Depression

Can Acupuncture Treat Depression?

The alternative practice may be able to replace medication or alleviate its side effects

Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4
Jun 12, 2014 |By Tori Rodriguez and Victoria Stern

A growing number of people are seeking alternatives to antidepressant medications, and new research suggests that acupuncture could be a promising option. One new study found the traditional Chinese practice to be as effective as antidepressants, and a different study found that acupuncture may help treat the medications’ side effects.

In acupuncture, a practitioner inserts needles into the skin at points of the body thought to correspond with specific organs. Western research suggests the needles may activate natural painkillers in the brain; in traditional Chinese medicine, the process is believed to improve functioning by correcting energy blocks or imbalances in the organs.

A study published last fall in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that electroacupuncture—in which a mild electric current is transmitted through the needles—was just as effective as fluoxetine (the generic name of Prozac) in reducing symptoms of depression. For six weeks, patients underwent either electroacupuncture five times weekly or a standard daily dose of fluoxetine. The researchers, the majority of whom specialize in traditional Chinese medicine, assessed participants’ symptoms every two weeks and tracked their levels of glial cell line–derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), a neuroprotective protein. Previous studies have found lower amounts of GDNF among patients with major depressive disorder, and in other research levels of the protein rose after treatment with antidepressant medication.

After six weeks, both groups showed a similar improvement in symptoms, and both treatments restored GDNF to a normal concentration. But the acupuncture began to work faster, reducing symptoms more dramatically at weeks two and four than the drug did. Among the patients who got better, a higher percentage of the acupuncture recipients showed “great improvement.”

These findings add to a growing body of research suggesting acupuncture may be useful for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, anxiety and nausea. — Tori Rodriguez