


Bensoussan, Alan  (1991). The vital meridian : a modern exploration of acupuncture. foreword by Giovanni Maciocia, Melbourne : Churchill Livingstone.

Brumbaugh, Alex (1993). Acupuncture: New Perspectives in Chemical Dependency Treatment, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. February 12, 1993, V10, No. 1.

Goldman, Nanna, et. al., (2010). Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture. Nature Neuroscience.


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