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Acupuncture for Depression: Does It Really Work?

When looking up depression, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes it as an “episode” lasting at least two weeks in which the person experiences a low mood or loss of interest or pleasure in practically all activities. This mood must be present in addition to at least five other symptoms, which include:

  • Sleep issues on almost a daily basis (either difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
  • Changes in appetite and weight (difference of more than 5 % 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 a plan

This is a nice and academic definition, but depression is different for everyone. Yes, there are some common experiences among people suffering from energy dips, poor spirits, and impaired desire.

Others, on the other hand, are high-functioning and adept at concealing it. Depression is distinguished by its irrationality and unpredictability.

Unlike anxiety, which tends to worsen in a linear progression, depression can swing between numbness and hopelessness; one day, you may wake up feeling nothing and lacking motivation, while the next day, you may wake up feeling everything too strongly and find yourself in a downward spiral of self-loathing.

Depression describes not only an emotional state but also the presence of impaired circulation (stagnation). This is why emotional despair and “depressed” qi/blood circulation are frequently found together.

This also explains why depression can cause physical symptoms and behavioural tendencies such as:

  • Chronic Pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • IBS & GI Disorders
  • Auto-Immune Conditions
  • Substance Dependency
  • and more…

When treating it with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, my approach varies depending on who I work with. This is because, contrary to conventional medicine, not everyone’s sadness manifests itself similarly.

So why would I approach it the same? Any two (or even ten) persons can have depression. Still, what initiates it, the primary emotion(s) and organ(s) involved, their symptoms, and exacerbating variables can all be very different.

Taking these details into account is essential for accurately diagnosing and addressing the underlying imbalance.

The following are some of the most often asked questions I receive from people who want to know if Acupuncture may help them with depression.


Acupuncture is recognised by science and allopathic medicine for its ability to treat depression by:

  • Increasing the body’s production of serotonin and endorphins—your “feel-good” hormones—naturally.
  • releasing vasodilators that relax blood vessels to reduce blood pressure and increase 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; considering the prevalence of chronic pain and depression, this discovery has prompted the American College of Physicians (ACP) to advocate Acupuncture as a therapy option before prescribing opioids.
  • Relaxing the sympathetic nervous system informs your body that it is in “crisis” mode; Acupuncture reduces this response while allowing your nervous system to relax.


Acupuncture is frequently used in conjunction with antidepressants, much to the surprise of many individuals.

Not only that but a 2015 meta-analysis and systematic review (the highest level of research because it compiles the results of every study done on the issue) found that Acupuncture improves the efficacy of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs.

Furthermore, when Acupuncture alone was compared to Acupuncture paired with SSRIs for depression, the combination was demonstrated to be more rapid-acting, safe, and effective than SSRI use alone.

So, if you’re on an antidepressant, it won’t hurt your treatment. It might help! If coming off drugs is a goal for you, as it is for some of the patients I work with, I ask that you discuss it with your prescribing clinician so that the transition may be carefully managed.


The benefits of Acupuncture for depression are well-known and include improvements in both physical health and mental/emotional attitude. However, patients have reported the following symptoms to me:

More resilience:  Improves their capacity to deal with situations that would normally overwhelm them or send them into a crisis.

Emotionally “lighter”: Sometimes, the weight of what depresses us—memories, experiences—doesn’t get a chance to escape because we hold it in. Patients describe this experience in various ways, but they all connect to a sense of relief as circulation improves and things become “unstuck.”

Better sleep quality: falling asleep more quickly or staying asleep for more extended periods without tossing and turning.

More energy: When you have depression, energy is your currency—you must know how and when to spend it properly, or you risk overdoing something, leaving you even more depleted, or you don’t accomplish anything, feeling paralysed by daily chores. I’ve had patients who couldn’t muster the energy to clean their house, take a shower, or do anything else come back to tell me that they were able to accomplish more during the day than they did before.

Improved appetite and digestion: Acupuncture, combined with individualised herbal and nutritional recommendations, can improve appetite and digestion by eliminating stagnation in the digestive organs.

Improved willpower and decision-making ability: Patients are occasionally startled by the benefit of altering the neurological system and treating the organs that govern these mental processes—they describe having their “fire back” and being able to commit to things without second doubting themselves.

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