By Dr. Carolyn Laney, DACM, Dipl.OM., L.Ac., CMT
Mental illness is a common occurrence in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 51.5 million people, or 1 in 5 adults, in the US suffer from a mental illness. Specifically, 40 million people experience an anxiety disorder in any given year, including PTSD, and 17.3 million adults had at least one episode of major depression in 2017 alone. Furthermore, with suicide being the tenth leading cause of death from untreated depression, patients need appropriate support and effective treatments to overcome their depression.
Unfortunately, the exact causes for anxiety, depression, and PTSD are unknown, but based on research, there are many working theories on how each manifest and which parts of the brain are affected. Many of these theories center on dysfunctions of the biochemicals serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and BDNF and certain parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (i.e., rational thought, reason, planning, personality, and proper social behavior) and limbic regions (i.e., survival behaviors and emotions).
First-line treatments for anxiety, depression, and PTSD are medications (SSRIs), psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Medications are the most used method of treating mental illness but take time to achieve their peak effectiveness. Sometimes up to a month or more. On top of that, prescribed medications only have a 40%-60% effectiveness rate (compared 20%-40% improvement without medication) with a long list of side effects that can be a major deterrent to taking them successfully. Psychotherapy has similar success rates of 55%-60%, but it is not as frequently utilized. Lastly, combining the two modalities together yields the most success at 60% within 24-week period.
Fortunately, there are more options available to treat mental illness. Based on research, acupuncture, added as an adjunct therapy (or used alone for mild conditions), can be helpful in treating mental illness. Acupuncture improves mental illnesses by directly stimulating the same regions of the brain by altering the same biochemicals mentioned above, responsible for causing anxiety, depression, and PTSD. For example, a 2019 study revealed that patients who were given acupuncture treatments three times per week as an add-on therapy to antidepressants showed significant improvement in their moderate to severe depression compared to the patients who were using antidepressants alone by the sixth week of treatment. At six weeks, most antidepressants are just reaching their therapeutic effectiveness level. But with acupuncture, that effectiveness is reached much quicker and is more effective.
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