Curing The Blues: TCM Treatment Of Depression

Curing The Blues: TCM Treatment Of DepressionAmy is a thirty-four-year-old mother of three healthy children. She and her loving husband run a prosperous family business and have every reason to be happy but, surprisingly, that isn’t the case. Since the birth of her second child, Amy suffered a post-partum mood disorder. Years later, her condition had escalated into deep depression. She felt sad, lonely and constantly afraid.

Amy is not alone. Depression is one of the most common medical problems in North America. According to worldwide research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, depression ranks fourth as a cause of disability and early death. One could say depression is just as life threatening a disease as cancer.

Depression occurs across gender, race and age lines. Women seem to be more prone to depression than men but depressed men are more likely to take their own lives. The ailment can drastically affect the quality of life of both victims and their families.

Depression affects mood, memory, physical health and behaviour. Patients like Amy often experience one or more symptoms: sadness or hopelessness, low self-esteem, low energy, lethargy, loss of appetite and an inability to enjoy daily life.


Is it the pressure of living in an ever-changing world? Toxins in the environment? Too much work? The stress of family life and love relationships?

The earliest medical descriptions of depression date back some three thousand years to The Inner Classic – an ancient Chinese medicine textbook which explains how mental illness is the result of imbalance in the body, or disharmony between nature and the person. Rather than blame supernatural forces, human beings and nature must enjoy a harmonious interrelationship in order to stay healthy. One must respect and obey nature and adapt to change—in the same way we adapt our dress and eating habits as the seasons transform.

Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that our physiological activities depend on a harmonious relationship between organs within the body. In a healthy state the body’s yin and yang is balanced. There’s an abundance of qi (pronounced ‘chee’) flowing from the organs to the surface of the body, then flowing back to organs. With this qi circulation, internal organs are able to nourish and support each other. Disease occurs when there’s a blockage or interruption of qi movement through an organ or a meridian.

Depression can be caused by blockage in the heart, liver, kidney or spleen, and/or their meridians. But TCM incorporates a wider theory about the organs. The concept of Heart includes not only the organ itself but also the idea that the heart is a mental/emotional centre. The liver, in addition to its metabolic function, is in charge of our feelings of anger or anxiety. The Kidney governs genetic predisposition, endocrine (glandular) function and reproductive and urological systems. The same is true of the spleen, which correlates with nutrition, digestive and immunity systems.

According to TCM, depression manifests itself in the mind or the heart but most often it is rooted in a stagnant liver – or impacted by a qi deficiency in the kidney and/or the spleen. TCM also states that external factors have impact upon mental health. These influences are known as ‘evil qi’. So our life environment may also be the dominant cause of depression.

The Inner Classic text states that:

If there is heat, cool it;

If there is cold, warm it;

If there is dryness, moisten it;

If there is dampness, dry it;

If there is vacuity, supplement it; and

If there is repletion, drain it.

One significant characteristic of TCM treatment for depression is that it pursues harmony between the body’s organs – restoring the balance between yin and yang, human and environment. TCM takes the uniqueness of every patient into consideration. It looks for the underlying causes of the imbalance, the patterns of disharmony. Based on them, a method of treatment is devised for each individual patient. Treatment can include herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, exercises (qi going, tai chi and breathing exercise) and therapeutic massage.

The proper practice of TCM should never give rise to undesirable side-effects. The first principle of the TCM mantra is “Do Not Harm.” The process of treatment often goes beyond relief from depression alone. Through TCM treatment, other symptoms may also be cured. Patients should experience an overall improvement of their well being – a sense of opening up to full potential and above all a spiritual rebirth and more zest for life. It may take a week or a few months before patients feel fully rejuvenated but those suffering from depression should experience daily progress throughout treatment.


Acupuncture has been practiced extensively outside of China since the 1970s. It has proven to be successful in the treatment of many ailments, including depression. Dr. David Eisenberg, a Clinical Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School states: “There is evidence acupuncture influences the production and distribution of a great many neurotransmitters – substances that transmit nerve impulses to the brain – and neuromodulaters (substances produced by neurons which affect neurotransmitters), and that in turn alters the perception of the mind.” In more than twenty years of practice, I used acupuncture to help many patients recover from depression. After treatment, patients generally sleep better. They have more energy and improved clarity of thinking, less agitation, calmer behaviour and better colour in their facial complexion. Expertly applied, acupuncture provides a safe, effective and natural method of healing for patients with mood disorders.


Depression is a complicated ailment with numerous symptoms. In order to be effective, a specific herbal prescription must be written for each individual case. Also, herbal supplements work most effectively when administered in conjunction with acupuncture. It is amazing to see how rapid the response can be when the patient is also willing to follow dietary recommendations.

Chinese herbal medicine has been practiced for over five thousand years. It has evolved through both theory and practice. It is not surprising then, that extensive experience has been accumulated in the ‘natural’ treatment of mental ailments like depression. There are over ten thousand herbs available – one thousand of these are prescribed regularly by experienced TCM practitioners. In my opinion, one must treat the entire body because depression affects so many systems at the same time. This is why Chinese herbs are frequently used in compound prescriptions. In this way, they can be specifically formulated for each patient.

In combination with acupuncture and dietary therapy, I most often use the following herb groups for treatment of depression.


To treat depression the heart meridian must be nourished and rejuvenated with tonic herbs. To achieve this, Red Sage Root (radix salviae mittiorrhizae) is used to improve blood circulation. This herb also effectively relieves restlessness. It calms the mind and restores ‘heart qi’ (energy). Red sage root is also widely recommended to treat heart disease as well as mental illness.

– Safflower (Flos Carthami) has the ability to improve blood circulation and break blood stasis from both the heart and the liver. I have had great success with these two herbs – they give good results without  unwanted side effects. One warning however, safflower is potent. Pregnant women should not take it!

– Goji berry (Fructus lycii) is good at nourishing the liver and kidney as well as improving the immune system. It contains potent anti-oxidants that can reach into the brain and clear away the toxins. These beautiful red berries taste good too and are safe for long-term application.

– Ginseng is one of most powerful herbs used in the case of qi deficiency. It is able to invigorate the vitality of all organs. However, caution must be taken with hypertensive patients; Asian ginseng may cause a rise in blood pressure or headaches.

– Astragalus is another herbal gem. It has the same tonic function as ginseng but is much more gentle. It is also frequently administered for fatigue.


It has been found that there is a link between depression and environmental factors such as diet, heavy metals, and chemical pollutants. Therefore, it is necessary to make detoxification part of depression treatment.

– Dandelion is a key cleansing herb. It is able to expel wastes from the entire body system without causing unwanted side effects.

– Banlangen (Radix Isatidis) is another effective herb. It helps us resist bacteria and virus invasion and is one of a few herbs with powerful anti-virus action.

Dandelion and banlangen are anti-inflammatories. I prescribe the two herbs from time to time to treat depression. Both herbs enhance the possibility of a speedy recovery.

– Jujuba seed and Schisandra fruit work together to nourish the heart and calm the mind. Both contain multiple nutrients essential to the heart, liver and brain. They help overcome restlessness, reduce anxiety, tranquilize the mind and improve sleep.


As a TCM practitioner, I view treatment as only half of the task. The other half is providing knowledge so patients can better understand how to care for themselves. This is particularly true for patients suffering from depression. In the hectic world of today, many of us have a nutrition imbalance due to poor eating habits. We’re often too busy to cook or we don’t fully understand the complex health implications of a good diet.


For those suffering from depression, eating an optimal diet is as crucial as seeking qualified treatment. To achieve permanent recovery and to improve brain function we need lots of protein. We also need a large quantity of fresh green vegetables to improve internal body functions and to detoxify our systems. And we need high quality essential fatty acids to nourish the body, as well as complex carbohydrates for energy.

Taking supplements is a good way to optimize nutrition. A Vitamin B complex gives necessary support to the brain. Trace quantities of minerals like selenium and chromium promote the function of our immune system. Antioxidants (like grape seed extract or pine tree bark extract) protect the body from the attack of free radicals at the molecular level. They also help neutralize toxins in the brain.


Staying physically active is essential to achieve and enhance a good mental disposition. Exercise promotes brain excretion of feel-good hormones. Perspiration helps detoxify the body. Physical activity makes our heart strong so we can sleep better and maintain optimal weight.

Deep breathing is also an effective way to handle stress and prevent the onslaught of depression. Breath exercise increases the body’s qi movement. It helps break down any blockage in the meridians and/or organs. Daily breathing exercise stimulates the immune functions and it is an easy way to keep depression at bay.


After one month of treatment, my patient, Amy (not her real name) is well on her way to recovery. Her yellow skin changed to pink. She sleeps eight hours a night and she’s got her old energy back. Most important though is that she now knows how to prevent the depression beast from returning and she is optimistic and enthusiastic about her future.

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