Ask an Expert: Chemotherapy and acupuncture

Q: I'm about to have chemotherapy, and a friend is encouraging me to get acupuncture to help with the toxic side effects. Can acupuncture really help? What is the best timing for treatments?

Answer from Loch Chandler, N.D., M.S.O.M., L.Ac., acupuncture naturopath with Providence Integrative Medicine Program

Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine that works to balance a person's internal environment. The physical, the mental/emotional and the spiritual all come into play.

A basic principle of Chinese medicine is that with balance and harmony, you have health. Imbalance and disharmony lead to illness and disease – or, in this case, side effects. This concept is very similar to Western medicine's idea of homeostasis, or a state of internal equilibrium.

The treatment approach is very different from Western medicine, but researchers are doing studies to explain acupuncture's effects, or mechanism of action, from a Western scientific point of view. You can read a summary of that at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  

The National Institutes of Health talks about promising results in studies looking at acupuncture as treatment for nausea and vomiting that often accompany chemotherapy or surgery. Acupuncture can also help with many other treatment-related side effects: poor sleep, irritability, hot flashes, pain, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, low appetite, altered taste, headaches, body aches and poor memory.

Chinese philosophy sees things in terms of forces that have a relative relationship with each other: yin (structure) and yang (motion), fire and water, hot and cold, wet and dry. In a healthy body, these forces are always in balance.

Acupuncturists are like trackers, looking at signs in the soil for clues about what is going on with you and where the imbalances are. When we find aspects that are deficient or low, we try to bring them up. When we find aspects that are excessive or high, we try to bring them down. We're looking to put you on the middle path, the path of balance and harmony –  which, again, leads to health.

We use our five senses in diagnosing imbalances: Visually, we look at your eyes and face for signs of  “Shen,” which is your vitality or essence. Your tongue tells us a lot about your internal environment or terrain: Is it plump or thin, pale or pink, coated and moist or cracked and dry? We feel your pulses in each wrist to see how the energy is flowing in the body; is it restricted or blocked? We use our sense of smell to detect any distinctive aromas often associated with pathologies. We use our hearing to listen to the volume, tone and quality of your speech.

In Chinese medicine, chemo is a very warming, drying force that affects the balance of a person's internal environment. Chinese medicine sees chemotherapy as stressing all the organs, particularly the liver, kidney and spleen. To balance that, an acupuncturist nourishes those organs.

The liver is involved in the smooth circulation of blood (body fluids) and Qi (pronounced “chee”), the vital energy of life. The kidney is involved in the water balance or cooling of the body. The spleen has a role in digestion and the creation of blood and Qi. Their imbalances can lead to poor sleep, hot flashes, irritability, bowel problems, fatigue, worry and stress.

Let's say you experience nausea and vomiting from chemo. When yin and yang are balanced, your Qi flows freely and in the proper direction. Stomach Qi likes to flow downward, but chemo can send the stomach Qi in the reverse direction. Stimulating certain acupuncture points can return this vital energy to its proper path.

In terms of timing, many patients do better with acupuncture before chemotherapy. It helps strengthen and prepare them for treatment. Other patients feel they benefit most if they come in shortly after a chemo treatment. Acupuncture done in between chemo treatments catches you from both directions. So we have to be flexible to seeing what works for each person.

I would expect the effects of an initial acupuncture treatment to last three to five days. A second treatment, one or two weeks later, would last seven to nine days.

Chemo has a tremendous impact on your system, so the balancing doesn’t last as long as it would otherwise. After the chemo series is complete, I recommend an acupuncture treatment once a month, to help with continuing to balance your internal environment and aftereffects such as hot flashes, sleep disturbance and memory challenges.

It's difficult to speak in general terms, because we treat the whole person, whatever the individual situation, always working to bring him or her into balance and optimize health.