Acupuncture for Depression


In this article, I shall explain something about what to expect when you seek acupuncture treatment for depression. In a survey of 9000 UK acupuncture patients, 11% were presenting with psychological complaints; in many practices, depression represents a significant portion of this category. Additionally, the World Health Organization in 2021 (1), cited a figure of 280 million people suffering from depression internationally. It is a common problem, and two-thirds of adults will at some time experience depression severe enough to interfere with normal activities.

What to Expect When You Come

Should you decide to come for acupuncture, I shall be interested in whether you have a history of depression previously, when and how it began (eg. identifiable events or disproportionate reactions thereto), and how it affects your daily life (eg. ability to work, family and social relationships etc). Your wider health is enormously important too. Do you feel the depression is a reaction to the burden of chronic pain or to limitations imposed by some other medical problem? Might it even stem from medication used to control that problem? Did it arise out of chronic stress, from say work, a difficult relationship or caring for relatives?

Have you had depression in the past which now seems to have recurred in response to a new health problem, a recent life event, or stressful circumstances? Is there any link with hormonal changes such as being premenstrual or perimenopausal? Oestrogen levels fall at these times, in turn reducing serotonin levels.

Is there any seasonal component involved? If seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is at work, we should be cautious about medicalising a natural instinct to hibernate. If our culture permitted us to slow down a little in winter, SAD might be diagnosed less frequently. Take a look at my Seasonal Tips for Winter.

Looking more widely still, I am interested in the full array of other symptoms which accompany your depression. These can encompass fatigue, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, appetite or weight changes, or feelings such as irritability, anger, anxiety, panic or guilt. I can then begin to re-frame the picture of your health from a Chinese medical perspective, and devise a plan of treatment. If it is practical, we can try to directly help obvious causes of your depression, such as stress or chronic pain. In other cases, the causes do not lend themselves to such an approach, in which case we just try to tackle the depression.

Lifestyle Advice

Lifestyle advice is often a particularly useful part of treatment. In Chinese medicine, the health of our physical body is considered important for our mental and spiritual health too. This gives our shen or spirit, a good home in which it can settle. We may need to discuss your diet, any possible nutrient deficiencies, sleep, exercise, social life, alcohol intake, and drugs both prescribed and recreational. Diet and nutrient considerations may include omega-3 oils, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, gut health/biome and blood glucose control.

Rest assured, acupuncture can safely and effectively be used alongside other interventions like counselling or anti-depressant medication.

Please do contact me if you would like to discuss anything further. Below you will find the results of recent research, some into acupuncture for depression, and some which suggests worthwhile self-help measures. The research varies in quality, but systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials are generally considered to provide the highest quality evidence. If you would like to read more about evidence quality, I would refer you to the British Acupuncture Council’s description of the evidence pyramid.

Scientists at the University of Bern for example, published a paper(2) confirming the benefits of exercise for patients with depression.

Men and women seem to be affected by differing external factors too: research (3) suggests men are more affected by work, financial stress and living in a deprived area, whereas for women, relationship issues are more of a risk factor.

We also nowadays consider whether inflammation might lie to some extent and in some cases, behind depression: scroll down below to my 2018 article on the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet.

(1) World Health Organization Fact Sheet, 13 September 2021. 
(2) Effects of Exercise on Anxiety and Depression Disorders: Review of Meta-Analyses and Neurobiological Mechanisms. CNS & Neurological Disorders-Drug Targets, 2014.

(3) Men’s depression is fuelled by different stressors to women, study finds. World Economic Forum, 17 December 2019.

Acupuncture helps Perimenopausal Depression

Acupuncture in Exeter: acupuncture helps perimenopausal depression A systematic review by university research teams in Australia and China, suggests acupuncture alone or combined with standard care, is associated with significant improvements in perimenopausal depression. A total of 25 randomised controlled trials, involving 2213 women, were examined. The benefits of acupuncture were maintained at 2, 4 and 12 week follow-ups.

The team concludes that in comparison with standard care, acupuncture alone or combined with standard care was associated with significant improvements in depression and reductions of other menopausal symptoms. This finding suggests that acupuncture may be a useful addition to treatment.

(Acupuncture as an Independent or Adjuvant Management to Standard Care for Perimenopausal Depression: A Systematic Review & Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 28 May 2021.)

Acupuncture Combined with Antidepressants is Effective

Acupuncture combined with antidepressants is effective. Acupuncture combined with antidepressants, is more effective for improving depression than antidepressants alone, reports an international team from the US and China. Sixty patients aged 18 to 70 with moderate depression were randomly assigned to receive either acupuncture (including some electroacupuncture) plus antidepressants, or just antidepressants alone. Acupuncture was given three times a week for eight weeks, with follow up for four further weeks.

Compared with the control group, the acupuncture group showed lower depression symptom scores at week 4 (17 versus 26), week 8 (10 versus 25), and week 12 (11 versus 27). Patients also had their urine screened for key metabolites. The significant differences found between the two groups, suggest say the researchers, that acupuncture may help depression by acting on metabolic pathways associated with neurotransmitter production.

(The effect of acupuncture on depression and its correlation with metabolic alterations: A randomized controlled trial. Medicine (Baltimore), 23 October 2020.)

Exercise benefits Depression

Acupuncture in Exeter: exercise benefits depression. Exercise benefits depression and can prevent its development, according to a major review by the Federal University of Santa Maria in Brazil and King’s College London. Highlights of the study include:

– Physical activity can confer protection from the development of depression in children and adults. These effects are observed across all continents.
– A robust body of evidence from randomised controlled trials demonstrates that exercise is effective in treating depression.
– The type of exercise should fit personal preferences, and be enjoyable or challenging eg training to achieve a 5km run. It would be a mistake to prescribe say, gym sessions for everyone.
– Encouraging patients to exercise with friends or family may increase the chances of treatment success, and the subsequent adoption and maintenance of exercise.
– The dropout rate in exercise trials for people with depression is about 18%. By comparison, that from psychotherapy is about 19% while that from SSRI medication (eg prozac, citalopram) is about 26%.
– Just like other interventions, exercise may not work equally for all.
– Evidence of the effectiveness of exercise is substantial and growing fast. Despite this, only some guidelines have included physical activity and exercise among recommended strategies for depression.

(The Role of Exercise in Preventing and Treating Depression. Current Sports Medicine Reports, August 2019.)

Mediterranean Diet Associated with Lower Rates of Depression

Mediterranean Diet and depression. A systematic review undertaken by researchers at University College, London, suggests an association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and lower rates of depression. A total of 41 studies were included in the review. An array of dietary approaches were covered by the studies, but the most compelling link was that between the Mediterranean diet and depression. An anti-inflammatory diet was also associated with lower rates of depression.

Although the link has not yet been proven as causal, the authors speculate on possible biological mechanisms. These include the microbiome-gut-brain axis which is now believed to play a key role in neuropsychiatry.

(Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Molecular Psychiatry, on-line 26 September 2018.)