How Acupuncture Alleviates Depression and Benefits the Brain

Acupuncture has been instrumental in the growth of Traditional Chinese Medicine over the past 250 centuries or so. As a matter of fact, acupuncture is now being used in many western medical and healthcare settings as a core component of complementary and alternative health care models. It has been especially useful in its ability to address some of the health problems that even the most advanced scientific breakthroughs are having issues cracking. One of these is depression. And while the conventional approach to depression involves a combination of antidepressant agents and psychotherapy, acupuncture offers safer and equally effective results. Here’s how acupuncture can alleviate depression and provide additional benefits to the brain.


Acupuncture at a Glance

Shunned by western scientists and empiricists as nothing more than anecdotal evidence-based folkloric medicine, the principles of acupuncture, in reality, have sound scientific basis. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the practice of acupuncture is not entirely different from the western physiotherapy practice of dry needling wherein needles are also inserted through the skin and into the muscles at specific target sites known as myofascial trigger points. Of course, medical practitioners, physical therapists, and other members of the western medical and scientific communities will always tell you that dry needling is NOT acupuncture, and vice versa.

However, the principles are essentially the same. Both involve the insertion of sterile highly-specialised needles through the skin and into the muscles at specific trigger points. The only difference is that whereas dry needling aims to stimulate ‘nerves’, acupuncture aims to stimulate the ‘Qi’ or ‘Chi’. Both follow the same ‘regions’ of the body with acupuncture using the term ‘meridians’. Perhaps the main difference is in the interaction of the wood, fire, water, metal, and earth elements in acupuncture.

The interaction of these elements is vital to establishing balance in the body. Each of these elements represents a human emotion. Water represents fear while wood is related to anger. Metal is attributed to grief while earth represents worry. Fire, according to acupuncture principles, represents human happiness.

Depression and the Human Brain

There are many theories about depression. Some say it is a result of how we view the world, our future, and ourselves, not in a positive way but rather in a negative perspective. There are also theories of depression that puts emphasis on the behaviour of people experiencing it.

Using the biological model, however, depression can be the result of different factors including nutritional deficiencies, neuroplasticity, inflammation, hypothyroidism, and even problems in monoamine oxidase neurotransmitters. There are also those that have problems in emotional processing which is largely attributed to an issue with the neural circuits in the human brain.

In traditional Chinese medicine, depression occurs because of a problem in the liver’s ability to circulate Qi throughout the body. Problems in Qi flow through the spleen and heart can also exacerbate the symptoms seen in depression such as persistent negative thoughts, changes in sleep pattern, sense of hopelessness, agitation, exhaustion, irritability, and loss of sense of achievement and positive associations.

Acupuncture and Its Effects on Depression

Whether or not we can truly understand how the Qi flows throughout the body, one very interesting fact remains. Acupuncture is fully capable of stimulating the release of chemical neurotransmitters called endorphins in the brain. It is through the activities of these endorphins that can help mitigate if not eliminate the symptoms associated with depression.

Endorphins are neuropeptides that belong to a class of substances known as opioids. The word ‘endorphin’ is a contraction of two words: endogenous and morphine. These substances are a lot similar to the illicit substance morphine, but don’t carry addicting properties simply because endorphins are produced by the cells of the brain, spinal cord, and the pituitary gland themselves. Endorphins prevent the transmission of pain signals across the vast neural network of the brain. Moreover, it also produces a sense or feeling of euphoria which is typically defined as an intense feeling of happiness and well-being.

This is the key to the effectiveness of acupuncture in the management of depression. Studies have shown that increasing the production of natural endorphins can help improve mood and reduce the symptoms of depression. This can make the individual gain more positive outlook in life and feel happiness again.

There have been clinical studies in the past showing that a modified version of acupuncture called electroacupuncture was as effective as Prozac or fluoxetine in the management of depression especially in minimizing the various symptoms associated with the condition. While it is not the traditional acupuncture, electroacupuncture nevertheless proved that it can be as effective as conventional antidepressant medications.

There are also studies that show acupuncture can be an effective treatment for the management of side effects associated with the taking of antidepressant drugs. Individuals receiving antidepressants usually suffer from sexual dysfunction. Three months of acupuncture treatment was all that’s needed by these individuals to restore their full sexual functioning.

Acupuncturists target different acupuncture points just so they can elicit the desired response. These can include the Guanyuan, Qihai, Hegu, Taixi, Quchi, and Yanglingquan, just to name a handful. Acupuncturists insert the sterile needles into these points to help relieve the symptoms of depression.

Acupuncture can help alleviate depression by stimulating the increased production of natural endorphins. This can also have other beneficial effects such as better pain control and improvement in overall sexual functioning. In simple words, acupuncture can bring back the sunshine in the life of a depressed individual.


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