Acupuncture and Depression

Note: This article was originally written for AcuTake. It is now running live, and can also be found at  

Since the warmth of summer has been slowly fading into cooler nights and shorter days, I have had a noticeable influx in patients seeking relief for depression. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence; each year I see this happening with the change of weather. In the world of TCM, fall is “Lung season.” There are five major organ systems in Chinese medicine, and each is connected to a particular emotion. Each system is also linked to a season, and this is the time when that particular organ is at its most vulnerable. Summer is Heart, Winter is Kidney, Spring is Liver, late Summer is Spleen, and Lung is Fall. The emotion of the Lung is grief and sadness, and so it makes sense that there is a certain sense of melancholy and sadness that rolls in as the leaves begin to fall.

Clinically, depression is defined as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.”  There is a wide range within the category of depression, however, and its manifestations very widely.  As a human being, I want to understand the mindset of the depressed so that I can provide the comfort and understanding they need to move forward in life. As an acupuncturist, I realize that each case of depression is specific and unique, and appropriate treatment is based on which system or systems are out of balance.

As I’ve mentioned, the Lung is the organ system connected to grief and loss. When I treat a patient with a Lung weakness, I often perceive a pervasive, gentle sadness that lingers and haunts. These are not the patients who rail loudly about their misfortunes; these are the ones who quietly suffer and can’t seem to let go of old pain. Very often, patients who have experienced unresolved grief will display physical Lung symptoms: wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and frequent colds. Interesting story: years ago, I saw a woman who was at her wit’s end with an uncontrollable racking cough that had lasted eight months. She had been through several doctors and had a multitude of tests that revealed nothing. As she coughed her way through her health intake, I asked her if she had any traumas, losses, or painful events over the last year. She couldn’t recall anything of the sort. As we moved to the treatment table, we somehow got on the topic of owning pets. She began to reminisce about her dog who had passed away…you guessed it, eight months ago. I gently inserted a few needles into acupuncture points that addressed the emotional aspect of the Lung, points that I often needle on those who are grieving. One hour later, her cough was gone, never to return.

If Lung-based depression is silent, lingering suffering, the Heart is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Heart energy is all about extremes: wild joy, and crushing lows. When someone with a Heart imbalance is happy, the entire world knows it…but when they crash (and they always do eventually), they hit hard.  Manic-depressive patients would fall into this category. For these types, there is no such thing as a middle ground. They feel emotions, both positive and negative, much more intensely than others; they can often vacillate between states of delirious happiness and deep depression.

The Spleen is all about nurturing and giving. Patients with Spleen imbalances tend to give…and give…and give…until they are completely drained and have nothing left. These types can also tend to gravitate toward obsession and compulsion. They are over-thinkers who ruminate and exhaust themselves with worry. When these patients come to my clinic complaining of depression, they quite often describe themselves as feeling emotionally “heavy” or “stagnant”. They feel stuck, as if they are plodding through cement and everything is so difficult, they can’t even begin to fathom forward movement toward something better.

The Liver is the organ associated with anger, and this anger can be directed either inward or outward. A “Livery” person who projects externally might have short patience or an explosive temper. They are rigid and structured, and might be prone to outbursts when they don’t get their way. Frequently, their depression is centered around a lack of control. For the Liver types who internalize their anger, it is often self-directed. It may come across as high expectations for oneself, an inability to cope with failure, or in its extreme, self-loathing. Liver-type depression would exhibit as depression combined with irritability and/or anxiety (think PMS).

The Kidney, in many ways, rules all. In my opinion, it is this system that holds the most responsibility for the type of depression that is so deep and boundless, all seems hopeless. The Kidney is our will, our base drive for survival. It is the gas tank; the reserve of energy that we dip into throughout the course of our lives to keep us running. Both the lifespan and the quality of life that we are given spring from the Kidney energy. The Kidney creates the will to create a path for ourselves; without it, we are left adrift and lost.

As an acupuncturist, my first responsibility to my patients is to make sure of their safety. Therapy and counseling is paramount for those suffering from depression. Once I know that this aspect is covered, I find acupuncture to be immeasurably beneficial in keeping these patients in a good place. Where there is balance, there is peace.