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Home > Newsletters > August 2008 > Chinese Herbs for the Mind: Remedies for Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, and Psychosis

Chinese Herbs for the Mind: Remedies for Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, and Psychosis

By Joel Harvey Schreck, L.Ac.

In China before the mid- twentieth century, all mental illnesses were treated pretty much exclusively with herbal medicine. Since doctors and hospitals keep records, there is plenty of historical evidence suggesting that such treatments were often successful. Perhaps the best evidence is the famous Fog Tea of Tianmu Mountain, which, after the opium war, helped free millions of Chinese people from opium addiction. Some of us believe that the Chinese herbal psychiatric drugs of the 19th century were at least as effective as whatever European or American doctors were prescribing at that time.

This may still be true today. Despite obvious advancements in the Western pharmacy, I believe that Chinese herbs can still help sufferers of mental disorders by complementing any modern day prescription or therapy. The herbs are safe, and like a food, won't react negatively with any psychiatric drug.

Hard to Find a Shrink in China

Psychiatry never really took root in China where the culture never emphasized individuality. Spending large sums of money on personal improvement is a foreign idea and would be considered a kind of vanity. Even today, despite the deluge of Western ideas and money, you'll find only a handful of psychiatrists in the Beijing phone book.

Psychiatry might also not have evolved because the Chinese had less need for it. Having discovered a pharmacy of herbal psychiatric drugs, such interventions may have been unnecessary in many cases. These herbal methods may be among the great treasures of Oriental medicine.

Not a substitute for modern drugs or counseling, these medicines can still be a valuable tool in the hands of any knowledgeable practitioner or counselor. You don't have to be a Chinese herbologist to use them, however some basic knowledge of Oriental medicine can help. This article will help you get started.

It's the Qi, Stupid

'Qi' means the flow of our bodily energies. Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that health is linked with these invisible flows, and that when our qi flows improperly we get sick.

Health is also about harmony or balance, or the lack of it. The terms yin and yang help to describe this. When life is out of balance, we say that yin and yang become unbalanced in our body, causing physical or mental distress and disease.

To practitioners of TCM, most any mental disease is, first of all, a sign of poor flow or bad balance. Phobia, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, insomnia, etc. are symptoms of disharmony or congestion, not separate diseases in themselves. Healing these symptoms requires normalizing flow or restoring balance in the life of those afflicted. Herbal medicine can help immensely.

Chinese herbal medicine is easily the most highly evolved medical system in the world. Its immense scale of experience spans countless trillions of administrations over thousands of years. Its pharmacopoeia includes over 10,000 natural substances; vegetable, animal, and mineral.

Some of these may be strange to Western sensibilities; however this article will recommend only safe ordinary substances which can be easily obtained. Sour dates, hare's ear root, and mimosa bark may not be as available as coffee, tea, or marijuana, but you can easily find these mind bending substances on the web or in Chinese communities throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

Mind Bending Herbal Drugs

Mind bending doesn't imply that these Chinese herbs are stimulants or psychedelics. Stimulant and psychedelic herbs have a more limited medical use. These herbs, when used in the right combinations affect the mind in far more useful ways. By mind I mean consciousness, emotion, imagination, remembrance, thought, memory, and intelligence.

The Troubled Spirit

We don't include spirit as an aspect of mind, because TCM reserves a special place for spirit, known as Shen. Shen resides in the heart, not in the brain. Mental disharmonies often indicate that the Shen, residing in the heart, is unsettled or troubled. We call this condition Disturbed Shen.

Anxiety, insomnia, and psychosis all originate with a disturbed shen. Though sufferers may exhibit deviant brain chemistry, these are not brain diseases. They are diseases of the chest rather than the brain, because the Shen resides in the heart, not in the head.

For most people, disturbed shen will not lead to 'heart disease' or any physical heart problem. Nevertheless, disturbed shen is a physical condition and will respond to therapies such as exercise, massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicines.

Disturbed shen can have many causes. Shen can be disturbed by events in our life or in our memory, by stagnation, heat, drugs, diet, loss of sleep, loss of blood, by constraint of emotion, or by excess emotions. Besides disturbing the shen, strong emotions can also affect our organs. Excessive joy or being startled can stress the heart, worry eats at the gut, grief endangers the lungs, fear taxes the kidneys, and anger assaults the liver.

Shen is disturbed by tension in the chest. Thoughts about loss, inhibited expression, and guilt among other things, cause the chest to tighten. In this protective state we feel fewer feelings and show less emotion. Modern clinicians call this condition 'depression'. We call it stagnation of the chest qi, or Liver Qi Stagnation (LQS), and we consider it to be the origin of many mental health problems. To us, clinical depression is not a definable disease, but a sign that the qi of the chest is stuck, constrained, or oppressed. In time, chest constraint can affect the underlying organs, generating anger by inflaming the liver, or Anxiety by heating up the heart.

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This Month's Articles

August 2008
Volume 6, Number 8

Enhance Bone Health and Prevent Osteoporosis

Chinese Herbs for the Mind: Remedies for Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, and Psychosis

A Multifaceted Integrative Approach to Healing Chronic Pancreatitis

Recent Research

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