Depression, also called major depression, major depressive disorder and clinical depression, is a medical illness that involves the mind and body, affecting how a person feels, thinks and behaves. It is characterized by low moods and a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. Other symptoms may include preoccupation or over-thinking, irritability or frustration, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, poor concentration and memory, withdrawal from social situations, reduced sex drive, and insomnia, as well as fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, reduced appetite (or in some cases increased appetite), and an agitated or lethargic behaviour.

About 16% of adults in Canada will experience depression at some point in their lives, with women being twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. The risk of depression is increased with certain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, cardiovascular illnesses, and the first year after childbirth. Depressed individuals have shorter life expectancies than those without depression, in part because of greater susceptibility to medical illnesses and suicide.

The understanding of depression has evolved over the centuries. Although the causes are still not yet fully understood, a variety of factors are believed to be involved. These include biological differences (people with depression appear to have physical changes in their brains), the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, the body’s balance of hormones, genetics, early childhood trauma, and major life events such as the loss of a loved one or high stress. The most common treatments for depression are psychotherapy, anti-depressant medication, and electroconvulsive therapy, used only as a last resort.

Acupuncture is an excellent option for the treatment of depression, as it is very effective in both relieving the symptoms and in resolving the condition with continued treatments, and without negative side effects. Chinese medicine (TCM) takes a much different approach to depression and focuses much more on the overall functioning of the body and how the various organs and systems are working in relation to each other. According to TCM, there are different causes and mechanisms for depression in different people. For some people it has to do with mental-emotional causes such as continued stress, frustration or worry. Other factors can be either too much or too little exercise and activity. Or it may be due to other diseases in the body, or age or body type. In others it may be faulty diet or lifestyle factors.

By identifying the particular pattern of depression, an acupuncturist can effectively diagnose and treat the depression based on each person’s unique causes and symptoms. This allows for a very effective treatment that is catered to the individual’s needs, from using the appropriate acupuncture points to diet and lifestyle recommendations that can support healing. Acupuncture, particularly when combined with Chinese herbal formulas, is a very effective treatment option for depression and can help a person to regain their lost health and recover from the debilitating symptoms of depression. It can be used as a complement to conventional depression treatments, or as an effective alternative.

Like other chronic conditions such as diabetes, depression is a complex condition that takes time to develop in the body and is caused by many factors. For this reason, there really is no “quick fix”, whether tackling it with acupuncture and Chinese medicine, medications, counseling, or some combination of these. Acupuncture takes time to have an effect on chronic conditions, and the body takes time to heal.

For this reason, it is important to be committed to the healing process, to be patient with our body as it takes time to heal, and to expect some bumps along the way as we are faced with life’s stresses. Typically with acupuncture a series of treatments is needed, on a regular schedule over the course of a few months to achieve lasting results. While depression can be a disabling condition which adversely affects a person’s family, work or school life, sleeping and eating habits, and general health, there is hope that we can regain both our health and our happiness.

James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC. He can be reached at www.okanaganacupuncture.com.