Does Acupuncture For Depression Actually Work?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

More than 17 million American adults will experience depression at least once during their lifetime. If depression is something you struggle with, you know how important it can be to find relief that's both safe and effective. Finding the treatment plan that works for you can be difficult, particularly if you’d like to avoid conventional or pharmaceutical medications for relieving your symptoms. If you’d like to try something new or natural, you might consider acupuncture as a potential option. This ancient Chinese practice has been used for centuries to treat many different health conditions, and acupuncture for stress and depression may provide you with the natural relief you’ve been looking for.

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What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a practice that stems from ancient Chinese medicine. It involves the insertion of very small needles into different places on the body to treat a variety of health issues. During the practice, your body is divided into different categories, zones, and pressure points. Each area is targeted over the course of the acupuncture treatment. 

Chinese medicine approaches the body slightly differently than Western medicine does, which can make it difficult to understand for those who aren’t familiar with the differences. It can be important to learn how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) understands the body and why acupuncture can be a useful healing modality.

Acupuncture began in ancient China over 2,000 years ago, and trained practitioners continue to use this tradition to this day. The premise behind acupuncture is that there is a steady flow of energy moving throughout the body. If this energy flows freely, experts argue, the body can experience health and wellness.

This energy is believed to pass through certain points, called meridians. Within TCM, there are 71 meridians spread throughout the body, and they're each associated with certain organs. What's more, there are over 2,000 acupuncture points that skilled practitioners can work with.

If these meridians are blocked, energy can't flow through them as easily, and this can lead to illness and pain in the body. Acupuncture focuses on these blocked meridians and stimulates them so that the flow of energy can continue freely. This is the Eastern approach to acupuncture. 

Western research, on the other hand, would attribute acupuncture's efficacy to the possibility that these tiny needles activate natural painkillers found within the brain. While Western research is still exploring how acupuncture for depression works, let's look at what can lead to depression in the body, and explore the relationship acupuncture has with these factors, as well as with depression itself.

What causes energy in the body to get stuck?

If you imagine the meridians as highways throughout the body, you can imagine the body's energy as cars racing throughout the body's intricate highway system. When the energy gets stuck, it's like a traffic jam and a roadblock happening inside.

What causes the body's energy to jam up in the first place? According to Ellen Shefi, L.Ac., three factors lead to blocked energy, and they are as follows:

  • Emotional stress, like worry, anger, fear, grief, and bitterness
  • Dietary and nutritional choices
  • Injuries

When the energy flow within the body is interrupted, it can lead to both physiological and psychological distress. However, acupuncture may be able to address these issues. Once these root causes are managed, you may experience healing from your depression. 

How does acupuncture work?

A licensed acupuncture practitioner works with very fine, sterilized needles and gently places them atop specific points on the skin to stimulate particular points within the body. Since the needles are incredibly thin, acupuncture is more or less a pain-free treatment.

This is how acupuncture is administered, but how can it help with depression? To answer that question, let's explore how stress impacts someone's mental health and state of depression.

The connection between stress and depression

Washington DC's Transformational Acupuncture states that “acupuncture acts like physical therapy for the nervous system. It entrains the nervous system and brain to behave in ways that correspond to desired effects.” These effects include stable moods, improved self-esteem, sharper thinking, and clearer decision-making and focus.

How does acupuncture for depression accomplish these results? First, it's important to remember just how damaging stress can be on the entire body: physical, emotional, and psychological.

Stress can lead to emotional symptoms, like:

  • Feeling frustrated and irritated quickly
  • Disproportionate feelings of overwhelm
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Feelings of depression
  • Isolating oneself from others

Stress can lead to physical symptoms, like:

  • Lack of energy
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, as well as body aches and pains
  • Low libido

Stress can lead to cognitive symptoms, like:

  • Non-stop thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Memory problems
  • Feeling pessimistic
  • Difficulty focusing and making decisions

Stress can lead to behavioral symptoms, like:

  • Under- or over-eating
  • Procrastination
  • Substance use

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Stress can lead to many different problems throughout the body. Depression can be one condition that arises especially when an individual experiences chronic stress. Since acupuncture works with the central nervous system, and because depression is connected to the central nervous system, acupuncture can help to relieve symptoms of depression. Here's how:


Stress and the nervous system

The "fight-or-flight" response refers to the way in which we respond to immediate stress. It's the response of our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Chronic stress leads to a constant SNS response and this can take a toll on the body. To counteract this fight-or-flight response, our body has something called the Parasympathetic Nervous System, and this is a feeling of calm, rest, and relaxation.

According to experts, "acupuncture helps the nervous system adapt and re-educate itself to operate in a more optimal way." This can be crucial to the modern lifestyle. After all, the normal causes of stress might not magically go away, but if the body can cope with these stressors more healthily, you might find relief from some of your symptoms. This is what acupuncture for depression can do.

To summarize: countless individuals experience chronic stress, and this can lead to symptoms of depression. Acupuncture helps support your body's central nervous system so that it can cope more effectively with the stress you face daily. Since you're more equipped to handle stress, you're also able to relieve feelings of depression.

Studies showing the efficacy of acupuncture for depression

Currently, there hasn't been extensive long-term research on acupuncture for depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says, the "evidence for the use of acupuncture…to treat anxiety disorders is becoming stronger."

With more time and extensive research, Western medicine may be more equipped to explain an ancient practice that has positively supported people's health and well-being for hundreds of years. Until then, here is a small sampling of studies that show the use of acupuncture for depression.

This 2013 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that a specific type of acupuncture—electroacupuncture, in which a minute amount of electricity was used— is just as effective as fluoxetine, or Prozac, in reducing symptoms of depression. 

A second study, published in the same journal, found that acupuncture can bring significant improvement among people who experience sexual dysfunction due to their antidepressant medication. This dysfunction included a low libido and an inability to orgasm, especially in men.

While Western researchers believe that more research is necessary to truly discover just how acupuncture for depression works, it may be worth noting that four studies have shown that acupuncture can increase "neurobiologically active substances."

This 1998 study found that high-frequency electroacupuncture induced the release of enkephalins and dynorphins. Other studies have shown trends related to the use of acupuncture, which can lead to the release of other brain chemicals, such as endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. These findings can further help to explain how acupuncture for depression can be an effective treatment method.

Does acupuncture for depression have long-term effects?

According to a 2001 study that examined 38 women, it appears that acupuncture does relieve depression. However, it doesn't appear to have long-lasting effects. After the women completed the acupuncture treatment, they were interviewed six months later. What researchers found is that of the 17 women who experienced a full remission of their depression symptoms, four had a relapse within the 6-month follow-up period.

Therefore, acupuncture may be a useful and effective way to bring short-term relief to individuals with depression. It may also be a helpful treatment method at the early onset of depression.

Acupuncture for depression is a complementary practice

While studies have found that acupuncture for depression can be both safe and effective, it may be helpful to view it as a complementary practice to support other health treatments. In a study that included over 700 individuals who struggled with moderate to severe depression, it was found that acupuncture, along with counseling and prescription medicine, had a significantly positive effect on depression.

Therefore, professional help, a balanced diet, physical activity, and adequate sleep can each support the work accomplished in the acupuncture appointment.

Acupuncture for depression is a personalized approach

So, for example, in Western medicine, "depression" can be a combination of many forms of disharmony in Chinese medicine.

A skilled and licensed practitioner can observe your symptoms and choose to work with specific acupuncture and meridian points to help you and your specific experience of depression. For this reason, your acupuncture treatment can be customized for you alone. That can go for everything from the number of appointments you have to the amount of time in between each session - it all depends on what you and your practitioner decide is most productive for you and your situation.

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Looking for new ways to manage your depression symptoms?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

While acupuncture may help relieve symptoms associated with depression, it is not a substitute for medical care, including mental health treatment. Online counseling may be a beneficial resource to consider if your depression is not improving. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that delivers support via video conferences, messages, and phone calls. There’s no need to drive long distances to attend a session and you can meet with your therapist wherever you have an internet connection. This can make it particularly useful for those with depression who are struggling to get out of bed or leave the house. 

The efficacy of online therapy

Online counseling can be an effective alternative to traditional therapy settings, specifically regarding care and guidance for people with depression. A report in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that telehealth interventions can provide accessible and affordable resources to those struggling with conditions such as depression and anxiety. The study pointed out an internet-based intervention trial that saw significant levels of stability in participants after a 3-month follow-up. The face-to-face participants, on the other hand, saw slightly worsened symptoms of depression after the follow-up. While traditional therapy is still a viable option if available, online counseling can have many benefits.

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Acupuncture can be a helpful technique to consider for those who are looking for new ways to treat their depression. While it does not replace typical medical intervention, it can be an additional resource to have in your tool belt. If your depression persists or worsens, it can be important to speak with a medical provider. Online counseling has been shown to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy and can be a powerful option for those who want to receive care from their home.
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