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Can Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation Help Anxiety and Depression?

Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation for Stress Relief and Better Sleep

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation is a therapy that sends electric currents through the head. You do this by placing electrodes below your ears or by attaching them to your earlobes. The length and frequency of each session will vary depending on your needs.

The FDA allows cranial electrotherapy stimulation practitioners to use it for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Although it might sound scary or strange to use electricity for medical purposes, it’s actually quite safe and has a long history.

An image of a woman receiving electrotherapy on her shoulderElectricity has been used in medicine for millennia, before humans even knew what electricity was. The practice dates back to ancient times when people would use electric eels and other electric fish to relieve symptoms. Fast forward to the early 1900s, and electric stimulation devices could be found in many physicians’ offices across the US.

But, with the rise of pharmaceuticals, electrotherapy has taken a backseat. Which many say is a shame because it has few side-effects and high levels of safety.

In this article, we will take a look at cranial electrotherapy stimulation specifically. We’ll get into how it works, and whether or not it can be useful for adrenal fatigue and the dysregulation of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. If you’re thinking about trying it, please make sure you read the entire article before deciding. There are some important suggestions and precautions to be aware of.

How Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation Works

Although the exact mechanism behind how cranial electrotherapy stimulation works is not fully clear, there are some popular theories about it.

Some researchers say that it works because it indirectly stimulates the tissue in the hypothalamic area of your brain. Your hypothalamus is a small area at the base of your brain. It plays many important roles in different physical functions, such as:

  • Coordinating the endocrine system
  • Regulating certain hormone cascades
  • Influencing growth
  • Controlling appetite
  • Involvement in the autonomic nervous system (ANS)
  • Regulating body temperature
  • Affecting milk production
  • Regulating water balance

The hypothalamus works together with the pituitary gland to regulate hormone cascades in the body. In fact, together they form what we call the "control center” in the brain when it comes to the Hormone circuit of the NEM.

The hypothalamus receives the information that there’s stress in the body. It sends corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to the pituitary gland. That prompts your pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH stimulates your adrenal glands to release cortisol.

If your Hypothalamus-Pituitary Axis (HPA) dysregulates, this mechanism becomes dysfunctional. This can interfere with your body’s ability to handle stress. Cranial electrotherapy stimulation may be able to restore balance to this cascade by stimulating the hypothalamus to create more of these neurohormones.

But what we know is that both too much or too little stimulation of the HPA brings about symptoms. This is the same issue we run into with adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a condition that arises when your body faces chronic stress. Your adrenals have to overwork to produce more and more cortisol. This increase in cortisol levels brings about symptoms. After a while, your adrenals become too exhausted to produce cortisol. And this drop in cortisol levels brings about even more intense symptoms.

An image of a depressed fatigued womanSymptoms of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) include fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, brain fog, anxiety, depression, low libido, PMS, infertility, hair loss, dry skin, hypoglycemia, salt and sugar cravings, lowered immunity, food and drug sensitivities, heart palpitations, and an inability to handle stress.

Many of these symptoms could be helped with cranial electrotherapy stimulation, and we’ll talk about how throughout the rest of the article. But first, it’s important to understand how these symptoms tie in together.

Your Hormone Circuit’s Impact on the Rest of Your Body

The adrenal glands are part of your NEM’s Hormone circuit. Your Hormone circuit is one of six NEM circuits. The other five are the Bioenergetics, the Cardionomic, the Neuroaffect, the Inflammation, and the Detoxification circuits. Each circuit affects the other. And because hormones regulate so many of your body’s physiological functions, any imbalance in the Hormone circuit affects the rest of the NEM.

The organs involved in the Hormone circuit are the adrenals, thyroid, and gonads. The adrenals produce over 50 different hormones, and they’re mainly responsible for dealing with stress. The thyroid is responsible for your basal metabolic rate. And your gonads (male testes and female ovaries) are responsible for regulating your reproductive system.

An imbalance in one affects all the others, and it will also show symptoms specific to the component. For example, if your adrenal glands have been affected, your main symptoms will be fatigue, irritability, and anxiety. If it’s your thyroid, your main symptoms will be low energy levels, weight gain, depression, and PMS. When it’s the ovaries, symptoms include brain fog, memory loss, and PMS.

Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation for Neurohormonal Balance

Although cranial electrotherapy stimulation can help with some of these above symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, what’s more pertinent is that it can help with the underlying cause of the imbalance: chronic stress.

Chronic stress can be either psychological or physical. And when it comes to AFS, it’s usually a mixture of both. Chronic stress can also mess with your neurotransmitter balance. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins need to be in balance with each other for you to feel normal.

If they get out of balance, you can experience neurological and psychiatric symptoms. Those can include things like insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, brain fog, memory loss, an inability to focus, and heightened sensitivity to stress.

If norepinephrine is involved, you can get heart-related symptoms, such as heart palpitations and a pounding heart. That’s because it is part of your “fight or flight” response, which prepares your entire body for combat or escape. The heart needs to pump a lot of oxygenated blood to your muscles to get you ready.

According to one theory, cranial electrotherapy stimulation can help restore balance to your neurotransmitters.

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation is also thought to be a type of adaptogen. Adaptogens are therapies or substances that can help your body adapt to stress. In other words, they allow your body to return to a state of homeostasis more quickly and easily. Homeostasis is the state your body is always trying to maintain or regain. It is a state of harmony between its different physiological processes.

Most adaptogens come in the form of herbs. Some of the ones we commonly recommend for our AFS patients include Ashwagandha and Rhodiola. These herbs are frequently used in ayurvedic medicine, and we’ve seen them help with many adrenal fatigue cases.

Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation for Balancing Your Nervous System

An image of the human nervous systemNeurotransmitters are also involved in the balance between your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Both of these are divisions of your ANS.

Your SNS is responsible for your body’s stress response. It directs the release of stress hormones to help your body go on alert and prepare to fight or flee. Your PNS does the opposite. It helps your body calm down and go into a state of rest and digest. It slows down your heart rate, allows your body to conserve energy, and relaxes your gastrointestinal muscles.

If one division is more active than the other, your body and mood will be out of balance. For example, if your SNS is overly active, you’ll find yourself restless, unable to sleep, irritable, and nervous. If your PNS is overly active, you’ll be sleeping all the time, lazy, unable to work, and fatigued.

Russian researchers believe that cranial electrotherapy stimulation can help put the SNS and PNS back into balance with each other. The intended result is homeostasis and more normalcy in mood and behavior.

Adrenal Fatigue and Insomnia

Sleep disorders have become extremely common. The constant buzz of devices, the fast pace of modern life, and the increasing pressure to compete at work while also maintaining a personal life can keep anyone awake. Insomnia is not just a stand-alone condition. It is also a symptom of many other chronic conditions. Including adrenal fatigue.

In fact, insomnia is one of the most troubling AFS symptoms. And with AFS, you can get two different types of insomnia: sleep onset and sleep maintenance insomnia.

Sleep onset insomnia is where you have trouble falling asleep in the first place. It’s usually due to high cortisol levels at bedtime. Sleep maintenance insomnia is where you manage to fall asleep, but then wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time going back to sleep. This is usually caused by a surge in cortisol levels at around 2 or 3 a.m.

Not getting good sleep aggravates AFS and makes recovery more difficult. Sleep gives your body a chance to rest and repair and allows your energy reserves to be replenished.

How to Get Better Sleep

One of the most important steps in adrenal fatigue recovery is getting enough rest and sleep. To do that, you need to practice good sleep hygiene. That includes:

  • Keeping your room cool and dark
  • Eating a small snack of healthy fats and protein before bed so you don’t wake up from a hypoglycemic episode
  • Refraining from using electronics at least two hours before bed
  • Not turning on the bathroom lights when using the toilet at night, but using a night light instead

In some cases, extra aid is necessary. Certain herbs and teas can help. And, from what cranial electrotherapy stimulation researchers and practitioners say, this therapy can be useful for insomnia as well.

This therapy has actually been approved by the FDA as a treatment for insomnia. Practitioners and patients say that within the first couple of days of using it, your sleep patterns will start to become more stable. You’ll notice that you wake up less during the night. And when you wake up, you go back to sleep more easily. Some patients report that, in the beginning, their dreams are more vivid. But after a while, that also normalizes.

However, although these claims are quite exciting, we don’t actually recommend you try cranial electrotherapy stimulation for AFS-related insomnia. We don’t recommend trying it for any AFS-related symptoms. And we will list some of our concerns about why at the end of this article.

Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation for Depression and Anxiety

An image of a woman breaking free from her depressionAnxiety and mild depression are two common symptoms of AFS. Many times, adrenal fatigue will be confused with depression by mainstream medical practitioners. You’ll be given anti-depressants and sent home. And for a while, they might even work.

That’s because SSRI medications are highly anti-inflammatory. And one cause of depression is chronic low-grade inflammation. Usually, what happens is that when your adrenals and NEM are dysregulated, this dysregulation allows inflammation to build up in your system. It most often begins in your gut.

It then starts to travel to other parts of your body. If it travels through the rest of your gastrointestinal tract, it will cause digestive issues. When it travels to your joints, it will cause joint pain. If it travels to your brain and nervous system, you can get brain fog, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other neurological and psychiatric symptoms.

Lack of sleep and an imbalance in neurotransmitters, as described above, are also causes of anxiety and depression. In addition, anxiety and depression can also result in sleep disruption.

The FDA allows cranial electrotherapy stimulation practitioners to use it on patients for anxiety and depression. Again, it seems to help with hormone and neurotransmitter balance. And indirectly, it helps the body to adapt to stress, which can lower inflammation levels. This means there will be less inflammation affecting the brain and nervous system. And finally, allowing you to get better sleep can help with the anxiety and depression.

Other Purported Benefits

An image of a couple in an argumentSome patients of cranial electrotherapy stimulation have found that cranial electrotherapy stimulation helps them with mood swings, irritability, impulsivity, and anger. Brain fog and mental confusion from stress seem to also fade. Cognition improves and work productivity increases. Eventually, after a few days of use, patients say they feel almost back to normal.

In some addiction centers, they use this therapy 24 hours a day until symptoms subside. But this is not something anyone should try at home, even with a relatively harmless home-use device. It should only be done with the help of a professional that can control the setting.

But even when using it for less severe conditions, there are important precautions to consider.

Precautions When Using Alternative or Complementary Therapies

Adrenal fatigue can make your body extremely sensitive to any form of therapy or supplement. When your body can’t handle stress anymore, you shouldn’t be adding any type of pressure on it. Many therapies that are helpful for those without AFS can actually cause a paradoxical reaction in those with AFS. A paradoxical reaction is basically a reaction that is the opposite of the intended effect of the therapy or supplement.

Even worse, you may end up with an adrenal crash. Those can be debilitating and can make your recovery process take a lot longer.

That’s why adrenal fatigue recovery has to be personalized. It needs to take into account how advanced your condition is, whether you have any co-morbidities, how old you are, your weight, your sex, your lifestyle, and your available resources. And it's best to take the safest approach possible so you don’t have too many setbacks in recovery.

We usually advise a change in diet as the first step. The adrenal fatigue diet, plus a regiment of gentle nutrients, will help you replenish your body’s nutrient stores. Also, doing the sleep hygiene practices mentioned above will give you the best chance at proper rest and sleep. Adding to that some stress management and very gentle forms of exercise, such as adrenal breathing and adrenal yoga, can also help a lot.

Precautions Specific to Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation

The other issue that concerns us is that research on this therapy is still in the early stages. Its mechanism is not yet well-understood. There has been some good research done with animals, looking at the effects of electricity on their sleep and pain levels. But human cranial electrotherapy stimulation studies number around 100. Still, there have been some interesting meta-analyses so far, including some from Harvard University School of Public Health and the University of Tulsa.

From what we know, the therapy is pretty safe. There have been no reported side effects or major contraindications. Most home-use devices use a common battery, such as the nine-volt battery, so the intensity of the electricity is quite limited.

Most patients say that the most intense sensation they experience during the therapy is some slight tingling. And even this can be stopped if you decrease the amplitude. And what’s interesting is that decreasing or increasing the amplitude doesn’t seem to affect the outcome of the therapy. It seems to work at both higher and lower stimulation levels.

The most common configuration for cranial electrotherapy stimulation is 100 pulses per second, modified square wave, 20% duty cycle, and up to 1 mAmp current intensity. Sticking to this standard will ensure safety consistently. Make sure you check with your health care practitioner to make sure this is the right therapy for you before you start.

Summary and Conclusion

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation is a type of therapy that allows electric currents to go through your head and brain. It seems to work by stimulating the tissues around your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many different physiological functions. It is also a part of the “control center” in the brain, along with the pituitary gland, that regulates the HPA, HPT, and HPG.

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation claims to also help maintain the balance between the SNS and PNS, as well as the many different neurotransmitters. The FDA allows its use for insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

Insomnia, anxiety, and depression are also symptoms of adrenal fatigue. And so some adrenal fatigue sufferers have asked us whether we’d recommend cranial electrotherapy stimulation for them. But due to the fact that this therapy has not been tested on adrenal fatigue specifically, we cannot say with certainty whether it would be a good fit or not.

Our Recommendations for AFS Sufferers

We advise you not to try it if you have AFS or dysregulation of the NEM. This is especially so if you are in the more advanced stages. That’s because your body is very fragile at this point. Your adrenals are too exhausted to take on any extra work. In that state, even helpful therapies and supplements can backfire. You might end up with a paradoxical reaction, or worse, an adrenal crash.

We prefer you stick to the proven adrenal recovery methods. Those include eating an adrenal fatigue diet, doing adrenal breathing and adrenal yoga exercises, using stress management techniques, and taking a course of gentle nutrients. You should be doing all of these changes under supervision.

An image of a cranial electrotherapy machine in a doctors officeIf you still want to try cranial electrotherapy stimulation, it is even more important to only do so with an experienced practitioner. Don’t try the at-home devices, and don’t go to a practitioner without experience.

Have Questions?

If you’re unsure about any type of therapy you’re considering, we can help you decide. The Dr. Lam Coaching team can offer you a free** no-obligation phone consultation at +1-626-571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and what your options are. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation is a type of therapy that allows electric currents to go through your head and brain. It works by stimulating your hypothalamus, which controls many of your hormones and neurotransmitters. This seems to help with issues such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

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