Acupuncture for Depression? Here’s How It Works
Depression is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable. While there are several treatment options available for depression, including medications and psychotherapy, some people prefer to explore alternative treatments such as acupuncture.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice that involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body has channels of energy, or “meridians,” that flow through it. Acupuncture aims to correct imbalances in these channels and restore the body’s natural balance and flow of energy.
Studies have shown that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for depression. In fact, a review of 30 randomized controlled trials involving over 2,000 patients found that acupuncture was more effective than placebo and equally as effective as antidepressant medications in treating depression.
Between 2021 and 2022, the Alberta Government funded a study called The Alberta Complementary Health Integration Project (ACHIP) to investigate the potential benefits of integrating complementary and alternative medicine with conventional healthcare practices for individuals with mental health conditions, including depression. The study was a collaborative project between the University of Calgary, the Alberta College of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACATCM), and the Huatuo Clinic.
The study showed a reduction in depression of up to 79% among participants who received acupuncture treatment. While the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it adds to the growing body of research supporting the use of acupuncture for mental health conditions.
This study highlights the potential benefits of combining complementary and alternative medicine with conventional healthcare practices to provide holistic and personalized treatment options for individuals with depression. It also underscores the importance of continued research and collaboration between healthcare professionals and researchers to identify effective treatment options for mental health conditions.
But how does acupuncture work to treat depression? While the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, there are several theories:
- Balancing neurotransmitters: Acupuncture may help to balance the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are thought to be involved in the regulation of mood.
- Reducing inflammation: Inflammation in the body has been linked to depression, and acupuncture has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.
- Reducing stress: Acupuncture may help to reduce stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and reduces the body’s stress response.
- Regulating the HPA axis: The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis plays a role in the body’s stress response, and dysregulation of this axis has been linked to depression. Acupuncture may help to regulate the HPA axis and reduce symptoms of depression.
During an acupuncture session for depression, the acupuncturist will insert needles into specific points on the body, based on the individual’s symptoms and underlying imbalances. The needles are left in place for about 20-40 minutes, during which time the person may feel a touch-pressure, warmth, or tingling sensation at the site of the needle insertion.
Acupuncture is generally considered safe, with few side effects. However, it is important to seek treatment from a licensed acupuncturist who has undergone appropriate training and certification.
In conclusion, acupuncture may be a viable treatment option for depression, either as a standalone therapy or in combination with other treatments. While the exact mechanism of action is not yet fully understood, acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating depression in several studies. If you are considering acupuncture for depression, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider and seek treatment from a licensed acupuncturist.
Studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for depression
- A 2010 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders reviewed 30 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving 2,812 patients with depression. The analysis found that acupuncture was significantly more effective than sham acupuncture and was comparable in effectiveness to antidepressant medications.
- A 2013 RCT published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine compared acupuncture and fluoxetine (an antidepressant medication) in 120 patients with depression. The study found that both treatments were effective, but acupuncture had fewer side effects and a lower relapse rate.
- A 2018 RCT published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research compared acupuncture and escitalopram (an antidepressant medication) in 240 patients with depression. The study found that both treatments were effective, but acupuncture had fewer side effects and was better tolerated.
- A 2019 systematic review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders reviewed 26 RCTs involving 1,937 patients with depression. The review found that acupuncture was more effective than sham acupuncture and was comparable in effectiveness to antidepressant medications.
- A 2020 RCT published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine compared acupuncture and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in 150 patients with depression. The study found that both treatments were effective, but acupuncture had a more rapid onset of action and was better tolerated.
It is important to note that while these studies suggest that acupuncture may be an effective treatment for depression, more research is needed to fully understand its potential benefits and limitations. Additionally, acupuncture should always be used in conjunction with other treatments, such as medication and psychotherapy, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.