To an unknowing eye, ear seeds might look like any other piece of jewelry, but these tiny studs are actually an extension of acupuncture and serve the powerful purpose of promoting calm and easing pain. In case you’re not familiar, acupuncture involves a trained and licensed acupuncturist inserting thin needles into certain points in the body, which delivers an immune response that helps the body heal itself. Ear seeds work in a similar way, but they don’t involve needles and target points only on the ear.
What are ear seeds?
Ear seeds are a form of auriculotherapy, which is a therapeutic practice based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the work of French physician Paul Nogier that focuses on acupressure or acupuncture of the ear. Acupressure and acupuncture both work to stimulate pressure points that correspond to specific organs in the body. The main difference between the two is that acupuncture uses thin needles to target these pressure points, whereas acupressure uses firm pressure, according to the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine.
Ear seeds are usually made from the vaccaria plant and placed on certain parts of the ear with an adhesive backing. Ripe seeds from the vaccaria plant are used in TCM to activate blood circulation and help regulate the blood. “The ear has its own micro nervous system and the entire body is represented on our ears, says Tiffany Lester, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician at Parsley Health Los Angeles with a certification in medical acupuncture. The idea is that there are parts of the ear that coincide with certain organs in the body. “It’s similar to the concept of reflexology, except no one wants to walk around with seeds on the bottom of their feet. It is a way to access our internal nervous system from the outside,” Lester explains.
How do ear seeds work?
Like reflexology, which involves applying pressure to the feet or hands, ear seeds involve applying pressure through adhesive studs to points of potential dysfunction, Lester says. By applying pressure to these points in the ear, you relieve blockages and congestion in other parts of the body. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, there are acupressure points, also called meridians, throughout your body where energy flows. When the energy flow in one of these meridians becomes blocked, it causes illness. Whenever you’re feeling pain or anxiety, for instance, you can actively press the ear seeds to promote better energy flow.
“Due to the ear’s high level of innervation for such a small area, you can achieve rapid reduction in pain, anxiety, etc. by stimulating specific points that send messages back to the brain and body to reduce pain and relax,” Lester explains. “These studs send signals to your brain and nervous system to promote calm and restore homeostasis,” she says.
The pressure points you’re triggering depends on what you are trying to treat, and Lester says there are anywhere from 10 to 30 pressure points on the ear that are mapped to various organs in the body, including the heart, stomach, and brain. “One of my favorite points is Shen Men, which is grounding and calming to the nervous system. There is also a sympathetic point, which is helpful if you suffer from anxiety or ruminating thoughts,” Lester says.
While auriculotherapy is considered a form of acupuncture, Lester says ear seeds are not a replacement for it. “In practice, I have used them as an add-on to a full acupuncture session to extend the positive effects, or as an acute visit if someone is having an anxiety attack or experiencing severe pain,” Lester says.
You can exercise and shower with ear seeds, but be careful not to move them from their respective point, as it can alter the effectiveness of the treatment.
The benefits of ear seeds
At Parsley Health, Lester says she generally recommends ear seeds to patients as an adjunct to insomnia, anxiety, or back pain. “Research has also shown that it [ear seeds] can increase our natural endorphins, giving the feeling of bliss that is often achieved after a full-body acupuncture session,” Lester says. And while there are studies to support the benefits of ear seeds, most of them are small, so there is still a lot to be learned. If you have a health concern, it’s still important to work with a licensed practitioner to help you figure out the root causes of your issues. Here are some ways ear seeds and ear acupuncture could help improve your health, in accordance with other treatments.
Improves mental health
Whether you suffer from anxiety or depression, ear seed acupressure may help ease common symptoms of these mental health conditions. An April 2015 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine enlisted 150 hypertensive patients and divided them into groups. The experimental group of participants received auricular acupressure for 10 weeks while the control group received regular care. Researchers found that those who received auricular acupressure reported a significant improvement in their mental health, body pain, and quality of life.
A small study of 44 college students with high levels of anxiety and temporomandibular disorders (TMD), like TMJ, also demonstrated that auriculotherapy can be an effective treatment for anxiety and TMD. The students were divided into two groups: One group received auriculotherapy with mustard seeds while the other group received a sham version of auriculotherapy. The mustard seeds were applied to the Shen Men points, as well as the TMJ points. After 10 sessions (two sessions per week), the group that received auriculotherapy with mustard seeds significantly reduced their anxiety and pain.
Research shows that ear seeds might help provide some quick pain relief. A June 2015 study in Pain Management Nursing suggests that auricular point acupressure may help reduce pain in cancer patients. In the study, 50 cancer patients received auricular acupressure treatment with vaccaria seeds for seven days for their pain. After the seven days of treatment, patients reported reduced pain intensity by more than half. As a result, patients took less pain medication.
Other reviews on auricular acupuncture also show some promise for treating pain. For example, an October 2017 review in Medical Acupuncture evaluated four randomized controlled trials on ear acupuncture and found that it can significantly help reduce pain. The review also found that ear acupuncture has the potential to be used as pain management in emergency settings, but more research is needed to determine whether it reduces the use of pain medications. Another systematic review found that ear acupuncture could be a promising treatment for quick pain relief. Other research suggests that when coupled with exercise, auricular acupuncture can help improve low-back pain.
Shows promise for aiding insomnia treatment
While more clinical studies designed around the benefits of ear seeds for insomnia are needed, an April 2015 review in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies shows that auricular acupuncture has some positive effects for treating insomnia by improving sleep efficiency, sleep onset latency, and number of nightly awakenings.
Helps with weight loss
The research on ear seeds for weight loss is thin but could have some promise. In a small 2010 study, 84 overweight adolescents were divided into a control group and two experimental groups using Japanese magnetic pearls or vaccaria seeds for auricular acupressure. The participants also received lifestyle advice on how to restrict calories and exercise. After eight weeks, participants who received auricular acupressure reduced their BMI.
Another cardiometabolic effect of ear seeds could be their ability to help decrease LDL “bad” cholesterol and total cholesterol for those who are obese found a May 2019 study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 58 obese adolescents were divided into experimental and control groups. The experimental group received auricular acupressure with vaccaria seeds for eight weeks while the control group received placebo auricular acupressure. Results showed that adolescents in the experimental group improved their overall cholesterol levels, as well as LDL cholesterol after eight weeks compared to those in the control group.
Who should try ear seeds?
Lester says that ear seeds are just about safe for everyone and there aren’t any known drawbacks to using them. But note that ear seeds—or any form of acupuncture—for that matter, isn’t meant to replace actual medical treatment.
“As a doctor who focuses on holistic health, I’ll use several things in my toolbox to treat a patient, and that 360-degree approach could include everything from prescription medication and changes in diet to ear seeds,” says Dr. Lester.
If you are concerned about a health issue, Dr. Lester recommends consulting your doctor about whether ear seeds could be a beneficial complement to your treatment.
While there are many DIY ear seed kits out there, Lester advises working with a licensed acupuncturist instead. “You should ideally have ear seeds done only by a certified acupuncturist to ensure the correct treatment,” Lester says.
Ear seeds typically last two to five days with constant micro-stimulation. How often you should get ear seeds depends on what condition you’re treating and its severity, Lester says. “Getting them once a week for a month and then reassessing is a great guide for most people,” she says.
If you develop an active rash on your ear or have allergies or sensitivities to certain metals, Lester says you should stop use until your skin has fully healed and communicate these issues with your practitioner.