How Traditional Oriental Medicine Treats Depression
The recent COVID-19 pandemic, with its shocking range of associated illnesses, frequent deaths, and extensive lockdowns on everyday life, led to a sharp increase in mental health concerns around the world. The World Health Organization cited a 25% spike in rates of worldwide anxiety and depression.
What impact did Traditional Oriental Medicine—known for its practices of acupuncture, healthy diet, herbal therapy, meditation, physical exercise, and massage—have in alleviating these often-debilitating conditions?
Yin and Yang
Traditional Oriental Medicine is associated with and influenced by the ancient Taoist concept of Yin and Yang.
The Yin Yang symbol is familiar to many, yet its profound meaning often remains elusive. Representing the concept of duality, Yin and Yang encompass the entirety of the universe. These contrasting yet interconnected energies are mutually dependent, just as day emerges as night recedes, and vice versa.
Symbolically, white embodies Yang, while black embodies Yin. Intriguingly, within Yin, there resides a touch of Yang, and within Yang, a trace of Yin. This interplay signifies the potential for transformation, with Yin morphing into Yang and vice versa under specific conditions. In a harmonious state, Yin and Yang undergo constant, balanced changes.
However, when imbalances arise, four distinct conditions manifest:
Excess of Yin
Excess of Yang
Deficiency of Yin
Deficiency of Yang
Imbalances in these aspects can lead to the onset of disease.
Restoring the Balance of Yin and Yang in the Body
Traditional Oriental Medicine adopts the Yin Yang concept to restore equilibrium within individuals, promoting health and wellness. When Yin and Yang achieve harmony, the mind, body, emotions, and spirit adapt well to external circumstances.
When Yin and Yang achieve harmony, the mind, body, emotions, and spirit adapt well to external circumstances.
The human body's various components can be classified as Yin or Yang, reflecting their inherent qualities:
Yang - Yin
Hot - Cold
Exterior - Interior
Active - Stationary
Function - Structure
Immaterial (e.g., thought and emotion) – Material (e.g., physical)
Qi (body’s vital energy) - Blood and Body Fluids
Upper Body - Lower Body
Back - Front
The body encompasses five major Yin organs: lungs, spleen, heart, kidneys, and liver. Their corresponding Yang counterparts are the large intestine, stomach, small intestine, urinary bladder, and gallbladder, respectively. Qi (pronounced “chee”)—the body's vital energy—and blood flow throughout, nourishing and fortifying these organs.
When the delicate balance of Yin and Yang is disrupted, various aspects of the body can be affected. Trained Traditional Oriental Medicine practitioners possess the knowledge to identify and restore this balance through the use of acupuncture and herbal medicine.
Acupuncture and Depression
Acupuncture involves the precise placement of single-use filiform needles on key locations called acupuncture points. Practitioners develop personalized point prescriptions targeting imbalanced organ meridian systems, using acupuncture to reinstate harmony within the body.
Depression is a complex issue and should not be self-diagnosed or self-treated.
Oftentimes, they will also utilize herbal medicine to enhance the treatment. A 2015 review examined the mechanisms of action in some of the commonly used herbs, such as ginseng, that practitioners typically use to help with depressive symptoms. However, as will be shown further in this article, depression is a complex issue and should not be self-diagnosed or self-treated. It is especially important when dealing with herbs to consult a licensed practitioner to properly prescribe an herbal medication.
Approaches to Managing Depression
In the realm of Traditional Oriental Medicine, mental and physical health hinges upon the quality, volume, and unimpeded movement of Qi and blood. Mental disorders, such as depression, can arise from disruptions in the spirit due to constrained Qi flow, suppressing the spirit of the different organs. However, depression can also result from deficiencies in Qi, blood, Yin, or Yang.
Each Yin organ is associated with a representative spirit or mental aspect, which may be affected when imbalances occur:
Heart - Shen: Responsible for mental activity, perception, conscious awareness, and the ability to experience emotions.
Liver - Hun: Associated with creativity, intuition, the unconscious mind, and the ability to plan and persevere.
Lungs - Po: Aids in developing a sense of self and establishing clear boundaries.
Spleen - Yi: Responsible for concentration and the ability to focus on simple tasks.
Kidneys - Zhi: Associated with memory, motivation, ambition, willpower, and stability during times of change or adversity.
Depression can be categorized as an excess or deficient type under Traditional Oriental Medicine. The excess type is often attributed to stagnant Qi caused by factors like improper diet, unprocessed anger, lack of movement, or exercise. On the other hand, the deficient type arises from insufficient Qi, blood, Yin, or Yang due to overwork, exhaustion, inadequate sleep, or inherent weakness in one or more organs.
To effectively address depression, practitioners focus on identifying the root cause.
In a study involving 755 depression patients, there was a significant reduction in the severity of depression when both acupuncture and counseling were utilized.>
For Qi-constrained depression, the treatment principle involves promoting Qi movement through exercise and resolving emotional trauma. For deficiency-type depression, the treatment aims to address the specific weaknesses presented by the individual, as treatment strategies are tailored to each person's unique needs. In a study involving 755 depression patients, there was a significant reduction in the severity of depression when both acupuncture and counseling were utilized. As such, in all cases of depression, combining Traditional Oriental Medicine with therapy allows patients to address unresolved emotional issues and better supports the overall treatment.
It is worth noting that depression may present alongside other symptoms such as fatigue, menstrual disorders, sleep problems, breathing difficulties, or weakness. These signs are particularly characteristic of deficiencies in Qi, blood, Yin, or Yang. Pain is typically associated with Qi constraint but may also manifest in deficiency conditions.
In recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the number of patients seeking assistance for mental health. While anxiety-related cases have predominated in the authors’ patients, fellow practitioners have reported an increase in depression cases in the same clinic. Regardless of the specific condition or the situation, the treatment principle remains consistent: identifying the root cause and tailoring the treatment accordingly.
Many of the authors’ patients have faced challenges in accessing timely primary care, with wait times extending to weeks, and in some cases, months. According to the 2022 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times and Medicare and Medicaid Acceptance Rates, the average wait time to see a physician in 2022 was twenty-six days across five specialties in fifteen US cities.
Encouragingly, a bibliometric analysis conducted in 2021 reveals a growing interest in acupuncture as a treatment for depression, as evidenced by an increasing number of publications from 2011 to 2020 (except for one decrease in 2016 to 2017). One can infer that, given how difficult it is to see primary care physicians in a timely manner, people are seeking alternative means of treatment.
Hope for a Holistic Future
Traditional Oriental Medicine offers a holistic approach to managing depression by restoring the delicate balance between Yin and Yang energies. By recognizing the interplay of these dual forces within the body, practitioners aim to harmonize the mind, body, emotions, and spirit, allowing individuals to thrive. Acupuncture and herbal medicine serve as powerful tools in this endeavor, enabling practitioners to restore balance and promote wellness.
While challenges persist in accessing timely care, the growing interest in acupuncture for depression treatment brings hope for a future where holistic approaches to mental health are readily embraced. By integrating Traditional Oriental Medicine and therapy, individuals can embark on a journey of healing, addressing not only the physical aspects but also the emotional and spiritual components of their well-being.
*Yuka Sakai is an alumnus of Wongu University of Oriental Medicine, currently studying for her board exams to be a licensed Oriental Medicine Doctor in the state of Nevada.
*Sang Hyun Lee, DAOM OMD, is a President of Wongu University of Oriental Medicine in the state of Nevada, and Oriental Medical Doctor in Nevada.
Maciocia, G. (2009). The Psyche in Chinese Medicine: Treatment of Emotional and Mental Disharmonies with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs. Churchill Livingstone.
Maciocia, G. (2015). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text. Elsevier.
Xinnong, C. (Ed.). (1999). Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Foreign Languages Press.