Does Acupuncture For Depression Actually Work
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 13, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
More than 17 million American adults experience depression at least once in their lives. And if depression is something you struggle with, you know how important it is to find relief that's both safe and effective. But If you would like to relieve your feelings of depression, while avoiding pharmaceutical medications, you might want to consider acupuncture. This ancient Chinese practice has been used for centuries to treat many different health conditions, and acupuncture for depression might be the natural relief you're looking for.
What Is Acupuncture?
Even though acupuncture is gaining in popularity, it's still somewhat of a mystery. One reason for this is because Chinese Medicine approaches the body slightly different than Western medicine, and we'll explore this difference to bring greater clarity to our discussion about acupuncture for depression. To make sure we're all on the same page, it's 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 using this tradition to this day. The premise behind acupuncture, according to TCM, is that there is a steady flow of energy moving throughout the body. If this energy flows freely, the body experiences 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 all associated with certain organs. What's more, there are over 2,000 acupuncture points which skilled practitioners can work with.
If these meridians are blocked, the energy can't flow 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 and unblocked.
That's 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.
So, while Western research is still exploring how acupuncture for depression works, let's take a look at what can lead to depression in the body, and 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.
But what causes the body's energy to jam up in the first place? According to Ellen Shefi, L.Ac., there are three factors that lead to blocked energy, and they are as follows:
- Emotional stress, like worry, anger, fear, grief, and bitterness
- Dietary and nutritional choices
As you can see, when the energy flow within the body is interrupted, it can lead to both physiological and psychological duress. But you might be wondering if acupuncture for depression can work to address these issues?
To begin, let's take a look at how acupuncture works.
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. You might be wondering if this is painful, but because the needles are incredibly thin, acupuncture is more or less a pain-free treatment.
And if you're wondering if it's a safe practice, the answer is yes. To ensure that acupuncture treatments are safe, the FDA now regulates the needles used as a medical device that must be "sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only."
That's how acupuncture is administered, but how does 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" like, stable moods, improved self-esteem, as well as clearer thinking and better decision-making and focus.
But 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, 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
- Having difficulty focusing and making decisions
Stress Can Lead To Behavioral Symptoms, like:
- Under- or over-eating
- Substance abuse
As you can see, stress can lead to a whole slew of problems throughout the body, and depression is one of them, especially when an individual experiences chronic stress.
So, where does acupuncture for depression play into all of this? Since acupuncture works with the central nervous system, and since depression is connected to the central nervous system, acupuncture can help to relieve symptoms of depression. Here's how.
Stress And The Nervous System
You're probably very familiar with the term "fight-or-flight" response - it's how we respond to immediate stress. It's the response of our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). But 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 relax.
So, what does acupuncture have to do with the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems? According to experts, "acupuncture helps the nervous system adapt and re-educate itself to operate in a more optimal way."
This is crucial to the modern lifestyle. After all, the normal stress triggers won't magically go away, but if the body can cope with these stressors more healthily, you'll feel a whole lot better. This is what acupuncture for depression does.
So, to recap, 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 better cope with the stress you face on a daily basis. And because you're better able to handle stress, you're also able to relieve feelings of depression.
Studies Showing The Efficacy Of Acupuncture Of Depression
At this point, there hasn't been extensive research on acupuncture for depression. However, recent reviews, from both Western and Chinese data, show that acupuncture can be as effective as an anti-depressant in treating depression. As The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says, the "evidence for the use of acupuncture…to treat anxiety disorders is becoming stronger."
No doubt, with more time and more extensive research, Western medicine will be better 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 which 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's 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. While other studies show that the use of acupuncture can lead to a release of other brain chemicals, such as endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.
These findings can further help to explain how acupuncture for depression is an effective treatment method.
Does Acupuncture For Depression Have Long-Term Effects?
According to a 2001 study which 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 with 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, too.
Acupuncture For Depression Is A Complementary Practice
While studies have found that acupuncture for depression is both safe and effective, it should be seen as a complementary practice to support other healthy treatments. In a study that included over 700 individuals who suffered from 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 should support the work accomplished in the acupuncture appointment.
Acupuncture For Depression Is A Personalized Approach
Since acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it draws on a long and rich database of symptoms. So, for example, in Western medicine, "depression" can be a combination of many forms of disharmony in Chinese medicine.
A skilled and licensed practitioner will be able to observe your symptoms, which are presenting in your case, 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 will be customized for you. And that goes 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 best for you and your situation.
Acupuncture for depression is an effective way to relieve symptoms of depression, and to help you find a trusted practitioner, and to assess your condition, visit BetterHelp to find a licensed, professional practitioner to help you achieve greater health and wellness.