Complementary and alternative therapies are gaining favor with the general public as they search for treatments that do not cause dangerous side effects or have the potential for addiction as some prescription drugs do. A new treatment for seasonal affective disorder is acupuncture, a health system developed in China over 3,000 years ago. If used, acupuncture for seasonal affective disorder should be an add-on to more conventional medicine, not a substitute.
The Theory of Acupuncture
According to acupuncturists, all illnesses, including mental illness such as seasonal affective disorder, are thought to be caused by an imbalance of the body’s twin energies, known as Yin and Yang. By inserting hair-thin needles in energy points known as meridians, the body’s energy flow will become realigned. However, many acupuncturists also recommend lifestyle changes such as dieting and exercise and do not rely on the needles alone.
Skaya Abbate, a medical sociologist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine at the Southwest Acupuncture College in the US, recommends treatments to begin in the summer at least once or twice a week. These sessions last from late summer to the end of winter. One-inch needles are inserted into the pineal gland in between the eyebrows and in both heels which are known to stimulate kidneys.
Abbate reports that many patients speak of feeling uplifted and happy when the needle is inserted into their pineal glands. Another common feeling during acupuncture sessions is sleepiness. Needles are rarely felt, but if they are, the sensation is similar to a bee sting. The needles may be gently moved by the practitioner or the needles may be hooked up to an extremely mild electric current.
But Does It Work?
Acupuncture needles are thought to trigger a release of endorphins by the brain. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are natural opiates that make a person feel good. Although practitioners of alternative medicine highly praise acupuncture for seasonal affective disorder, there is very little scientific evidence that backs up this praise. Although studies have been conducted on how acupuncture can help depression, there have not yet been any reputable peer-reviewed studies specifically for SAD.
In the instances where acupuncture for seasonal affective disorder does work It is not known which part of the treatment is responsible for lifting a SAD sufferer’s spirits. Is it the needles or the dieting and exercise recommended? Could it just be the placebo effect, where the patient gets better because he or she expects to get better? No one knows.
The Mayo Clinic claims that acupuncture “may” work – but also that it may not. Acupuncture is not recommended by the National Institutes of Mental Health for SAD, although the alternative practices of taking melatonin and using a light box are.
Acupuncture sessions are also expensive and time-consuming, making them impractical for many people. According to an article in the Los Altos Town Crier, one licensed acupuncturist, Annie Wang even gave this prescription to one SAD patient: go on a vacation to a warm climate. Her patient went to Hawaii in the winter and according to Wang, this worked.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder for Dummies.” Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. and Charles H. Elliot, Ph.D. For Dummies; 2007.
“The Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Classical Points for a Contemporary Condition.” Skya Abbate, DOM. “Acupuncture Today.” Vol. 4, Issue 4; April, 2003.
Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal Depressive Disorder (SAD): Alternative Medicine.” https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=alternative-medicine
National Institutes of Mental Health. “Properly Timed Light, Melatonin Lift Winter Depression By Syncing Rhythms.” May 1, 2006. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2006/properly-timed-light-melatonin-lift-winter-depression-by-syncing-rhythms.shtml
Los Altos Town Crier. “Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Erin Goknar. Dec. 15, 2010. https://www.losaltosonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22906&Itemid=128