TCM: Understanding Depression, Anger, and GriefTom Fung, R.Ac., R.TCMP May 4, 2015
Depression is a very broad subject, and it involves the entire human body, mind, and spirit. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believes that the body, mind, and spirit cannot be separated. Therefore, depression can affect us on more than one level:
1. Body discomfort – such as tightness, pain (tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disease such as bone spur), the immune system (auto immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), insomnia, fatigue, headache, and stomach ache.
2. Mind and spirit – Symptoms of depression can include persistent sadness, pessimism, loss of interest in usual activities including sex. Depression can also contribute to fatigue, lack of energy, thoughts of suicide or death, anxiety, irritability, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, isolation from family and friends, drug and alcohol abuse, difficulty in concentration, social withdrawal, and weight loss or gain.
External and Internal Causes of Depression
Bodies come in many different types; and they all differ in how they respond to aging, the weather, certain foods, and emotions. That is why the old classic (Eastern) concept subscribes to the theory of three categories: Heaven, Human, Earth.
1 Heaven (refers to the universe, which includes climate) – Based on the theory of the circulation of vital energy (qi) characteristics of TCM, the pathogenesis of the human body is often influenced by the periodic changes in climate, which take place either every 12 years, or every 60 years. In recent years, scientists have realized that the law of these periodic changes has something to do with the cycle of sunspots, a cycle which is formed every 11 to 12 years. These sunspot movements bring about periodic changes in the radiation of sunlight, interfere with the magnetic field, and change the climate around the earth, thus exerting an impact on the physiology and pathology of the human body.
In the Yellow Emperor Classic, which is the bible of TCM, a Miraculous Pivot chapter states, “There are various diseases, most of which become milder in the morning, better during the daytime, worse again in the late afternoon, and even more severe at night.” This is because “In the morning the vital energy of the human body begins to grow stronger while the pathogenic factors weaken. At midday the vital energy of the human body is predominant and lords it over the pathogenic factors. In the later afternoon the vital energy of the human body begins to become weaker while the pathogenic factors strengthen. At midnight, the vital energy of the human body returns to the internal organs, while the pathogenic factors come into lead place.”
In modern times, it’s been noticed that the body’s functions – pulse, temperature, amount of oxygen consumed, carbon dioxide released, and hormone secreted – all have biorhythms over the 24 hours in a day. This finding may promote the round-the-clock exploration of the physiological and pathological changes in the body.
2 Human (the unity within the body): a) genetic influences, TCM calls this “the upper heaven”; b) acquired influences, which TCM calls “the lower heaven,” includes upbringing, cultural and national influences, diet, and physical training such as exercises. Both genetic and acquired influences can each affect the other.
The human body is made up of viscera (the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys), bowels, tissues, and organs. Each has its own special physiological function; and there is also a relationship among them. For example, the liver, heart, spleen, lung, and kidney all belong to the viscera and all have their effect through the energy channels. The problem is that those energy channels cannot be seen by our eyes. They are related to, but are not exactly the same as, the nerve pathway. Different organs are affected by different emotions. When an emotion affects a channel, the corresponding organ will be affected, which can create, for example, a functional disorder or organic problem (e.g. stomach ulcer, or cancer).
3 Earth – Geographical regions can affect the health and the emotions as well as the food found there. Food and herbs both have different characteristics. For instance, consuming lamb and beef can create a lot of “heat” in the body. If a person suffers with a bad temper, TCM will view this as evidence of internal heat, which can be aggravated by eating lamb or beef. On the other hand, cucumber and dandelion have a cooling effect. Every food has its own unique characteristics.
When it comes to Chinese herbs, we use three categories to describe the characteristics of each herb – cool, warm, or neutral (similar to the atom). In our universe, every atom consists of protons (positively charged), neutrons (no charge), and electrons (negatively charged). Thus, at the atomic level, the body is a mass of energy fields all influencing each other. When the equilibrium is disturbed or breaks down in the human body, those carbon atoms will also be disturbed. Carbon is the basis of all living things. In Chinese medicine, we use yin and yang, external and internal, cold and hot, hollow and solid, to describe and analyze disease. These 8 phenomena are called the ‘Eight Guiding Principles’, which were set by the well known herbal master Dr. Li Shi Zhen. Now TCM schools around the world, as well as the Acupuncture Examination Board, all use this method to test candidates.
The Liver’s Connection to Depression and Cancer
According to Chinese medicine, depression is mainly connected to the liver. The liver’s condition is divided into four stages:
LIVER QI STAGNATION – The seven emotions can easily attack the liver. Unhappiness, and especially anger, can cause a blockage in this organ, which in turn will create different symptoms. In a strong body, irritability, anger, and aggressive behaviour will be noticed; in a weak body, a persistent sadness is often present. Food can affect the liver as well, but the major impact on the liver comes from these emotions. For example, a strong body may experience stagnation for a long time, leading to it becoming a weak body. Qi stagnation can become blood stagnation. Qi is the vital energy, and blood is the human cell. The human body relies on these two major substances. If qi stagnation exists for a long time, it can affect the blood, which comprises the cells. In nature, things can either survive or die – as in an autoimmune disorder (antibodies attack the normal cells).
LIVER HEAT – Beyond those named above, the following symptoms may be present in someone with “liver heat” (inflammation): stiff neck, aggressive or argumentative behaviour, weight gain, swelling in the face, excessive gas, redness, swelling and pain in the eye (eye infection), and gastrointestinal disorders (ulcers, heartburn, indigestion, flatulence, gallstones, chronic colitis, constipation, diarrhea, diverticular disease), hepatitis A, B or C, pain in the stomach area, hemorrhoids, irregular menstruation.
Liver heat can lead to stomach heat. The stomach channel passes through the breast, and the female breast has a lot of lymph nodes. The lymph node works like a filter.
“Heat” can produce toxins; when the toxins get stuck in the lymph node (filter), the activity of the antibodies in that area will be affected. Remember that, in every single moment, there are a lot of things happening in the body. Cells die, cells regenerate, and the abnormal growth of cells – which is called cancer – is also occurring every moment. In TCM, we call this ‘accumulation’, and it is either invisible accumulation, such as a sensation in the throat (plumb seed syndrome), or a visible accumulation such as a tumour. If there is “stomach heat”, the cancer cells accumulate easily within the breast. It is especially the case that, in summer when the weather is hot and stomach heat syndrome is present, breast cancer can become worse. Depression can lead to liver qi stagnation, and liver qi stagnation can lead to liver heat. Modern society is very complicated with a lot of negative emotions and loneliness. This is a major cause of liver qi stagnation.
LIVER FIRE – When coupled with the symptoms of liver qi stagnation and liver heat, a person may experience a personality change and severe mental illnesses. Weight gain can change to weight loss. There may also be manifest a neurological disorder such as migraine headache, trigeminal neuralgia, bursitis, tendinitis, or tinnitus.
LIVER WIND – this is a very abstract concept. In nature, when heat exists for a long time, the wind will come because when there is heat, the molecule will expand. The expansion of molecules affects the pressure in those areas. That’s why we have something called typhoons (strong winds and rain) in the Pacific Ocean when hot weather persists for a long period. Likewise in the body, when “liver fire” is present, a lot of acute diseases can be generated, such as vomiting blood, stroke, physical violence, vertigo (dizziness).
The reason I explain the liver wind condition is because it has a direct effect on liver qi stagnation. In nature, there exists always an action and reaction. Chronic depression that lasts a long time will lead to one, or all, of these four phenomena. The ancient Chinese scholars used the word ‘wind’ to describe these acute diseases because wind has the characteristic of ‘coming fast’ and being very strong in character. Some of the acupuncture points around the back of the head are called ‘wind residence’, or ‘wind pond’. Working with these ponds we can treat stroke and headache. It’s important to note here that, before you get to the stage of having liver wind, you may have experienced the stages listed above, or the disease may come on suddenly.
I have a simple story to tell you about the correlation between depression and disease. A woman came to me complaining of tendinitis in the shoulder. Her face and tongue were red, her pulse rapid and wiry. There are 28 types of pulse in TCM. When the lung position of the pulse is scattered, it indicates “heat”, which can sometimes lead to liver fire. In addition, anger affects the liver, and sadness affects the lung. I told her that her problems came from unresolved grief. Her tears flowed and she shared how she went home one day to find her husband making love with her best friend.
TCM theory states that when the lung is affected, the next organ – which is the large intestine – will be affected also. When people have disease, it will show up first in the external area, the skin surface; secondly it will affect the channel; and thirdly, the internal organ. People suffering with grief will often manifest a lung disorder such as asthma, tuberculosis, lung cancer, or intestinal problems such as colitis, diverticular disease, or large intestine cancer. The lung channels are correlated to the large intestines and the pathway of the channels runs from the thumb to the chest.
Depression can affect different organs directly or indirectly. If you look around at your friends and think about yours, and their, upbringing, personal experiences, etc, you may be able to notice the effect that personal experience has had on any of them, including yourself. The longer you live, the more you will find this to be true.
The Traditional Chinese Medical system has a very long history. It sees the human body is an organic whole, and through experience has found that healing and disease recovery is most successful when we treat the patient as a whole being. TCM gets to the root of the problem, and addresses it on all levels with the purpose of healing body, mind, and spirit.
Tom Fung is a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist practising in Ontario. He is also the Founder and Chief Instructor of the Self Balance Meditation Association. His office is located at 179 Main St. North in Markham, Ontario. For more information, or an appointment, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, call: (905) 554-8849, or visit http://www.drtomfungclinic.ca.