Acupuncture, TCM and Depression

Acupuncture and Depression, Margate Florida

By Susan Tretakis – When Simon and Garfunkel released this song in 1966, I was enough of an English-major nerd to know it was based on a poem written by Edwin Arlington Robinson in 1897. It is a cautionary tale about admiring someone else and being misled by appearances. Today, the poem stays with me, shocking in its clarity about the dangers of depression.

I have danced with depression my whole life. My father was diagnosed with depression as was his mother. I’m open about my journey with depression, a journey supplemented by my graduate and post graduate education, my own treatments with behavioral counseling, and yes, treatment with various psychotropic drugs. Depression is not an easy road to walk. But I will say that without a doubt, both Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine have helped me in ways that neither psychotropic drugs nor counseling managed to accomplish.

The National Institute of Mental Health tells us that “depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating and working. To be diagnosed with depression, symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.”

As a mental health practitioner, I find this definition somewhat offensive.  Does two weeks justify the use of psychotropic drugs that may force a rewiring of one’s brain? Add to this that antidepressants take time – usually 2 to 6 weeks – to work on an individual and may cause other physical concerns, such as disordered sleep, digestion, appetite and concentration – I have to step back – take a breath – and wonder.

I am not dismissing anyone who is under a medical professionals’ care for depression; what I am suggesting – as someone who has personally been through years of “talk therapy” and a variety of prescribed medicines, that there is an alternative. It takes some independent research – some realistic thought as well as time to research alternative treatments for depression. Each of us needs to become our own advocate; for me, my depression has been greatly reduced – far more than when I was “blunted” from the realities of life by prescriptive drugs – by both acupuncture and Chinese herbs.

In fact, I am suggesting that those under the care of a mental health practitioner may still benefit from both Acupuncture and herbal therapy. Recent research tells us “mild to moderate depression responds extremely well to Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment, which may be combined with conventional medication or used alone under proper supervision. In severe depression, TCM modalities may be used to enhance conventional therapy. Recent studies suggest that acupuncture has the most immediate effect working with Western treatments.”

Western medicine tends to treat the disease. Admittedly, our culture tends to demand “quick fixes”. We want the symptoms gone. Chinese medicine differs from Western medicine in that it treats the individual and not the disease.

For me, the beauty of Chinese medicine is that acupuncture and herbs work together to create something larger than treatment with individual medications.

“Acupuncture, herbs, dietary therapy, qi gong, and tai chi are all useful for treating depression. No matter if you choose acupuncture or herbs, or use them both, one should always be eating healthfully and exercising. Chinese dietary therapy can help identify the best foods for a particular constitution. Qi gong and tai chi are gentle ways to learn how to move energy in your own body. Another concept in Chinese medicine is the importance of opening our sensory orifices, the portals of perception, so we can see and taste and hear the world in a different and healthier way. In this case, one can use incense, chanting, voice therapy, sound therapy, and visualizations to help move out of depression.”

In other words, there are a variety of drug-free ways to return to return to ourselves.

“Depression can be described as stagnant energy within the body. This stagnation can create imbalances that lead to symptoms of depression, such as an inability to focus, melancholy, anger, fatigue, and a lack of inspiration. Acupuncture addresses the issue by enabling the energy to move more efficiently, balancing the organ systems and creating homeostasis. The idea is that creating balanced energy better equips a person to manage stress and steady emotions, and enables a more peaceful feeling.”

While a “balanced energy” will not make the bills disappear, put money in your bank account, settle business conflicts, or deal with the ups and downs that are part of everyday living, but neither will psychotropic medications. By bringing one back to themselves, a balanced energy will result in what I refer to as “personal empowerment”. Acupuncture, combined with Chinese herbs, both calm and strengthen my spirit. To exist in today’s world, a person needs a strong and balanced spirit.

TCM regards the body and lifestyle as a single system, but TCM doctors consider other factors in determining a treatment plan. These factors may result in supplemental recommendations regarding patient’s diet and environment, as well as meditation and exercise suggestions. Regardless of what treatments a TCM practitioner uses or prescribes during a session, the goal is to treat both body and mind.”

I am concerned that psychotropic drugs do not recognize that depression is a layered and nuanced illness.  There is “reactive depression” – sadness due to a loss of a friend or loved one, an unexpected financial issue or “chronic depression” – something that lingers and colors each and every day in varying shades of gray.

There are so many types of depression that I now find it difficult to understand how one pill can fix everything. If Traditional Chinese Medicine has taught me anything, it is the belief that the body and mind cannot be separated.   Finding the source – the root – of the depression is key to an individual’s success in overcoming depression.

“Depression affects how a person feels, thinks and behaves. Many people who suffer from depression complain of muscle pain, headache, upset digestion, fatigue, and loss of interest. TCM evaluates the entire body system, including physical conditions and emotional symptoms. Treatments are uniquely tailored to each person with the goal of healing the body and mind, as well as revitalizing the spirit.”

According to Chinese medicine, depression is mainly affected by the liver…

“Central to acupuncture practice is the total evaluation of a person’s qi, the body’s vital life energy, and how to accelerate the circulation of qi and blood through a system of specific channels running throughout the body known as “meridians”. Each meridian relates to major body organs and functions, as well as emotions. The emotions associated with loss, repressed expression, and other stressful events will cause the muscular structure surrounding the chest cavity to constrict and tighten on the lungs and heart. The chest constriction restricts the qi flow to the liver and heart, a condition diagnosed in TCM as ‘liver qi stagnation.’ Unhappiness can cause blockage which creates different symptoms. In a strong body you find irritability, anger and aggressive behavior. In a weak body, you will find persistent sadness.”

My acupuncturist diagnosed my liver qi stagnation in early 2017. Along with treatment and herbs, he explained that these negative emotions can also be affected by food. We systematically began eliminating and adding foods to strengthen my liver’s qi. Between acupuncture, herbal remedies and dietary changes, I was able to identify those times when I dipped my toe in the “depression pool”. I could tell when poor dietary choices and missed appointments raised my “liver heat” and how quickly I could cool my liver – and thus myself – down.

I will admit that there are still days, to paraphrase “Richard Corey”, that I fight life’s daily disappointments and wish that I could be someone – or somewhere – else, but those days are shorter and far more less frequent then they were in 2016.

Instead, I have embraced the wisdom in an even older, Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair.”

Together, Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine have helped make my mind and body a “No Nesting” zone.

If you are suffering with depression you owe it to yourself to explore the benefits of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Our holistic wellness center serves the communities of  Coconut Creek, Coral Springs, Margate, Tamarac, Parkland, Deerfield Beach and West Boca. Schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced, skilled acupuncture physicians today!



  1. Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center