Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a powerful system of medicine for supporting mental health. It offers a wide array of classic remedies useful for addressing the mild to moderate imbalances of the psyche that most of us experience from time to time. And for individuals struggling with more severe psychological concerns, TCM practitioners can provide customized guidance for achieving therapeutic goals.
Integrative mental health has been a large component of my private practice for over 20 years. The opportunities I’ve had to collaborate with patients and practitioners have helped me develop reverence for TCM’s powerful potential in this sphere, as well as an appreciation for its limitations. I view TCM as an invaluable tool that can work in concert with other mental health modalities to help clients achieve meaningful, sustainable improvements in their quality of life.
Mental Health in Chinese Medicine
TCM offers a view of the human organism where mind and body are not separate, but rather deeply interrelated. Psyche and soma are afforded equal status, and efforts to relieve mental and emotional discomfort are aimed at concurrently balancing the essence, Blood, fluids, and organs of the body. TCM recognizes that imbalances of the mind and emotion may have deleterious effects on the body, and therefore harmonizing the psyche is essential for attaining optimal physical health. Similarly, this system understands that physical injuries and illnesses come with mental and emotional implications. The remedies we dispense at Five Flavors Herbs have a 2000-year tradition of slicing through the knots of associated physical and psycho-emotional distress.
Mental Health Diagnosis in TCM
There are several frameworks for working within TCM to treat mental health concerns. Modern research explores how to use TCM principles and formulas to diagnose and address biomedically defined psychiatric conditions, providing a bridge between Eastern and Western conceptions of these imbalances. Practitioners of classical lineages of Chinese medicine will look to syndromes articulated in Zhang Zhong Jing’s “Jin Gui Yao Lue,” such as Lily Disease, Running Piglet Qi, Fright and Palpitation, and Vacuity Taxation, all of which have attributes that can resemble neuropsychiatric diseases. In expert hands, either method can be used effectively.
A common TCM framework for discussing psycho-emotional and other health concerns is the Five Phases model (sometimes called the Five Elements model). In this method, an individual experiencing an imbalance tracks their predominant emotions over time (sometimes with the help of a practitioner), takes notes of other symptoms, and looks to the corresponding elements and key bodily organs to guide diagnosis and treatment. Traditionally:
- Grief and sadness are associated with the Lungs.
- Worry and pensiveness are linked to the Spleen and digestion.
- Anger is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder.
- Joy is correlated with the Heart
- Fear and insecurity are said to relate to the Kidneys.
Chinese remedies that tend to these organs on a physical and/or energetic level can help restore harmony to a person’s state of being on multiple levels.
Chinese Remedies for Feelings of Sadness
Most of us encounter occasional periods of pronounced sadness or worry throughout our lives, brought on by seasonal shifts, stressful events, family responsibilities, or other challenges. Chinese medicine provides many formulas for restoring a positive outlook and relieving both mild and more acute physical symptoms, including tension, heaviness, lethargy, and frustration.
Our Elation Tincture is based on the classic formula Jia Wei Xiao Yao San, which happens to be the best-selling TCM dietary supplement in the US—and for good reason. The traditional formula is often recommended for individuals experiencing irritability, moodiness, sadness, or hopelessness. For those who would like to experience more joy, our signature Elation blend expands on the classic formula with lemon balm, rhodiola, rose, and silk tree bark to provide a fast-acting emotional lift as well as lasting mood support over time.
Most humans deal with mild to moderate anxious feelings from time to time, and TCM offers some handy tools for relief. In addition to lifestyle practices like breathwork, digital hygiene, and time spent outside, we recommend our Tranquility Tincture, which combines the calming Western herbs skullcap and California poppy with the Chinese adaptogen wu wei zi (schisandra berry, or “five flavor” berry) and mood-elevating he huan pi to quickly relax the mind and muscles.
TCM for Sleep Issues or Worry
Sleep problems can be challenging to resolve, since they can be a cause or a symptom of emotional distress (or both). Herbal formulas designed to help us unwind physically and mentally can help break harmful sleeplessness cycles to restore healthy mood and energy levels.
Traditional Chinese formulas, such as Gui Pi Tang and Suan Zao Ren Tang, support sleep by addressing root imbalances in the body, which helps regulate the nervous system over time. These remedies are often essential for sustained results, but some find that they don’t work quickly enough to support their very pressing need for rest. For a combination of acute and tonic sleep support, we often pair a classic TCM formula with our Sweet Dreams Tincture, formulated with Western herbs that quickly calm the spirit, diffuse agitation, and quiet racing thoughts for an easy transition into restfulness at day’s end.
For some of us, tension, worry, and circular thinking can disturb us during the day as well as at night. Our Skull Soother Tincture is based on the TCM formula Si Ni San or “Frigid Extremities Powder,” which has been helping people unwind for over two thousand years! The chief herb in the original formula is bupleurum, which we traded out for skullcap and blue vervain to achieve a similar effect with more local, but functionally similar, plants. In addition to providing relief for physical discomfort in the head and neck, its targeted relaxing effects may help ease minor speech difficulties and reduce teeth grinding. This formula can be used any time of day to relieve cranial tension and cognitive overload.
TCM for Overcoming Substance Abuse
Under the guidance of an integrated team of practitioners, TCM formulas can be used to supplement conventional psychiatric treatments and fill some common gaps in care. One area of mental health care often well-suited to this approach is substance abuse cessation and recovery, in which patients often find little conventional support for the intense mental and emotional struggles that come with overcoming addiction.
Two of the most commonly used formulas for mental health concerns in TCM are Cinnamon Twig, Oyster Shell, and Dragon Bone Decoction and Major Bupleurum Decoction. The heavy minerals in these formulas are said to “anchor, settle, and calm” the mind, making them useful for many individuals experiencing more extreme levels of emotional and mental discomfort. Both of these remedies are associated with substance abuse recovery, helping to reduce cravings and provide comfort during the transition to sobriety.
With added Western herbs for fast-acting relief, our Gui Zhi Jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang Plus formula is based on Cinnamon Twig Decoction and is a supplementing and mildly warming blend that is particularly well-suited to slender individuals who experience coldness, palpitations, and are mildly anxious. Our Chai Hu Jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang Plus, based on Major Bupleurum Decoction, strongly regulates the Liver Qi and calms the mind, often recommended for individuals with more robust constitutions who experience frequent anger, irritability, disruptive thoughts, and physical feelings of agitation.
Chinese Medicine in Integrative Mental Health Care
While the support of Traditional Chinese Medicine can be invaluable for those seeking to improve their wellbeing, lasting transformations will rarely be accomplished with its formulas alone. In addition to supplementing with appropriate herbal remedies, people struggling with prolonged or recurrent mental or emotional issues should seek guidance from a licensed therapist who can provide other tools to help them work through their challenges. In conjunction with talk, behavioral, and/or pharmaceutical therapy, Chinese medicine can be a key part of a holistic approach to mental health care, helping suffering individuals improve their lives in a meaningful and enduring way.
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Written by Benjamin Zappin, LAc: Five Flavors Herbs co-founder Benjamin Zappin is one of the Bay Area's most respected and knowledgeable herbalists and a licensed acupuncturist. With over 20 years of experience, Benjamin synthesizes his deep knowledge of Chinese and western herbal medicine with modern medical perspectives to create effective herbal formulas and treat patients. He serves patients through Paeonia Integrative Medicine.