Does Acupuncture Reduce Saliva Cortisol and Improve General Health Perceptions in Self-Diagnosed Stress? An Outcome Study - Clinical Observation of Ten Patients

By Mark Fielding


This study explored the application of acupuncture to attempt to reduce stress in self-diagnosed patients.

The research question was:   

Does acupuncture reduce saliva cortisol, and improve general health perceptions in self-diagnosed stress ?

Stress was measured using saliva-based cortisol measurement, and a patient administered questionnaire measured health using Short Form 36 (SF-36). This took place before and after a single acupuncture treatment. Ten patients were recruited, and all subjects completed the course of treatment. Results were collated and analysed for trends/patterns.

It was possible to reject the null hypothesis for the following results:

Saliva Cortisol Level (7 patients lower, mean difference = -0.36 nmol/L, p=0.026); - SF-36 Mental Summary (7 patients improved, mean difference = +2.10, p=0.027).

Although limited in size and scope (both patients and finances), the results are suggestive of benefit.

These included:

  • a general reduction in saliva cortisol levels in patients after acupuncture treatment.
  • subjective improvements in overall patient health.

However, a flaw in the research methodology was identified. Specifically, this related to patients who presented with low (out-of-range) saliva cortisol readings, which decreased further following acupuncture treatment. Deploying the project methodology, this was considered as an improvement, when it should have been the opposite. Any future work in this area should measure whether acupuncture normalises saliva cortisol levels, instead of simply lowering them.

The results represented a series of mixed and relevant findings for analysis, discussion and recommendation for future research work. Overall, the study offered insight into the ambiguous and highly subjective area of stress. It has highlighted the difficulty in objectively and accurately measuring stress (especially when self-diagnosed), and identifying possible health problems it may create. In what is continuing to emerge as a significant health issue within societies throughout the world, further study would be advantageous, particularly to study a greater patient population. It would be beneficial to include a greater number of treatments, collect multiple saliva samples at more set times throughout the day, to include the use of a control group, and to space treatments over several months.