Treatment plans for depression often include medication coupled with psychotherapy. Unfortunately, antidepressant drugs can trigger side effects, including weight gain and reduced libido. Some may even cause life-threatening interactions with certain foods.
As a result, some depression sufferers have turned to acupuncture as an effective, well-tolerated and safe alternative to prescription medication.
The possible side effects of antidepressants are troublesome because so many people take these medications. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one of every 10 Americans age 12 and older is on an antidepressant.
In addition to causing side effects, some medications have been found to have no advantage over placebo preparations. “There’s a lot of mythology about antidepressants. Many of them don’t work and they often may do more harm than good,” says Arya Nielsen, PhD, director of the acupuncture fellowship at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Department of Integrative Medicine at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing in New York City.
Antidepressants increase levels of a serotonin in the brain, which regulates mood. Side effects occur when other processes also normally regulated by serotonin also become affected, according to a recent study in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology. Digestive distress, developmental problems in infants and compromised sexual function can occur as a result.
Acupuncture helps alleviate depression through its ability to move energy through meridians, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press). Meridians may be described as highways within the body for an energy called qi. When qi becomes blocked or deficient, depression and a lack of energy can result. “In Chinese medicine, a person who is experiencing depression is said to have had their ‘fire go out.’ This means their fiery, happy, vivacious qi is depleted, and treatment is aimed at replenishing their fire,” explains Steelsmith.
Acupuncture also appears effective in reducing depression during pregnancy, according to a study presented to the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Depression during pregnancy raises concern because it affects both mother and child; about 20% of pregnant women show increased signs of depressed mood. In this study, participants had 12 acupuncture sessions over eight weeks. Those who received treatment saw a greater drop in symptom severity—without side effects—compared with the control group.
Developing a working relationship with traditional physicians is often key to finding a solution that works best for the patient, says Jamie Starkey, LAc, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. If the patient’s doctor agrees, Starkey works to taper the patient off their medications. “Some patients may not be able to taper off completely but they may be able to lower their dosage,” she says.
Length of treatment often depends on the severity of the depression. “People with low grade, mild to moderate depression are the best candidates for acupuncture therapy,” says Steelsmith. “Also those who experience depression from overwork or exhaustion can benefit greatly.”
Acupuncture isn’t a quick fix, notes Steelsmith, who recommends several sessions once or twice a week for a total of at least six treatments; some patients may require a few sessions before they see a noticeable difference. “Acupuncture is a type of medicine that builds the body’s energy slowly,” Steelsmith says. “Each treatment builds on the last, ultimately bringing the patient closer to the balance that they’re trying to achieve.” (Proper nutrition and hydration also help.)
Many patients actually feel energy shifting during an acupuncture session. Sharkey says, “Some say it’s like electrical currents coursing throughout their body, other feel as if they’re floating or sinking, but most of them describe the sensation as ‘weird.’” Not everyone responds. Sharkey cites a 20% non-response rate but says, “Some people may simply respond to a different style of acupuncture.”
Although Chinese-style acupuncture is most widely known, others exist. For example, Korean acupuncture often focuses on the hands. “The entire body can be mapped out on the hand in ‘microsystems,’” explains Sharkey, with each part of the hand representing a different part of the body. Not everyone responds the same to each style.
You can find a practitioner through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Except for California, which has its own licensure examination, all states accept the NCCAOM certification. Ask how many years of experience the practitioner has and if they’ve treated depression with acupuncture, suggests Steelsmith. “It’s also important to have a good rapport with your acupuncturist.”