Unfortunately, while the appalling suicide statistics were a constant reminder that the old fashioned macho strategy wasn’t really working, it took a long time for these ingrained attitudes to change. Even with the available modern medical technology, the functioning of the brain still remains partly uncharted territory and mental health is often very difficult to treat. Now that this problem is finally getting the attention it deserves I would like to look at an alternative form of treatment that is available beyond counselling and medications.
According the Chinese medical theory, all the organs in the body have a spiritual aspect, which is called the Shen, or the spirit. When the Shen is strong, the emotions are kept in harmony, and we are able to look at life in a positive way. When it is deficient, we get overwhelmed and emotional problems soon start to appear. The most common type of depression is a deficiency pattern with symptoms such as fatigue, poor appetite, lack of energy and poor concentration. According to our framework, this can the result of a deficient blood flow and lack of Qi energy to specific organs, in particular the liver and the spleen.
In the case of bipolar depression which is characterised by emotional swings with huge highs and lows, a mixture of both excess and deficiency patterns has to be addressed. The insertion of fine needles and activation of specific acupuncture points on the body is aimed at rectifying these imbalances by regulating the flow of energy through the meridians. But how does it really work?
Looking from a Western point of view, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and affect the release of neurotransmitters, which are mood regulators. Unfortunately, the effects of acupuncture are notoriously very difficult to assess in a conventional scientific manner, since it is very difficult to conduct double blind studies with sham acupuncture where the placebo effect can be totally eliminated. This has proved to be a formidable obstacle to overcome.
While Oriental medicine was able to cure many diseases and successfully treat over a third of the world’s population for many centuries, being unable to scientifically prove its therapeutic effects has stopped it being accepted by the Western medical community. Luckily, this is beginning to change. We have now moved beyond the placebo effect theory, and reputable medical journals are now asserting its efficacy for a wide range of disorders, including depression.
In 2010, Dr Quah Smith from the University of New South Wales, Sydney (UNSW) conducted an experiment where volunteers received acupuncture treatments while under an MRI machine that recorded their brain activity. To avoid the placebo effect, a form of laser acupuncture, which could be dialled to a level that didn’t produce any skin sensation in the control group, was used. The MRI records later clearly showed areas of the cerebral cortex being activated by the needles during treatment in the active group.
Other studies have shown that acupuncture can have a specific positive effect on depression by altering the brain’s mood chemistry, increasing production of serotonin and endorphins, and by acting through the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline. Also, the stimulation of certain acupuncture points has been shown to affect areas of the brain to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, by promoting relaxation and deactivating the “analytical'” brain which is responsible for anxiety and worry.
The effects of acupuncture are quite similar to another popular Western form of treatment called Direct Current Stimulation (DCS) where electrical pads are applied to the brain. Knowing that acupuncture can produce similar neurological changes without the electrodes being applied might be a strong point in its favour.
In 2013, the University of York in Great Britain conducted a randomised controlled trial of 755 patients which clearly showed that patients suffering from depression would benefit more by having acupuncture or counselling in addition to their usual treatment protocol, compared to the single treatment strategy.
This confirmed that combining counselling and acupuncture might be, in many cases, the best approach. Even when medication has to be prescribed, the dosage and possible side effects can be significantly reduced by including the other forms of therapies. In addition, lifestyle changes, including dietary advice and exercise programs, can also make a huge difference to our mental health.
In Australia, now that funding is being provided to tackle this difficult issue, there is a wide range of advice, treatments options, and research available through the excellent Black Dog Institute at: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au and other government websites.
Olivier Lejus MHSc, BHSc is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney. www.olejusacupuncture.com
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com