Acupuncture for Depression

Most people feel a bit miserable from time to time, but depression, or depressive illness, can involve prolonged feelings of extreme sadness which last for weeks, months or even years. It also involves a loss of self-esteem and an inability to find enjoyment in activities which previously gave satisfaction. In some cases there may be an obvious trigger of depression, for example a bereavement or loss of a job, whereas in others cases the cause is less obvious.

It is estimated that between 5 and 10% of the population are suffering from depression at any one time, and each individual in the UK has a one in five chance of having an episode of depression during their lifetime.

Other symptoms which can accompany depression include fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite (although some sufferers resort to ‘comfort eating’ and can put on weight), irritability, anxiety, loss of interest in sex, and the desire to avoid other people.

Depression and TCM

Although many people today tend to associate acupuncture with the treatment of things like back pain, it has been used in the treatment of  emotional problems, such as depression, for thousands of years. This is because in TCM the mind and the body are not seen as separate but as intimately linked. Hence we can use acupuncture points on various parts of the body, typically the arms and legs, to affect the mind.

One common problem which is part of many cases of depression is what is called in TCM ‘Qi Stagnation’. Our Qi, which in health is abundant and free-flowing,   becomes stuck. This usually happens as a result of stress or emotional frustration, especially when we have not been able to express our emotions freely, for whatever reason. This creates a vicious circle in which we feel stuck, lethargic and depressed, and our Qi becomes more stagnant. Acupuncture helps here because it is effective at restoring the smooth flow of Qi — leaving us feeling lighter and freer. Thus it gives a way out of the vicious circle, and creates an opportunity for us to begin to move forward in our life again, giving us the energy to help resolve and heal whatever is blocking our life-energy. Chi Kung exercise will also be very helpful here in promoting the return of abundantly flowing Qi.

Another factor in many cases of depression is deficiency; here it is not so much that our Qi is stuck, but rather that we have not got enough of it. Treatment here will focus on boosting the Qi, and may include tonic herbal treatments as well as acupuncture.

Whilst the initial focus of such treatments is to give us  the energy to move forward in our life, the underlying philosophy of Chinese Medicine will also inform treatment. A part of this philosophy is the idea of ’destiny’; this is not fate, but rather the idea that our task in life is to give expression to our unique individuality.  If we are doing this, we will be fulfilled and nourished by a deep well of positivity, no matter what life throws at us; if we are not doing this, we will be stuck, frustrated and depressed. Thus part of what we try to do  is to help you to rediscover your own unique individuality and find a way of giving expression to it in your life. This is, of course,  not always a straightforward matter, but as the Chinese say, ’a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Depression?

The World Health Organizationlists depression among the conditions for which acupuncture has been proved, through controlled trials, to be an effective treatment. A meta-analysis2 of randomised controlled trials involving a total of 477 patients similarly suggested that acupuncture was an effective treatment for depression and could significantly reduce the severity of the disease. A more recent trial3 demonstrated that acupuncture treatment compared favourably with counselling and standard usual care.

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1 WHO (2002):Acupuncture:  Review and Analysis of Reports of Controlled Clinical Trials.

2 Wang H. et al (2008) Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: A meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials? J Affect Disord. Dec;111(2-3):125-34.

3 MacPherson H, Richmond S, Bland M, Brealey S, Gabe R, et al. (2013) Acupuncture and Counselling for Depression in Primary Care: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLoS Med 10(9): e1001518. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001518


The Sean Barkes Clinic does not claim to cure any conventional medical disease states.  Traditional Chinese Medicine seeks to re-establish and maintain the harmonious function of the human body-mind using tried and tested principles that have been discovered and matured over millennia.  A Western medical diagnosis provides very little by way of insight in informing a Chinese Medical diagnosis.  Patients usually recognise their own condition in terms of the medical disease category that they have been given by their GP or other conventional medical practitioner.  The research presented here is merely an indication of the potential to draw parallels between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Modern Western Medicine.