De-Stress with Ear Seeds

Close up with adhesive ear seeds on the spleen and shen men points

As Chinese medicine practices become more mainstream, both Good Morning America and the New York Times have highlighted growing interest in using a treatment known as ear seeds for health. I remember when a friend showed up to a hangout with what looked like a little bandage on her ear. She had just been to our acupuncturist and told me that she had gotten this little seed placed in her ear to keep the treatment going at home.

Huh? A seed in your ear? What the heck?

After learning more about the concept, it makes sense. Acupuncture stimulates various points on your body corresponding to meridians (channels of qi or energy). It’s less invasive cousin is acupressure, where you massage certain points on the body instead of using needles. The seeds can be thought of as a more precise type of acupressure. And in these locked-down times when it’s fairly difficult to see an acupuncturist, these can be a do-it-yourself way to manage on your own!

I’ve since gotten seeds a few times from my acupuncturist; but as part of the lock down boredom, I thought why not try them myself? You can get them very cheaply on Amazon. They sell many types, including those made of crystal and gold-leafed, but I’d recommend the actual vaccaria seeds. These are the originally-used version from Chinese medicine. Vaccaria is an herb which can be ingested for conditions like painful periods and to promote lactation. But placing these seeds on acupuncture points can treat a broad range of issues.

Most frequently, vaccaria seeds are placed on the ear, because most of the body points are deeper in the skin. There’s a whole sub-field of acupuncture focused on the ear (auricular acupuncture). The reason for this is the ear is thought to contain a sort of mini-map of the whole body, and it is an active place with many nerves. Indeed, the points correspond to an inverted/curled up baby! Ear acupuncture has been shown to be especially helpful for overcoming addiction and is a mainstay of treatment plans geared towards drug, alcohol, and tobacco cessation.

Placement of the seeds is best done by a licensed acupuncturist, or at the very least by a willing friend since it can be hard to see on yourself. A tweezers can help improve precision in placement. The adhesives stay for several days up to a week. Ideally, you should give them a little squeeze every now and then when you remember it, as it helps stimulate the points. There are over 200 points on the ears where you could apply the seeds to target specific issues. Common disorders are substance abuse, weight management, pain, migraines, anxiety/depression, digestive issues, and cancer-related nausea.

My experiment: As part of my pandemic-induced leisure time, I bought a set of seeds to try out on my own. The first attempt at self-placement was pretty bad. I bugged my wife, the recovering scientist who has a way with manipulating tiny objects for precise placement. She took the whole thing remarkably seriously and prepped for a good 10 minutes studying the diagram and my ear (which she reported was weirdly shaped…um…thanks).

My business partner, and aspiring acupuncturist friend Bridgette left me a detailed video text on which points she recommended. The first one was the shen men, which in her words, helps “chill you the f*** out.” The shen men point is a key “master point” which helps with mental well being and is thought to draw heavenly healing energy to your body. She also suggested yin tang, which is actually on the forehead between the eyebrows (and which corresponds to the third eye chakra). Again, in her poetic words, this point “helps clear your mind of crap that you don’t need, like a shen settling point.” I also picked a spleen point since my acupuncturist had suggested that to help get my digestion and energy on track as part of my foray into veganism.

As a sleep professional, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dwell a bit on their role in sleep. Insomnia is considered a disturbance of the shen, or spirit. A meta-analysis yielded some evidence that several ear points (among them the shen men) could reduce insomnia. Another review found use of the seeds more effective than valium (diazepam).

Results: On day one, I did notice sort of a strange whole-body sensation in getting used to the seeds. The ear has a lot to do with balance and your vestibular system, and I felt a bit at sea as they were settling in, nothing too unpleasant though. I also felt a bit more of that electricity in my toes I often feel during acupuncture sessions. I like to think of it as being aware of qi flowing.

I wasn’t particularly stressed going into the experiment, but I definitely felt calm and at peace, even with a certain spouse grumping at me during one point. Rather than take the bait on another kitchen fight (the topic of 99% of our disagreements), I didn’t react and just sort of stayed chill. I also had a bit less of the usual new-week anxiety at work and felt like my sleep was overall better with the seeds. They actually inspired me to get back on the nightly meditation wagon and I had an amazing sunshine qi gong session while wearing them.

Assessment: Ear seeds can be a low-risk at home treatment for a range of conditions. A recent study showed both acupuncture and use of ear seeds helped reduce pain associated with a procedure than placebo. I will likely continue to use them as a complement to acupuncture (ideal for when you have to go weeks without any sessions). It costs little to try these out and see if they work for you. If you don’t have an acupuncturist, you can Google image search any of your symptoms along with “ear acupuncture points” to learn good areas to target. If needles spook you, these seeds could be a way to get some of the benefits of acupuncture without the fear.

If you’ve tried these before, let us know your experience and your favorite points!

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