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How Chinese Medicine Can Treat the Effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Today is the winter solstice and the "shortest day of the year" in Seattle. As the daylight hours decrease during the fall and winter months, it's common to feel seasonal depression.

As an EAMP in Seattle Washington, I see many locals seeking ways to treat the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, Seattle averages 156 rainy days per year, 226 cloudy days per year, and only 45 sunny days annually (NCEI, 2015). Mayo Clinic describes SAD as “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons . . .. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt [the] body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014). With so many winter-like days a year, SAD is a well-known type of depression in Seattle.


Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat the mind, body, and spirit. Those of us who regularly receive acupuncture know it brings emotional balance as well as the generally recognized benefit of pain-relief. Chinese medicine recognizes emotions and addresses the whole person, which includes something called the shen, which is like the mind, but which is said to reside in the heart. In Chinese medicine, these are the common main systems involved in depression, and therefore, these are the systems commonly addressed by acupuncture to treat seasonal affective disorder. Climate, temperature (internal and external), nutrition, constitution, and other patterns also play a part in the Chinese diagnosis. For this reason, there is no one set of acupuncture points that fits every case of SAD. Acupuncture is always tailored to the individual because no two individuals are the same. As an example, here are a few points that might be chosen to treat the individual experiencing SAD:

Bai hui DU-20 located on top of the head, is known to treat disharmony of the brain, heart, and spirit. It might be used “especially when psycho-emotional disturbance manifests with indications of disharmony both of the heart . . . the head and brain . . . (Deadman, Al-Khafaji, & Baker, 2007).

Shen men HT-7 on the wrist is called the spirit gate and is “an essential point to treat the spirit” (Deadman, Al-Khafaji, & Baker, 2007). This point treats heart qi, which when deficient is know to cause sadness.

Feng long ST-40 on the leg can be used in a wet Seattle climate. This point transforms dampness and phlegm, and calms the spirit. Depression can lead to stagnation of the body's qi, which impairs the body’s ability to move fluids, and begins "disrupting the spirit” (Deadman, Al-Khafaji, & Baker, 2007).

One meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials published by Journal of Affective Disorders and PubMed concluded, “acupuncture was an effective treatment that could significantly reduce the severity of disease in patients with depression” (Wang, Qi, Wang, Cui, Rong, & Chen, 2008). Another study concluded that using electro-acupuncture improved depressive behavior after two weeks, and had a more rapid effect than fluoxetine (Prozac) (Duan, Tu, Liu, & Jiao, 2016).

Chinese Herbs

Just like acupuncture and light therapy, Chinese herbal formulas can be used to treat the effects of SAD. Like acupuncture points, herbs are specifically chosen to treat the individual and the unique patterns with which he or she presents. Usually a modified version of a classical formula is given. There is no one formula that treats all depressed people, but here are a couple of examples of formulas that are sometimes prescribed for mental-emotional disorders:

Xiao yao san, or rambling powder, is a formula that can be used to treat “psychoemotional disorders that manifest as liver qi constraint” (Scheid, Bensky, Ellis, & Barolet, 2009). There is a wide range of usages for this formula, but it can include clinical depression disorders.

Gan mai da zao tang, or licorice, wheat and jujube decoction, is known to nourish the heart and calm the spirit. It is a simple formula of 3 ingredients and has historically been used for various types of depression (Scheid, Bensky, Ellis, & Barolet, 2009).

Generally if a person is unwell and out of balance, the issue can be addressed through an herbal formula. Once balance is regained, overall wellness is achieved and the feelings of depression are reduced. This method of treating the whole person, of course, is why Chinese medicine is known as holistic medicine.

Scheduling with your EAMP in the fall and winter months can help balance the body and lessen or prevent the feelings of SAD.

(All contents of this blog are copyrighted and are not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.)


Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., & Baker, K. (2007). A Manual of Acupuncture. East Sussex, England: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications.

Duan, D., Tu, Y., Liu, P., & Jiao, S. (2016). Antidepressant effect of electroacupuncture regulates signal targeting in the brain and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels. Neural Regeneration Research , 11 (10), 1595–1602. Retrieved from:

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from Mayo Clinic:

NCEI. (2015). Comparative Climatic Data. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from National Centers For Environmental Information:

Scheid, V., Bensky, D., Ellis, A., & Barolet, R. (2009). Chinese herbal medicine formulas & strategies (2nd edition ed.). Seattle: Eastland Press.

Wang, H., Qi, H., Wang, B., Cui, Y., Rong, Z., & Chen, H. (2008). Is acupuncture beneficial in depression: a meta-analysis of 8 randomized controlled trials? Journal of Affective Disorders, 111, 125-134.