Acupuncture for Depression: Is It Effective?
If you struggle with depression, you know how important it is to seek treatment. Medications and therapy are a big help, but sometimes it takes time for them to work. You also feel frustrated about the pace of your progress or the possibility of a relapse. In addition, many patients do not respond to medications or psychotherapy. This is the reason some people turn to alternative treatments such as acupuncture for depression to manage symptoms.
Depression affects 16.1 million adults in the country. It is the leading cause of disability among people aged 15 to 44. Depression and anxiety have become more widespread globally due to recent world events such as COVID-19. The emotional burden of the pandemic has resulted in significant mental health struggles for many people in the past few years. Due to its prevalence, people are looking for all possible treatments for depression to continue living a happy life.
What is acupuncture?
According to the Eastern perspective, symptoms such as anxiety and depression serve as telltale signs that your body is experiencing a more serious illness or condition. There could be an underlying issue occurring within the body. The imbalance of life energy, or “qi,” in traditional Chinese medicine can result in disease, which can present itself as anxiety or depression.
Acupuncture is a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the central nervous system. Professionals suggest that acupuncture can prompt the release of chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain, stimulating the body’s natural healing processes. This can lead to better physical and emotional well-being.
In acupuncture sessions intended for depression and anxiety, a licensed practitioner inserts thin needles into particular nerve points on the body. Each needle activates a sensory nerve and initiates communication with the brain. The brain then signals the immune system and releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which travel throughout the body and promote healing.
Acupuncture sessions generally last for approximately half an hour. After inserting the needles into the body, the practitioner may either manipulate them manually or stimulate them using electrical currents to induce neurochemical activity within the body.
In addition to the standard acupuncture approach, some acupuncturists may utilize alternative forms of acupuncture during treatment. These may include:
- Auricular acupuncture, which involves inserting needles into specific points on the ear.
- Electroacupuncture, which employs an electrical current to stimulate the needles.
- Distal acupuncture, in which needles are placed far away from the pain source.
- Orthopedic acupuncture, which involves combining acupuncture with myofascial massage or manipulation.
Can acupuncture help treat depression?
Over the last few decades, acupuncture has gained popularity in the United States, with over 10 million annual treatments performed. The primary objective of acupuncture is to re-establish balance within the body by improving the flow of vital energy, or “qi.”
Although several people question the concept of qi stagnation in scientific research, a 2014 study indicates that acupuncture promotes the release of endorphins and may also enhance blood flow. An increase in endorphins could potentially provide a lift to both the mind and body, offering some relief from certain symptoms of depression.
A 2018 review of studies shows that combining acupuncture with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be more effective than using antidepressants alone for mild to moderate depression. Additionally, a 2019 review of studies suggests that when administered at proper doses and used in conjunction with antidepressants, acupuncture may reduce symptoms associated with major depressive disorder. The findings indicate a decrease in medication side effects and an improvement in overall quality of life. However, more evidence is needed to prove this.
This seems to be true when combined with psychotherapy. According to a 2014 study, acupuncture can be an effective form of treatment for depression when combined with psychotherapy. The results indicate that people with depression were more engaged with their treatment during the counseling process.
However, whether acupuncture serves as the sole treatment for depression, or as a replacement or complement to medication or therapy, will depend on various factors, such as a person’s circumstances, their response to treatment, and recommendations from their doctor or mental health professional.
What are the known benefits of acupuncture for managing depression?
Acupuncture offers several benefits for alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. Here are some reasons why acupuncture could be worth trying if you are looking for an alternative treatment for depression.
It increases the production of serotonin and endorphins.
Acupuncture has the potential to impact the brain’s chemistry and boost the production of hormones such as serotonin and endorphins. Studies show that acupuncture can influence the neurochemical pathways responsible for hormones and amino acids such as dopamine and cortisol. These substances are crucial in emotional and physiological processes in the central nervous system. They also help regulate stress response, appetite, memory, attention, and motivation.
It reduces inflammation.
Acupuncture can trigger an anti-inflammatory response from the immune system as the needles create small wounds throughout the body. One of the known causes of depression is chronic inflammation and there is growing evidence to support this claim.
It relaxes your mind and reduces stress.
Acupuncture for depression can promote relaxation and reduce stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response. The parasympathetic system acts as a brake, helping to wind down and calm the nervous system so that it can relax.
On top of all this, acupuncture is a safe alternative for pregnant women struggling with depression. Some people choose acupuncture because they are afraid of the long-term effects of medications on their bodies.
Is acupuncture for depression worth a try?
Although evidence supporting the use of acupuncture for depression is not yet definitive, researchers and healthcare practitioners believe that there is potential to warrant more rigorous studies.
Acupuncture practitioners also tend to endorse this view, anticipating that more research will be conducted as the field expands in the United States. Even if others believe that acupuncture’s benefits happen solely due to the placebo effect, it might still be worth considering if traditional treatment has not been effective and if the time and resources are available to try it.
Experts agree that acupuncture is generally safe when performed by a trained professional. It is advisable to seek out a licensed and board-certified practitioner. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which is the primary professional licensing organization for Chinese medicine in the United States, has a directory of licensed practitioners available.
Before trying acupuncture, it is important to speak with your doctor. Facilitate communication between your acupuncturist and therapist or psychiatrist to ensure that everyone is aware of your goals.
Bear in mind that acupuncture can be costly. Check first with your health insurance provider if they cover acupuncture before scheduling an appointment.
If you are looking for psychotherapy services that will work effectively with acupuncture, visit Mindshift Psychological Services. We offer treatment programs for depression and anxiety. Check out our website to learn more about us, or contact us at (714) 584-9700 to schedule an appointment.