A growing body of research suggests that acupuncture may be a safe alternative to psychiatric drugs for those suffering from depression and anxiety.
“The functional MRI studies are showing that acupuncture has an influence over brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin,” said Jamie Starkey, an acupuncturist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “And those are the chemicals that make you feel good. Those are the happy chemicals.”
Dangerous antidepressants are widely used
Antidepressants are some of the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Columbia and University of Pennsylvania and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, their use doubled between the years of 1996 and 2005.
” In recent years, scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the traditional Chinese medical therapy of acupuncture”
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But side effects are common and can be severe. Indeed, many antidepressants can actually worsen depressive symptoms and even increase a person’s risk of suicide. In addition, recent studies have called the overall effectiveness of these drugs into question. For example, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 concluded that both older (tricyclic) and newer (SSRI) antidepressants are no more effective than a placebo, and are significantly less effective than talk therapy. Notably, antidepressant drugs are least effective in patients with less severe depression, the very population in which acupuncture is most helpful.
“What we’re finding is that for these patients that are suffering from mild to moderate depression, acupuncture is just as effective as these antidepressants,” Starkey said.
Science supports acupuncture
In recent years, scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the traditional Chinese medical therapy of acupuncture, in which long, thin needles are inserted into designated locations (“meridians”) in the body, determined by the patient’s medical needs.
One study, conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in November 2006, randomly assigned 151 patients suffering from major depressive disorder either to traditional acupuncture therapy, sham acupuncture therapy (in which needles were not inserted in to the correct meridians), and no intervention. Both traditional and sham acupuncture consisted of 12 acupuncture sessions delivered at a local acupuncturist’s office over the course of eight weeks. At the end of that time, all 151 participants were treated for another eight weeks with traditional acupuncture. The researchers found that patients in both the traditional and sham acupuncture groups experienced significant improvement in their depressive symptoms.
Another study, conducted by researchers from Beijing MeiTan General Hospital in China and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2009, assigned 80 participants with major depressive disorder to be treated either with 20-30 milligrams per day of the antidepressant fluoxetine (an SSRI, more commonly known as Prozac) – the standard clinical dose – or with just 10 milligrams per day of the drug, plus five weekly acupuncture treatments.
After six weeks, the researchers found that patients in the acupuncture group showed the same improvement in depressive symptoms as those in the high-drug-dose group, plus greater improvement in anxiety symptoms and significantly fewer drug side effects.
The study suggests that acupuncture may be an appealing alternative to “depressive patients with severe anxious symptoms and/or intolerable side-effects of antidepressants,” the researchers said.
Pregnant women, who should not take antidepressants, might also benefit from using acupuncture instead, Starkey said.