Acupuncture and depression, mental health

by Helen Smallwood, acupuncturist, Shaftesbury Clinic

This blog post will concentrate on the use and research regarding acupuncture and mental health, and with a particular focus on depression.

Acupuncture is known by many as being holistic, which means it looks at the workings of the body and the mind overall in an integrated way, as opposed to seeing them as separate entities. Some people are surprised when I tell them acupuncture can be very beneficial for mental health as their first impression is that acupuncture is a very physical therapy and they are mainly associating it with its uses for pain and injuries.

Acupuncture for depression came into the media’s attention fairly recently with a large, positive study, and I was asked to be interviewed for local radio regarding this and mental health. You can listen to the interview here.

Media interest

There has been a great deal of research into acupuncture and depression, the most recent of which was the “Acupuncture, Counselling or Usual care for Depression (ACUDep) Trial” at York University (2013). This was a large trial (755 patients) over three years. They were allocated randomly to a) 12 weekly acupuncture sessions, b) 12 weekly counselling sessions (a and b were in addition to usual GP care), or c) usual GP care only. The researchers found that both acupuncture and counselling significantly reduced depression at 3 months when compared to usual care alone. This suggests acupuncture is an effective adjust to usual care for depression. This was a well-run trial, (a randomised controlled trial which is the gold standard of medical research). This was also commented on in the British Medical Journal (BMJ): “Adding acupuncture or counselling to usual care hastens improvement in persistent depression” (ref: Torjesen I. BMJ. 2013 Sep 25; 347:f5789. Epub 2013 Sep 25.)

Studies and research

There are numerous other examples of studies, the above is a recent and well-conducted one. The theories behind acupuncture that most people are aware of, are the ancient Eastern philosophies of energy and balance, whereby acupuncture originated in China, and was also developed in Japan, Korea and other neighbouring countries, and gradually spread around the globe.

Acceptance by the medical authorities

However, what many people don’t realise is the that there is increasing understanding of acupuncture from the Western Medical perspective, with a great deal of scientific research being carried out, and the rigour of the research is increasing all the time.  For some particular conditions the NHS now recommends acupuncture in the NICE guidelines, which shows increasing mainstream acceptance.

Brain effects seen in scans

There have been a lot of studies looking at how acupuncture affects the brain, using functional MRI scans, and also on how it affects hormones and neurotransmitters in the blood  and nervous system.  Acupuncture is clearly shown to alter and balance these systems in repeated scientific studies.


All about neurotransmitters – our chemical messengers for mood

The theories around acupuncture for depression come from research showing acupuncture can alter brain chemistry and increase serotonin production (which is lowered in depression), and acupuncture is also known to increase endorphins (the body’s feel-good hormones) in the nervous system and brain, which may improve mood.

It’s also thought that acupuncture’s effect on other chemical messengers like dompamine, noradrenaline, neuropeptide and cortisol (the stress hormone) may also come into play.  In particular, it is known that acupuncture can lower cortisol (the stress hormone) which may make it beneficial for anxiety also.  Acupuncture has been shown to down-regulate the areas of the brain responsible for pain, stress, anxiety and worry in studies (again, I can give more examples and references if you like).

Sleep like a baby?

There is also some very compelling evidence on acupuncture for sleep and insomnia, which can have a large impact on mental wellbeing. As acupuncture is complementary, it can be combined with other treatment and medication, there are no side-effects and it is a very safe and minimal form of treatment.

More news

Other newsworthy pieces have come to light recently, including how the US Army is using acupuncture for veterans returning home with PTSD and brain injuries, to a very good effect PTSD in Veterans – Acupuncture research

That’s just a taster…

If you would like to read in more detail and explore this subject, you may wish to start with the pages I curate, where I gather and review research, news and information from journals, news and other sources) perhaps starting here:

Talk to us

Don’t forget, we are always happy to talk to you about what we do, and to answer your questions. By phone, email or in person, you can book a call-back or free 20 minute consultation to find out us and our clinic, and whether acupuncture is for you.

Links, references and resources:

British Acupuncture Council on Acupuncture and Depression : BAcC Factsheet Depression

Xu, Z. R. Sun, L. P. Li, Effects of acupuncture on the hypothalamuspituitary-adrenal axis in the patient of depression. Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion. 2004;24:78-80.

W. Sun, L. Wang, Influence of acupuncture on HPAA in a rat model of chronic stress-induced depression. Shanghai Journal of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. 2007;26:32-34

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