Acupuncture for Mental Health

This past year has perhaps been the most chaotic period of our generation. Despite our best efforts, the virus has proven itself to be very, very resilient. Unfortunately, this has proven to be fatal to us bi-pedal vertebrates. In addition to the obvious physical and social toll, COVID has demanded a prolific mental health toll. Acupuncture is a novel approach to anxiety and depression in Australia, with emerging evidence that supports its benefits in mental health and relaxation.

Stress! stress! stress!

Australians are stressed! In the six months between March and September 2020, 7.2 million services were subsidized through Medicare2. In September, contacts to crisis support had increased by up to 21% compared to 20192.

Although the initial fears from the pandemic have subsided in Australia, the mental health toll remain at large. Australia is far from COVID safe and constant threat of lockdowns lurks as a source of anxiety and depression6.

Before the virus, approximately 14% of Australians experienced anxiety in 20192. By April 2020, this was up to 50% of Australians experiencing anxiety6.  Similarly, approximately 61% of Australians are estimated to have experienced depression in 20206. Alarmingly, 20-30% of these cases are estimated to be moderate to severe in severity3.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a treatment used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, that uses fine needles to bring the energies in the body into balance. The use of acupuncture for mental health has been recorded as early as the 6th century in China, and the last two decades have seen an increasing interest by the West.

Most of us are scared of needles. We can each relate to that teardrop welling in our eyes each time we go for immunization or a blood test. This begs the question: Who in their right mind will choose to place multiple needles in their bodies? A recent survey in 2017 indicates close to 10% of Australian women aged 34-39 had consulted an acupuncturist in the last 12 months10. Of course, the needles used in acupuncture are not the ones used to take your blood, which are close to a centimetre thick. Most needles used in acupuncture are 0.18-0.25mm, which are mostly imperceptible during skin penetration.

Is acupuncture safe?

Fortunately, this imperceptible needle is also shy from causing adverse events. An overview of 31 reviews published this year reported that acupuncture for depression caused less adverse events than antidepressants5. When there were adverse events, it was mainly mild headache, bruising and skin irritation. Acupuncture generally had lower incidence of adverse events compared to pharmacological interventions, only recording about 0.5 incidents per 10,000 people9.

Can acupuncture help me?

If the needles seem less scary now, the next question is: Does acupuncture help? In 2018, an Australian study found that acupuncture improved the burden of depression compared to usual care1. Additionally, acupuncture combined with medication had a large benefit over medication alone9. These results are further supported by similar findings from other high quality reviews5.

How does acupuncture influence my mood?

There are a number of theories on how acupuncture influences mental health. One of the most widely known, is that acupuncture increases the secretion of endorphins, which gives you a ‘positive’ feeling, thereby reducing the ‘negative’ feeling4.

Another theory suggests a more direct relationship. Laser stimulation at acupuncture points increases the size and pattern of neural activity in the regions of the brain which are associated with depression7. By influencing the part of the brain that ‘feels’ depressed, acupuncture is suggested to reduce the feeling of being depressed.

One novel idea suggests that acupuncture influences the glutamatic neurotransmission network. The glutamate pathways are the most common pathways in the Central Nervous System, with growing evidence implicating their involvement in various mental health conditions8. Numerous animal trials have already confirmed that acupuncture can influence this neural pathway, but future trials are needed to confirm this relationship in humans.

It is expected that acupuncture works in multifaceted ways, as suggested above, to generate a culminated effect of reducing the burden of mental health conditions.

Come see us!

Acupuncture is a safe and effective method of managing your mental health concerns, especially for anxiety and depression. Daniel is an acupuncturist at the Healthspace Kingsford clinic who has keen interest in using acupuncture to help better manage the mental health in the community.


  1. Armour, M., Smith, C. A., Wang, L. Q., Naidoo, D., Yang, G. Y., MacPherson, H., Lee, M. S., & Hay, P. (2019). Acupuncture for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Medicine8(8), 1140. DOI: 3390/jcm8081140
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Mental health services in Australia.Retrieved from
  3. Fisher, J. R., Tran, T. D., Hammargerg, K., Sastry, J., Nguyen, H., Rowe, H., Popplestone, S., Stoker, R., Stubber, C., & Kirkman, M. (2020). Mental health of people in Australia in the first month of COVID-19 restrictions: a national survey. The Medical Journal of Australia, 1. Retrieved from:
  4. Han, J. S. (2004). Acupuncture and endorphins. Neuroscience letters361(1-3), 258-261. DOI:1016/j.neulet.2003.12.019
  5. Li, M., Niu, J., Yan, P., Yao, L., He, W., Wang, M., Li, H., Cao, L., Li, X., Shi, X., Liu, X., & Yang, K. (2020). The effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for depression: An overview of meta-analyses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine50, 102202. DOI:10.1016/j.ctim.2019.102202
  6. Newby, J., O’Moore, K., Tang, S., Christensen, H., & Faasse, K. (2020). Acute mental health responses during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. medRxiv.DOI: 1371/journal.pone.0236562
  7. Quah-Smith, I., Wen, W., Chen, X., Williams, M. A., & Sachdev, P. S. (2012). The brain effects of laser acupuncture in depressed individuals: an fMRI investigation. Medical Acupuncture24(3), 161-171. DOI: 1089/acu.2011.0870
  8. Tu, C. H., MacDonald, I., & Chen, Y. H. (2019). The effects of acupuncture on glutamatergic neurotransmission in depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and alzheimer’s disease: a review of the literature. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 14. DOI: 3389/fpsyt.2019.00014
  9. Xiao, X., Zhang, J., Jin, Y., Wang, Y., & Zhang, Q. (2020). Effectiveness and Safety of Acupuncture for Perimenopausal Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2020.
  10. Yang, L., Adams, J., & Sibbritt, D. (2017). Prevalence and factors associated with the use of acupuncture and Chinese medicine: results of a nationally representative survey of 17161 Australian women. Acupuncture in Medicine35(3), 189-199. DOI:1136/acupmed-2016-011179
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