*HOW* acupuncture helps depressed patients

acupuncture helps depression: cytokines

Recent research discovered that depression is not only psychiatric condition – it has a physiological manifestation in the brain. Scientists found that depressed patients have higher levels of cytokines. Cytokines are proteins which have an ability switch on inflammation in your body. These proteins can turn the brain into sickness mode – feeling down, lethargic, sleepy.

Acupuncture effective treatment for depression

This scientifically justified therapy showed promising results in patients who are diagnosed with depression, and especially, in patients with treatment resistant depression. Recent systematic review and meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture combined with antidepressant medication is effective, has an early onset of action, safe and well-tolerated over the first 6-week treatment period. Moreover, this treatment combination appears to result in greater therapeutic efficacy than SSRI therapy alone.

How acupuncture helps and why you should consider it

Previous experimental studies found that acupuncture can reduce cytokine levels in chronic headache patients. Research on rodents has shown that it can reduce cytokine levels in the brain.

One of the ways how acupuncture regulates your body is through the vagus nerve. This important nerve connects the organs with the brain. Via the Vagus nerve acupuncture can directly reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. And long term treatments can increase levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines. To achieve this benefit you need 3 or more months of regular treatment. This is not only beneficial for depression. Inflammation has been linked to heart disease, increase risk of cancer, affect your sleep, it makes it hard to lose weight, increases bone loss, damages your gums… Reducing inflammation can benefit your health significantly.

Currently there are a few theories explaining the therapeutic effects of this time-tested therapy for depressed patients. Cytokine theory is one of the most promising theory explaining how acupuncture treats depression.

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Transcranial current stimulation

Brain mapping like the White Matter fibers map in the picture can be used to design transcranial therapy or cranial electro-acupuncture tretments.

There are a number of new studies on transcranial direct current stimulation and on transcranial magnetic stimulation. The newly discovered benefits of these therapies include pain relief, treatment for major depression, cognitive enhancement (including speeding up learning, creativity enhancement, and improving mathematical abilities, etc.).

Are these new transcranial therapies really novel? The treatment seems to be strikingly similar to scalp electro acupuncture, which has been used safely and effectively for decades.

We have numerous studies supporting scalp acupuncture for treatment of conditions such as

Acupuncture is much cheaper compared to transcranial therapies

  • US$300 is a cost of a typical transcranial magnetic stimulation session
  • NZ$70 (US$57) cost of a typical acupuncture session in New Zealand

As brain mapping techniques are becoming more accessible and we’re getting a better understanding of the human brain. This opens opportunities to design new treatments for numerous other conditions with electro-acupuncture, transcranial current stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The image: mapping of the White Matter fibers

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Acupuncture interferes with the mechanism of stress

acupuncture stress mechanism

Acupuncture is great at reducing stress. Even the patients who are seeing me  for treatment of other health issues with acupuncture such as infertility report reduced anxiety. One of the first things they often notice is that sleep improves and they experience reduced irritability. They feel more relaxed at work and at home.

Even though we had viable theories how and why acupuncture helps stress, we know very little about what exactly happens on the cellular level. Researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center made a major contribution to understanding how acupuncture helps. They discovered that acupuncture interferes with the very mechanism of stress. It  blocks the chronic, stress-induced elevations of the HPA axis hormones and the sympathetic NPY pathway. Read more


Acupuncture for post-stroke depression


Depression and anxiety after stroke are common and affect about a third of stroke survivors. While acupuncture to help stroke recovery has been well researched and recognised, specific studies to show acupuncture to treat post stroke depression are not as abundant. Researchers from China have searched the studies to perform an analysis and review.

They discovered that almost all of the studies compared acupuncture to using of antidepressant medications, and that acupuncture was as effective as medications, but with fewer side effects and adverse reactions.

Obviously at the early stage of the disease most of the post stroke patients will have a difficulty to travel to an acupuncturist to have treatments. But those who are lucky enough to have an acupuncturist travel to their hospital to help their stroke recovery, should remind acupuncturist to take their mental state into account when designing a treatment plan.

Acupuncture for premenstrual syndrome, a new study

Acupuncture for premenstrual syndrome

The current issue of BJOG, a leading publication in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, features a study on acupuncture and premenstrual syndrome.  In attempt to evaluate current evidence, the researchers searched for high quality studies and included 10 of them in this review.

The results showed that acupuncture is superior to all controls.  Four studies comparing the effects of acupuncture with different doses of progestin and anti-anxiety medications also supported the use of acupuncture. Acupuncture significantly improved symptoms when compared with sham acupuncture, ruling out the improvements were due to the placebo effect.

The researchers concluded that considering the potential of acupuncture, it needs to be further rigorously studied.


Depression during pregnancy and Acupuncture

Acupuncture – effective and safe treatment for pregnancy depression

I’ve written on the subject of depression and acupuncture before. Now a new and largest study to date published in Obstetrics & Gynaecology confirms acupuncture to be effective for antenatal or pregnancy depression. There are good reasons why, for the benefit of the developing babies, acupuncture becomes a mainstream therapy for this condition.

1 in 7 pregnant women may suffer the baby blues

Pregnancy depression is more common than previously thought. Now an influential body of US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women in pregnancy are screened for the condition affecting health not only of the mother, but also of the developing baby (January 26, 2016).

Why antidepressants is such a bad idea during pregnancy?

Since 2008 NZ Medsafe has been warning that SSRI antidepressant use in pregnancy may increase the risk of congenital abnormalities, and that in later stages of pregnancy can lead to neonatal complications indicative of a withdrawal syndrome, and to persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn; and that doctors need to discuss this with their patients.
Some antidepressants were considered to be relatively safe not so long ago, but there is more and more evidence confirming that any kind of antidepressants may temporary or permanently harm the developing foetus. The March 2010 issue of Pediatrics reports that antidepressants may permanently or reversibly affect fetal brain development.

Why you shouldn’t delay and address pregnancy depression as soon as it is diagnosed

Prenatal blues and stress can lead to adverse effects on the baby.

Pregnancy depression and stress can lead to adverse effects on the baby. Acupuncture is a safe effective treatment against the baby blues.

  • Many thousands of preterm births could be prevented if women diagnosed with the condition receive treatment during pregnancy.
  •  Antenatal depression and stress increase cortisol levels; this may lead to babies, who are born small and possibly smaller brains in proportion to their bodies.
  • Babies born to mothers with this debilitating condition have a blunted stress response, which may mean it is harder for them to react to stressful situations.
  • Antenatal stress can alter the structure of her offspring’s brain, particularly regions vital for emotional development [reference]
  • Antenatal depression has a long-term effect on the child. Children born to stressed mothers have shown abnormally high cortisol levels at age 10!

The bottom line? Depression during pregnancy may harm the developing foetus and so can antidepressants. Acupuncture is safe and effective treatment for antenatal and  postnatal depression. If you are pregnant and suspect that you may be suffering from depression, remember to discuss acupuncture with your obstetrician, midwife or GP and give me a ring!

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Acupuncture for Insomnia


The largest study on acupuncture and insomnia to date found acupuncture to be more effective than orthodox sleeping medications in improving your sleep and relieving insomnia. The researchers also found that combining acupuncture with medication was more beneficial than medication alone. Acupuncture plus herbs also improved sleep better than herbs alone.

This study (meta-analysis) included 46 randomized trials and 3811 patients. It was published The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

The bottom line:

The most common solution your doctor will offer for insomnia is sleeping pills. Unfortunately the sleeping pills are addictive and their effect diminishes with time. Furthermore, sleeping pills don’t give you quality sleep and have a sedative effect, which may affect your performance during the day as well as driving. Acupuncture offers a superior alternative to sleeping medications. Acupuncture does not have the side effects of the sleeping pills and it is more effective in treatment of insomnia.


Acupuncture eases depression

If you are in New Zealand, you may have read the article on stuff.co.nz titled “Needles ease depression“. The article cites a small Australian study, which shows that acupuncture can effectively relieve severe depression. A quick web search has shown that the results of this particular study, even though quite dramatic, are still preliminary. The study is not completed yet.

I did a bit more digging in medical databases online and found another study published earlier this year in Journal of affective disorders. This study is a meta analysis (which is quite a lot higher up on the evidence based medicine hierarchy ladder).

The researchers reviewed and summarised results of eight randomised controlled trials. They confirmed that acupuncture significantly reduced the severity of depression, which was indicated by decreased scores of Hamilton rating scale for depression (HAMD) or Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).