By Erica Kain
March 22, 2013

By Erica Kain
The March issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology includes an encouraging study for women who have depression during their pregnancies. The study suggests that acupuncture treatments, when specifically geared toward helping depression, may have a positive effect.

As many as one in five women suffers from depression during pregnancy, and I learned firsthand from the roller coaster of emotions I experienced during my pregnancies.

I was plagued by sleeplessness, nausea, and general discomfort at exactly the time I should have been celebrating the good fortune of multiple healthy pregnancies after age 35. Once I sought acupuncture treatments, though, I discovered that by relieving the worst of my pain, nausea, and sleeplessness, I began to enjoy the imminent arrival of my child.

To better understand how a series of needles placed on my body could possibly make me happy, I spoke with Michael Shpak, a board-certified licensed acupuncturist who was trained by two former midwives.

"In pregnancy, the woman's body is taxed and burdened—her blood-sugar balance, thyroid function, and adrenal function can be altered, and she can be anemic," he explains.

In other words, your body bears the burden of what Shpak calls "two physiologies"—yours and the baby's.

In addition to this physical taxation, there are psychological ramifications in the transition to becoming a mother. And not all of that is a celebration, according to Shpak.

How does it work?
"Persistent pregnancy-induced discomforts respond beautifully and reliably to both the systemic and local effects of acupuncture," says Shpak.

Acupuncture affects the central nervous system, which controls the brain and spinal cord. Studies have shown that it can work both locally, where it can reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and ease pain, as well as globally, in that it can directly influence brain chemistry through the release of endorphins.

Endorphins are released along with cortisol, the hormone involved in your reaction to stress and anxiety. "The combination of these neurotransmitters and hormones helps to balance those four physical functions—blood-sugar balance, thyroid function, adrenal function, and anemia," says Shpak.

Research has also shown that acupuncture activates the nucleus accumbens, or pleasure center of the brain, which may explain the link between acupuncture and relieving depression.

Next Page: Which is safer: pill or needle? [ pagebreak ]

Which is safer: pill or needle?
Recent evidence indicates
that it may not be entirely safe to take antidepressants during pregnancy, as women who take such drugs may be more likely to have preterm infants or infants who need to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Most doctors believe that antidepressants work by increasing chemicals in the brain, especially the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. However, acupuncture supports your body in producing inhibitory neurotransmitters that may decrease pain signals traveling through the spinal cord and "create a balance and reduce the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters," says Shpak.

"Drugs don't help make more inhibiting neurotransmitters," he tells me. "But acupuncture can help create that balance and stimulate a natural endorphin release."

However, acupuncturists agree that there are certain points that may stimulate the womb to contract, which is why it is important to seek out licensed, trained practitioners. In California, where I live, acupuncturists must pass a state board exam, which includes training related to treating pregnant patients.

However, the risk of preterm labor is ultimately not very great. "A woman whose health is generally good would not be stimulated to go into labor [by use of these points], but if a woman's health is delicate, even an argument with her husband could put her into labor," says Shpak. It makes sense to err on the side of caution and avoid any potentially stimulating points.

No treatment is one-size-fits-all
There are several kinds of acupuncture treatments for different types of depression. According to Shpak, a woman with thyroid-related depression might feel exhaustion, malaise, and a general lack of motivation. But a woman with an adrenal issue related to pregnancy would have a different kind of exhaustion—specifically a feeling of apathy and an inability to manage daily challenges.

In any of these cases, an experienced acupuncturist should be able to decide the best course of action.

Hearing these symptoms made me remember the crazy woman I became by the middle of my second trimester. At the time, it was upsetting, but now I can see the unpredictable roller coaster from a distance, and I'm also grateful for my acupuncture treatments that may have functioned as an emotional seat belt throughout the journey.