An Integrated Approach for Treating Depression

Alice, a professional woman in her forties, is one of many people who suffer from unipolar major depression which, according to the World Health Organization, is the 2nd leading cause of DALYs (Disability Adjusted Life Year — the loss of one year of healthy life) in the age category 15-44 years for both sexes combined. She was diagnosed as having major depression three years ago, and has been on an antidepressant medication since then. Although the antidepressant has helped her to even out the extreme emotional ups and downs, she still felt sad, irritable and, worst of all, had barely enough energy to get through the day. Her sleep was shallow and restless. She also experienced unpleasant side effects from the medication such as a dry mouth and sweaty, hot sensations in the body. By the time Alice came to see me, she was feeling quite unhappy about her situation and would really want to make some changes

Like many others, Alice had been searching for alternative approaches to her emotional health when conventional pharmacotherapy didn’t provide satisfactory results for her. When she came to see me, she expressed several wishes: to improve her energy, to eventually get off the antidepressants and to find a natural and effective way to help her find peace and happiness in her life. After a thorough consultation and physical check-up, I explained to her the findings according to Chinese Medicine diagnosis. We discussed our treatment plan and set up our treatment schedule. In the next month, I saw her twice a week for acupuncture treatments. I also taught her breathing exercises that were essential to help Qi (life force or energy) flow more evenly through her body. We modified her diet, taking out coffee and diary products and adding fruits that have a dark red color which were to help her to nourish her blood. One month later, her energy level improved, she could sleep soundly at night, which enhanced the quality of her life and her productivity at work, and she felt happier. Alice had her dosage of antidepressant reduced, and she continued working with me for a while to maintain the free flow of energy.

Although Chinese medicine looks at depression from a very different perspective than Western medicine, this ancient holistic healthcare method has successfully treated people’s emotional concerns for more than three thousand years. Chinese medical philosophy is based on the premise that all phenomena of life are manifestations of a unifying principle of life force, which we call “Qi”, and all manifestations of life are interconnected and interdependent. This “Qi” activates and maintains physiological, psychological and mental functions in human beings.

This theoretical premise postulates a clear connection between body and mind, which is Chinese medicine’s perspective on every health condition. Each organ system not only has certain physiological functions, but is also associated with certain emotions. The following diagram shows this mind/body relationship:

Liver energy system = anger

Heart energy system = Joy and excitement

Lung energy system = sadness

Spleen energy system = worry

Kidney energy system = fear

Under normal circumstances, emotions as manifestations of “Qi” movement do not produce any negative effects in the energy system. Only when the emotional stress is prolonged, very sudden, intense, or suppressed does it affect the balance of the whole energy system.

The Liver energy system is in charge of the body’s most important coping mechanism for emotional stressors, which means that this organ is most commonly implicated in the condition known as depression. The Liver energy system ensures constant movement and circulation, to bring fresh energy to the system and discharge noxious energy from the system, so that balance is maintained in the whole organism. If one suppresses any emotion, especially anger for a long time, the Liver energy system is affected, and energy can’t flow smoothly. When this happens, other organ systems become affected as well, which leads to physical or psychological symptoms.

For Alice, the long-suppressed anger caused stagnation in her Liver energy system, which contributed to irritability. Her Lungs’ energy system was affected as well, which led to excessive sadness. The physical symptom of lack of energy indicates that the organism can’t make use of the energy because it is blocked in negative patterns. Freeing the energy flow is extremely important to releasing negative energy patterns and restoring the balance of the whole organism. As the organ energy system starts to function properly, other physical and psychological symptoms will disappear. Although for each individual the pattern of disharmony can be very different depending on the organ systems involved, the most important principle in treating all types of depression is to help the free flow of Liver energy.

In Alice’s case, we used acupuncture treatments to improve the free flow of energy. During the treatment, I inserted very fine acupuncture needles at certain acupuncture points in her body. These points are like energy stations along energy pathways, which are known as meridians. By regulating the energy flow in the meridians, the affected organ systems’ function can be restored and whole-body energy balance can be achieved. I also prescribed herbal medicine to assist her system to restore balance and boost her energy. The main formula I used is called “Xiao Yao San” and I also added Ginseng for energy. After about 10 sessions of treatment, Alice reported that for the first time in many years she slept so soundly that she didn’t even hear her dog barking in the middle of the night and she often felt a surge of energy after each treatment.

Although Western medicine, from its allopathic point of view, can’t completely explain why acupuncture works for improving one’s emotional well-being, it is believed that acupuncture treatment stimulates secretion of certain hormones, especially endorphins, which relieve pain and can create feelings of euphoria. Acupuncture treatment is also believed to regulate the important neurotransmitters that are important for emotional well being such as Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinepherin. Numerous researches suggest that acupuncture is equally as effective in treating depression and depressive symptoms as antidepressants, and with no side effects. The most important and ground-breaking study was done at the University of Arizona. After 16 weeks of acupuncture treatment, 64 percent of the women in the test group experienced full remission according to DSM-IV criteria (Schnyer & Allen, 2001**)

If any of the following describes you, Chinese Medicine can help you with your emotional well being. Please contact us for your 15 minute complimentary consultation.

**Schnyer, R. N. and J. J. Allen. Acupuncture in the Treatment of Depression: A Manual for Practice and Research. London: Churchill Livingstone, 2001.