Since the warmth of summer has been slowly fading into cooler nights and shorter days, I have had a noticeable influx in patients seeking relief from depression. This isn’t uncommon—each year I see it happening with the season change.
In the world of acupuncture, there are five major organ systems, each of which is connected to an emotion and season. During that season, the corresponding organ is at its most vulnerable and the emotion tends to show up more prominently.
Fall is Lung season. And the emotion associated with Lung is grief. From an acupuncture perspective, it makes perfect sense that there is a heightened sense of melancholy this time of year.
Depression due to Lung imbalance
In Western medicine, depression is defined as a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. That’s pretty broad. In acupuncture land, there is a wide range of imbalances that manifest as depression. Each case of depression is unique, and appropriate treatment is determined based on which system(s) are out of balance.
When I treat patients with Lung weaknesses, I often perceive a pervasive, gentle sadness that lingers and haunts. These are not the patients who rail loudly about their misfortunes. They are the ones who quietly suffer and can’t seem to let go of old pain. Often, patients who have experienced unresolved grief also display physical Lung symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and frequent colds.
Case study: Lung-related depression
Years ago, I saw a woman who was at her wit’s end with an uncontrollable cough that had lasted eight months. She had been through several doctors and a multitude of tests that revealed nothing. As she coughed her way through her health intake, I asked her if she had any traumas, losses, or painful events over the last year. She couldn’t recall anything. As we moved to the treatment table, we somehow got on the topic of owning pets. She began to reminisce about her dog who had passed away. Guess when? Eight months ago.
I gently inserted a few needles into acupuncture points that addressed the emotional aspect of the Lung system, points that I often needle on those who are grieving. One hour later, her cough was gone, never to return.
Other forms of depression from an acupuncture perspective
If Lung-based depression is silent, lingering suffering, the Heart is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Heart energy is all about extremes—wild joy, and crushing lows. When someone with a Heart imbalance is happy, the entire world knows it. But when they crash—and they always do, eventually—they hit hard.
With Heart-related depression, there is no middle ground. These people feel emotions, both positive and negative, much more intensely than others. They often vacillate between states of delirious happiness and deep depression. Manic-depressive patients would fall into this category.
The Spleen is all about nurturing and giving. Patients with Spleen imbalances tend to give—and give, and give—until they are completely drained and have nothing left. These types can also tend to gravitate toward obsession and compulsion. They are over-thinkers who ruminate and exhaust themselves with worry.
When these patients come to my clinic complaining of depression, they often describe themselves as feeling emotionally “heavy” or “stagnant.” They feel stuck, as if they are plodding through cement and everything is so difficult. They can’t even begin to fathom moving toward something better.
The Liver is the organ associated with anger, and this anger can be directed either inward or outward. A “Livery” person who projects externally might be impatient or have an explosive temper. They are rigid and structured, and might be prone to outbursts when they don’t get their way. Frequently, their depression is centered around a lack of control.
For the Liver types who internalize their anger, it is often self-directed. It may come across as high expectations for oneself, an inability to cope with failure, or in its extreme, self-loathing. Liver-type depression would exhibit as depression combined with irritability and/or anxiety (think PMS).
The Kidney, in many ways, rules all. The Kidney is our base drive for survival. It is the gas tank, the reserve of energy that we dip into throughout the course of our lives to keep us running. A person’s lifespan and the quality of life that she is given spring from the Kidney energy.
The Kidney creates the will to create our own path in life. When the Kidney system is compromised, we are left adrift and lost. In my opinion, this system is responsible for the type of depression that is so deep and boundless that all seems hopeless.
As an acupuncturist, my first responsibility to my patients is to ensure their safety. Therapy and counseling is paramount for those suffering from depression. I find acupuncture to be an immeasurably beneficial adjunct in keeping these patients healthy. Where there is balance, there is peace.