Acupuncture for Depression
Lauren Dyer, DAC
If you were to look up depression, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-V) defines it as an “episode” that lasts at least two weeks where the person experiences a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities. This mood must be present along with at least five other symptoms, including:
Sleep issues on almost a daily basis (either difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
Changes in appetite and weight (change of more than 5 percent body weight in a month) or a decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
Decreased energy or fatigue almost every day
Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and thinking clearly
Psychomotor agitation or impairment that is observable by others (slow physical movements or unintentional or purposeless motions)
Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, a suicide attempt, or plan
This definition is fine and formal, but in reality, depression is different for everyone. Yes, there are some shared experiences in the energy dips, low spirits, and diminished drive for those who have it. But there are others who are high-functioning and hide it well. Depression is unique in that it is irrational and unpredictable. Unlike anxiety that tends to worsen in a linear progression, depression can vacillate between numbness and hopelessness; one day you can wake up feeling nothing and lack motivation, while another day you are feeling everything too strongly and find yourself in a downward-spiral of self-loathing.
Although depression is considered a mental condition, in Chinese Medicine it is just as much of an emotional and physical one too.
If you read my previous blog on “The Physical Effects of Emotions,” bear with me as I reiterate one of the most important points that demonstrates this:
“In Chinese Medicine, each emotion is associated with an internal organ—and when one emotion is too intense, it impacts the ability of that organ to function properly. This is because each emotion impacts the circulation and direction of energy (Qi) in the body in distinct, but predictable ways.
As opposed to Western Medicine where mental and emotional processes are connected to the brain (reactions in the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and hypothalamus), in Chinese Medicine, these processes are driven by the internal organs themselves. If you’ve ever heard anyone say they had a “visceral reaction” to something, that’s why: when emotions are felt strongly, we feel them physically.
In other words, our psychology affects our physiology.
Of course, emotions are natural and healthy, but when one is experienced repeatedly, inappropriately (out-of-context), or repressed for too long, that emotion can manifest physically as symptoms associated with the internal organ it is paired with. The same is also true in reverse: if the functioning of a certain organ is impaired, its dysfunction can reveal itself through its paired emotion.
In this sense, Depression does not just describe an emotional affect, but the presence of poor circulation (stagnation). This is why emotional depression and the “depressed” movement of qi/blood are often seen hand-in-hand. This also explains why depression can manifest as physical ailments and behavioral patterns such as:
IBS & GI Disorders
When it comes to treating it with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, my approach is different for each person I work with. This is because, as opposed to conventional medicine, not everyone’s depression expresses itself the same way. So why would I treat it the same? Any two (or even 10) people can have depression—but what activates it, the predominant emotion(s) and organ(s) involved, their symptoms, plus aggravating factors can be completely different.
Taking these nuances into account is the key to effectively diagnosing and treating the underlying imbalance.
What follows are some of the most frequently asked questions I get from those wondering if Acupuncture can help them with depression.
What should I expect?
As mentioned above, treating depression with Acupuncture is not a one-size-fits all (not even a one-size-fits most) approach. You can expect an individualized treatment plan to support your process because I tailor everything about your care to you—from the Acupuncture points I choose and additional modalities I incorporate, to the foods/herbs and lifestyle recommendations I offer. During our initial 1.5 hour long appointment together, we will talk at length about you, your medical history, and story—what brought you to where you are today?
I ask several questions not only about what your depression looks like to you and how it physically manifests, but about other areas of your life that might seem unrelated—like your digestion, what you eat (or what you can manage to eat) on a daily basis, what your home and work environments are like, your relationships, sleep patterns, whether you have tendencies for physical pains or get sick often. These are just some areas I like to touch on, but they are pretty important so I can make connections and look at the bigger picture of what imbalances are taking place internally.
After the intake process, I will look at your tongue (yes, really) and feel your radial pulse on the inside of your wrists. Both are important diagnostic tests that reveal another layer of what organ systems are implicated in your pattern of depression. I also like to create space before the Acupuncture itself so you can ask any questions you have. Once your treatment begins, you can relax and even nap if you want.
Do I have to do anything between my appointments or do I just show up?
Acupuncture is a powerful and transformative therapy all on it’s own, however, my goal is for you to not have to rely on it to solely relieve your depression and the symptoms you experience. In fact, you will most likely notice quicker results when you participate in your care.
I encourage patients to do this by engaging in their treatments anytime they are out of the treatment room itself, like at work or home. You can do this by following through on the lifestyle and/or dietary guidance I offer, which is given to help accumulating progress from treatment to treatment. Especially with depression, I ask my patients to pay attention to any changes (subtle or substantial) that you experience in between sessions. This awareness helps inform my decisions making when it comes to adapting treatments to meet where your body, mind, and emotions are on that given day. If you are rather record these changes on paper, I welcome you to do that too.
How does Acupuncture help relieve depression?
Science and allopathic medicine recognizes how Acupuncture is able to alleviate depression by:
Naturally promoting the body’s release of serotonin and endorphins—your “feel-good” hormones
Releasing vasodilators which relax the blood vessels to lower blood pressure and promote circulation (remember, when qi and blood are stuck, physical pain and depression are more likely to develop)
Relieving pain by blocking pain signals in the spinal cord and brain; given how common it is for chronic pain and depression to be seen together, this finding has encouraged the American College of Physicians (ACP) to recommend Acupuncture as a treatment before prescribing opioids.
Relaxing the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system which tells your body it’s in “crisis” mode; Acupuncture dials-down this response while allowing your nervous system to shift into a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state so it can repair and regulate itself. This is especially helpful when caught in that “downward spiral” with self-loathing thoughts.
What if I am taking an anti-depressant—how will that impact my treatments?
To many people’s surprise, Acupuncture is commonly used in conjunction with anti-depressants. Not only that, a 2015 meta-analysis and systematic review (which is the highest-quality level of research because they compile the results of every study done on the subject) has demonstrated that Acupuncture actually enhances the effectiveness of selective-serotonin reuptake inbihibitor (SSRI) medications. When comparing the use of Acupuncture-alone for depression vs. the use of Acupuncture combined with SSRIs, the combination was shown to be more fast acting, safe, and effective than SSRI use alone.
So if you are taking an anti-depressant, it will not negatively impact treatments—it can help! If getting off of medications is a goal of yours, which it is for some patients I work with, I ask that they have that conversation with their prescribing provider so the transition can be carefully managed.
I have had depression for (insert length of time here), how long will Acupuncture take to help?
I wish there was a predictable answer to this question, but the length of time to start noticing significant, sustainable changes depends on a couple of factors: how long you have had depression for, the severity of it, your willingness to collaborate on a treatment plan, your ability to engage in your treatments and embrace recommendations given outside of the office, etc. I will confidently share that almost everyone feels more relaxed after their first treatment, which is a good thing because it shows the body is already responding! Acupuncture is sometimes a quick-fix, but not usually when it comes to depression. Think about how many months or years you have felt stuck, numb, in pain, or overwhelmed emotionally—whether it’s due to life circumstances, trauma, loss, or reasons you can’t even pinpoint? It will take a little bit to shift that. A typical course of Acupuncture is 10 treatments, and most patients notice changes by their 4th-6th visit.
What are the benefits of Acupuncture for depression?
The benefits of Acupuncture for depression are well-known to include positive changes in your physical health as well as your mental/emotional outlook. I have had patients share that they experience:
More resilience: their ability to handle situations that would typically overwhelm or send them into a crisis improves
Feeling “lighter” emotionally: sometimes the weight of what depresses us—memories, experiences—does not get a chance to escape because we hold it in. I have patients report this sensation in a few different ways, but it all relates to a feeling of relief as circulation improves and things become “un-stuck.”
Better quality sleep: being able to fall asleep more easily or stay asleep longer without tossing and turning.
More energy: with depression, energy is your currency—you have to know how and when to spend it wisely or you run the risk of over-doing something which leaves you even more depleted, or you just don’t do anything, and feel paralyzed by daily activities. I have patients who could not gather the strength to clean their home, take a shower, etc. come back to say that they were able to accomplish more during the day than they were able to before.
Improved appetite and digestion: Acupuncture plus personalized herbal and dietary suggestions can do this by reducing stagnation in the digestive organs
Improved will-power and ability to make decisions: By influencing the nervous system and treating the organs that govern these mental processes, this is a benefit patients are sometimes surprised by—they report getting their “fire back” and can commit to things without second guessing themselves.
I hope you found this informative.
If you are struggling with depression and are ready to get support naturally, I would be happy to share this medicine with you.
“I have Bipolar and found it hard in the past to regulate my mood swings, even with proper care and regulation. Mentally after about 3 months of seeing Lauren, my family noticed my mood swings were less unpredictable. My bouts of every two week meltdowns evolved to an even keel. My psychiatrist was baffled, as he has tried for over 2 years to relieve any of my symptoms. Acupuncture ended up turning my life around. ”
— DL, AUBURN