The Science Behind Acupuncture for Depression

by Mark Whalen, L.Ac. |

The Science Behind Acupuncture for Depression

A handful of recent studies have highlighted the benefit of acupuncture in the treatment of depression. It’s important to note that these studies looked at acupuncture in conjunction with "usual care" (medications) and not as a replacement to regular treatment.

Two Recent Studies of Interest

A recent study out of the University of York in the United Kingdom demonstrated that adding acupuncture or counseling to usual care (medications) created a significant reduction in depression for patients over usual care alone. This study indicated that taking an integrative approach to treatment is better than taking medication alone. There were no adverse effects from adding the acupuncture or counseling treatment.

Another study out of Sweden showed similar results. Patients were divided into groups based on conventional therapy alone, acupuncture, or integrative treatment (conventional therapy + acupuncture). Scores on the Hospital and Depression scale decreased significantly more in the acupuncture group and the integrative group versus the conventional treatment group. Measurements were done at four and eight weeks after treatment.

My Experience With Patients & Seasonal Affective Disorder

With sunlight diminishing and days getting shorter and darker, I see a rush of people with a complaint of chronic depression, stating an increase in depressive symptoms. Patients with pre-existing depression may be more prone to a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD") during the winters.

Seasonal Affective Disorder typically occurs around the same time each year-usually in the fall and winter. It takes place when days are shorter and darker, in the times of low sunlight. While there is no specific known cause of SAD, some theories point to drops in serotonin levels, melatonin levels and a disruption of our internal clock (circadian rhythm) - all due to the changes in sunlight exposure.

Here, we have enlisted some natural remedies that tailor to depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Don't Overlook Your Vitamin D

Another potential issue is a deficiency of Vitamin D. University of Texas Southwest Medical Center conducted a study which revealed that low levels of Vitamin D leads to depressive symptoms, more commonly in people with a history of depression.”


Those patients I mentioned earlier with depression have recently been diagnosed (via blood test at their doctors) as Vitamin D deficient. I’ve written in the past about the importance of Vitamin D, but I've summarized some of the key conclusions:

  • Food sources of Vitamin D include cod liver oil, fatty fish (salmon, tuna), eggs (yolks), and dairy products. Many cereals (which I don’t suggest eating) are now enriched with Vitamin D, which means the Vitamin D is added into the product.
  • Some diets may restrict the amount of Vitamin D we get from our diet. People with lactose intolerance, ovo-vegetarians, or vegans may get limited Vitamin D through their diet. Patients with nutrient absorption difficulties (i.e. celiac patients) may have difficulty obtaining Vitamin D through their diet.
  • Obesity plays a role as well. Excess fat cells tend to store more of the vitamin and change the amount released into the blood stream.
  • When looking for a Vitamin D supplement, look for Vitamin D3 –Cholecalciferol- this is the form of Vitamin D produced from sunlight. Check labels as well to see if any additional vitamins have been added to the supplement. For example, patients using blood thinners must rethink the use of Vitamin K as it can lead to excess bleeding.
Cold, Shorter Days?  Consider a Light Boxes

Light boxes are available over the counter or online. You want to look for a light box that is specific for the treatment of SAD, as some light boxes are used for skin condition.

Your light box should emit as little UV light at possible. Look for a light box that emits white light, as the research indicates this is safer for your eyes. The light box is typically placed within 2 feet of you so look for a size/shape/style that fits your needs.  If you are thinking about getting a light box, discuss it with your doctor to see if they have any recommendations.

Exercise, Move and Exercise

Exercise has too many benefits to mention in this short space, but it is a very important piece in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Any type of exercise will do - the key is to keep moving. If you can’t make it to the gym, rush to the mall. It’s heated, plenty of space to walk, lots to look at and stairs to climb. Make the best of what’s available.

Care Consideration: Just a reminder that the above information is not a substitute for medical care and is not a substitute for medical advice or recommendations  from a healthcare provider.  This information is not intended to treat, mitigate or cure any disease.  That said, we encourage you to connect with an Acupuncturist in your community to learn more about this and other Traditional Chinese Medicine options.  If you’ve got questions about Chinese herbal medicine or getting started with an Acupuncturist, feel free to connect with us on



  3. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Nov 7;13(1):308. [Epub ahead of print]. Effects of an integrative treatment, therapeutic acupuncture and conventional treatment in alleviating psychological distress in primary care patients – a pragmatic randomized controlled trial. Arvidsdotter T, Marklund B, Taft C.

  4. Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 Nov; 86 (11): 1050-5. Association between low serum 25-hydroxyvitamin d and depression in a large sample of healthy adults: the cooper center longitudinal study. Hoang MT, Defina LF, Willis BL, Leonard DS, Weiner MF, Brown ES. Department of Psychiatry, UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, 5323 Harry Hines Blvd, MC 8849, Dallas, TX



Mark Whalen first became interested in acupuncture as a patient facing unwanted nerve surgery. Acupuncture not only resolved his issue, it changed his life, and today he is a licensed acupuncturist and certified herbalist practicing out of Massachusetts. Mark believes in integrating the traditional Chinese Medical model with a modern neuroscientific view of how acupuncture works in order to get the best results for his patients. You can learn more about Mark at

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