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Chinese medicine: how acupuncture can help

Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine can be an effective tool in treating depression. Declan Phelan explains


Acupuncture is a complex medical system that is used to diagnose and treat illness, prevent disease and improve well being. It can focus on physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual problems. It is a mind, body and spirit approach to disease. Acupuncture has been used in China and other Asian countries for over 3000 years.

In 1979 the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a list of conditions that are responsive to acupuncture, some of which concern us here. These include depression, anxiety/stress, panic attacks, tiredness/fatigue, poor sleep/insomnia, and migraine or persistent headaches.

Acupuncture is used as a mainstream form of treatment in China and Asia today, co-existing quite happily with western treatment methods.

Acupuncture is only one aspect of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It also includes such practices as herbal treatment, moxibustion and cupping. The use of Chinese medicinal herbs shares the same underlying theories and principles as acupuncture and both can be used together to speed the process of healing.

Another practice within TCM is cupping. This is a technique which stimulates acupuncture points by applying glass or bamboo suction cups to the skin. The vacuum created in the jar leads to blood congestion at the site. The cup can be moved on oiled skin without breaking the vacuum, thereby massaging the area deeply, pulling out excessive heat and enhancing the movement of energy (Qi).

Acupuncture itself involves the insertion of extremely fine, sterile needles to predetermined points, which in turn stimulate the flows of energy, known as Qi in TCM, in the body. Qi (pronounced 'chi') flows through our bodies within a system of 12 channels or meridians.

In TCM, when the flow of Qi is blocked or weakened the body becomes unbalanced. Our natural defence mechanism is now open for disease to enter. Because everything is interconnected, mind, body and spirit will be affected.

How does the free flow of Qi become blocked or weakened? Qi stagnation can be caused by injury, trauma, lifestyle, drugs, alcohol, stress, shock, fear, loss, alienation, bullying, work-related difficulties, and environmental factors (such as toxic chemicals, heavy metals, etc.), to name but a few.



In traditional Chinese medicine, opposing forces, such as heaven and earth, darkness and light, hot and cold, weakness and strength, activity and rest, represent balance. They are called yin and yang and they represent opposing forces even though they are intensely interdependent. In our lifestyles today it is sometimes easy to allow one to dominate the other.

It is the balance of energy which acupuncture restores, thereby harmonising mind, body and spirit.


Emotions and our organs

In western physiology emotional and mental processes are attributed to the brain. In Chinese medicine emotions and mental processes are interlinked with the functioning of internal organs. The relation between each organ and a particular emotion is mutual: the state of the organ will affect the emotion and the emotion will affect the organ. Thus the heart relates to joy, the liver to anger or irritation, the lungs to sadness and worry, the spleen to pensiveness and also worry, the kidneys to fear, shock, willpower and will to survive.

These emotions usually only become a cause of imbalance when they are excessive or prolonged. By treating a specific organ we can influence the particular emotion related to that organ and help the patient to achieve a more balanced emotional state and promote the wellbeing of the organ involved at the same time.

Let's take the example of three strong emotions involved in depression.


Fear and its effects on the kidneys

Living in fear for a prolonged time will cause the kidney energy to become weak and damaged. Fear of financial problems, fear of family breakdown, fear of abandonment, etc. can manifest in the form of lower back pain, corresponding to the physical location of the kidneys.

The kidneys 'control' the knees, ankles and feet. Problems in these areas could be attributed to fear of moving forward in life. Chronic bladder problems usually indicate insecurities. This can often be seen in young children suffering from enuresis or bedwetting. Fear results in the depletion of our kidney energy, the powerhouse of our being, and so our kidney energy must be addressed, nourished and tonified.


Joy and happiness and their effects on the heart

Joy can become a cause of disease when it is excessive, as it is in those persons who are in a state of continuous mental stimulation (however pleasurable) or excessive excitement. In other words, a life of 'hard playing'. This leads to excessive stimulation of the heart, which can injure the heart. Joy can also become a cause of disease when it is deficient. When the heart is deficient there is mental restlessness, depression, anxiety and insomnia (Maconia 1974).

I believe the heart is almost always involved with all the organs, since the mind in Chinese medicine has its home in the heart and its imbalance will be a source of physical and mental ailment. Healing the heart will have an overall effect on our well being. 'The cure is love and the heart is the area where love resides. Love and healing starts with loving from within.' (Mikio Sankey 2002)


Anger and its effect on the liver

Anger taken in the broad sense includes other emotional states, such as resentment, repressed anger, irritability, frustration, rage, indignation, animosity and bitterness. Long-term depression is often due to resentment or repressed anger. This may show as sadness and grief but is in fact anger. When anger is forced inwards it results in depression. Other symptoms may manifest: outbursts, impatience, restlessness, insomnia, violent dreams, agitation, headaches, blurred vision, and tightness of the chest (R Schnyer and J Allen 2001). We may act like a loose cannon ball, not knowing which direction to take. The liver is in charge of the direction of life. If the liver is healthy a person will be fearless and decisive.


In using acupuncture, we balance the underlying problems. We treat the cause of depression, we calm the mind, so that the patient feels happier, healthier and more at peace. Administered by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is no more painful than plucking a hair and has no side effects, unlike many medications. It is in fact a holistic treatment that balances mind, body and spirit.

With correct diagnosis and treatment strategies, it can be a highly effective treatment of depression. It can work hand in hand with psychotherapy, counselling, homeopathy, bodywork and other holistic practices and the results can be spectacular. More and more people are discovering the effectiveness of acupuncture both as a preventative strategy and as an effective treatment for many chronic diseases for which western medicine has no answer.


Declan Phelan practised as a registered practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine for two years after graduating, during which time he helped many people and was in great demand for his ability to heal. Sadly, Declan died in August 2006. He was a dedicated doctor and a great friend. He will always be remembered and greatly missed.

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