Chinese medicine treats depression holistically

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      Two years ago, Christine Davies found herself in a serious emotional slump. Around the same time, the Vancouver resident happened to attend a free talk by Judy Zhu, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, on how acupuncture is used to treat depression. Davies admits she was leery but tells the Georgia Straight she was intrigued enough to see for herself what the ancient practice was all about. She says she never expected such a positive outcome.

      “I was in a pretty bad state,” Davies says. “After four or five sessions, there was a very sudden and dramatic change. My situation in life was actually worse [than when she first went to see Zhu], but I felt like conquering the world.

      “I’m a skeptic,” she adds. “I’m resistant to things; I had tried herbs and other treatments before, but they didn’t work or they took longer to work than I had patience for. Still, there was no reason not to give this a try.”¦I got my life back.”

      Zhu, who has been practising TCM for seven years, explains that according to Chinese medicine, depression occurs as a result of stagnant qi, or energy.

      “In this [western] culture, there’s this idea that if you suffer from depression, you should not talk about it,” the Hangzhou, China, native says in an interview at her West Broadway office. “That makes it even worse. You’re suppressing emotions, and this causes energy to block.”¦If it’s blocked, you start to see symptoms, either physical or emotional. These are all manifestations of an imbalance of qi.”¦the key thing is to eliminate that blockage and promote the energy flow in the body, to help the energy flow smoothly.

      “The beauty of Chinese medicine,” she adds, “is that we never separate body and mind. In western medicine, they’re very much separate.”¦Chinese medicine treats the whole being.”

      Symptoms of depression, according to the BC HealthGuide, include sadness or hopelessness, fatigue, a loss of interest in regular activities, sleeping too much or not enough, having trouble concentrating or making decisions, weight gain or loss, and thoughts of death or suicide.

      The primary method Zhu uses to treat depression is acupuncture, which involves placing fine, sterile needles into specific pressure points on the body. Doing this is said to activate the body’s qi. In Chinese medicine, Zhu explains, qi circulates along meridians, the main ones of which are connected to different organs. The organs, in turn, are associated with certain emotions. The liver, for example, is associated with anger, while the spleen is linked to worry. Among the common acupuncture points for depression are the “four gates” (the area between the thumb and forefinger), the “third eye” (the middle of the forehead), and the crown of the head. “The qi flow has broader ramifications than just helping a person have physical well-being. It also helps them have emotional well-being.”

      A 1999 study published in Psychological Science found that in a group of 38 clinically depressed women, 70 percent reported a drop in depressive symptoms after receiving acupuncture treatments for eight weeks. In its 2002 report titled “Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials”, the World Health Organization included depression among the conditions that have been shown through controlled trials to be treated effectively by acupuncture.

      But the practice has its detractors. Take Robert Todd Carroll, author of the on-line Skeptic’s Dictionary. “No matter how it is done, scientific research can never demonstrate that unblocking chi [qi] by acupuncture or any other means is effective against any disease,” he writes on his Web site ( “Chi is defined as being undetectable by the methods of empirical science.”

      Zhu, however, maintains that Chinese medicine is a safe and effective treatment for depression. Furthermore, she says it can be used in conjunction with conventional therapies. For instance, if a patient is taking antidepressants, Zhu will first use acupuncture to help minimize the drugs’ side effects. As people’s conditions improve, Zhu says they can gradually take lower dosages and sometimes wean themselves off the medication altogether.

      Typically, Zhu breaks down her depression-treatment program into three phases: symptom relief, improving the free flow of qi, and maintaining that newfound balance. Fees vary and monthly rates are available, but a 45-minute acupuncture session generally runs around $45.

      It’s not just needles that Zhu incorporates into her practice. She prescribes Chinese herbs—such as ginseng, astragalus, safflower, and peach kernel—so long as they won’t cause any adverse reactions with other medications. She also does “energy diagnostics”, which includes talk therapy to enable patients to overcome negative thoughts or emotional patterns, and helps people improve their diet and lifestyle habits. Plus, she encourages patient responsibility.

      “It’s not ”˜they come in and I fix them,’” she says. “The healing happens not just in here. Sometimes this work is not easy; people really have to look deep into their life. But it can be really satisfying.

      “I give every patient a butterfly,” she adds, reaching for a set of velvet wings pinned up near her desk. “It’s a symbol of transformation.”¦We all experience many different stages of transformation, usually linked with some kind of difficulty. Crisis has two characteristics: danger and opportunity. Any kind of crisis is a turning point, an opportunity for change.”