Can Traditional Chinese Medicine Help to Relieve Depression?

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According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, depression is mainly influenced by the liver.

Depression is a very broad subject. It involves the human body and mind (and spirit). Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that the body, mind and spirit cannot be separated. Depression can cause:

Body discomfort, such as tightness, pain (tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disease such as bone spurs), even the immune system (auto immune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), insomnia, fatigue, headache, stomach ache.

Mind and Spirit such as persistent sadness, pessimism, loss of interest in usual activities, including sex, fatigue, lack of energy, thought of suicide or death, anxiety, irritability, feeling of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, isolation from families and friends, drug and alcohol abuse, difficulty in concentration, social withdrawal, weight loss or gain.

Some people will ask why the above problems have such a strong connection. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on a macro approach. Western medical science is based on micro approach.

Regardless of cultural background, there are different types of bodies. Different bodies, age, weather and food, plus different emotions affect the body in various ways. That’s why the old classic TCM concept believes in three categories: 1. Heaven, 2. Human, 3. Earth.

1. HEAVEN (refers to the universe such as 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 of the climate, which take place every 12 years or every sixty years. In recent years, scientists have realized that the law of these periodic changes has something to do with the cycle of sunspots, which is formed every 11 to 12 years. Their movements bring about periodic changes in the radiation of sunlight, interfere with the magnetic field of the earth, and change the climate around the earth, thus exerting impact upon the physiology and pathology of the human body.

In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, which is the bible of TCM, a chapter of Miraculous Pivot says, “There are various diseases, most of which become milder in the morning, better during the daytime, worse again in the late afternoon and severe at night”. This is because: “In the morning the vital energy of the human body begins to grow stronger, while the pathogenic factors weaker; 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 stronger; at midnight, the vital energy of the human body returns to the internal organs, while the pathogenic factors come into leading place”.

Pulse conditions, temperature, the amount of oxygen consumed, carbon dioxide released and hormones secreted also have biorhythms during the 24 hours of a day.

2. HUMAN (the unity within the body): a) including genetic influence, TCM calls it “the upper heaven”; b) acquire influence, TCM calls it “the lower heaven” such as the upbringing, cultural, national influence, diet, physical training such as exercises. They can both affect each other.

The human body is made up of viscera (heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney), bowels, tissues and organs. Each of them has its own special physiological functions and there is relationship among them. For example, the liver, heart, spleen, lung and kidney belong to viscera and come into effect through the energy channels. They are related to the nerve pathway, but not exactly the same. Different organs are affected by different emotions. When the emotions affects the different channels, ultimately the organs will be affected, creating such functional disorders or organic problems as stomach ulcer, even cancer. You can refer to the chart in the extended version of the article, which is called the five element concept.

3. EARTH – Geographical regions can affect the health and the emotions as well as the food. Food can have either heating or warming traits. For instance, lamb and beef can create a lot of heat. If a person has a bad temper, TCM calls it internal heat, which can be aggravated by eating lamb and beef. On the other hand, cucumber and dandelion have a cooling effect.

For Chinese herbs, we can use three categories to describe the characteristics of the herb, such as cool, warm and neutral. 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, 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 the diseases. These 8 phenomena are called the eight guiding principles, set by the brilliant herbal master Dr. Li Shi Zhen.

Depression and the Liver

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, depression is mainly influenced by the liver. The liver’s condition is divided into four stages.

1. Liver qi stagnation – Seven emotional injuries attack the liver easily. Unhappiness, especially anger, will cause blockage which creates different symptoms. In a strong body, you find irritability, anger and aggressive behaviour. In a weak body, you will find persistent sadness. Those emotions can be affected by food as well, but the major impact is from emotions. Also they can interchange. For example, a strong body may have stagnation for a long time and become a weak body. Qi stagnation can become blood stagnation. Qi is the vital energy, blood is the human cell. If qi stagnation exists for long time, it can affect the blood.

2. Liver heat – besides the above symptoms, you will find stiff neck, aggressive character (argumentative), weight increase, swelling face, burping, passing gas, redness, swelling and pain of the eye (infection), and gastrointestinal disorders (ulcers, heartburn, indigestion and flatulence, gallstone, 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 which work like a filter.

In nature, wherever there is heat, the molecule will expand. If the body generates heat, it will travel upward in the body. Heat can produce toxic waste. When the toxins get stuck in those lymph nodes, the activity of antibodies in those areas will be affected. If there is stomach heat, cancer cells accumulate easily within the breast, especially in the summer time when the weather is hot.

Depression can lead to liver qi stagnation, liver qi stagnation can lead to liver heat. Besides all the symptoms, breast cancer can be formed easily. Modern society is very complicated with a lot of negative emotions and loneliness. This is the major cause of liver qi stagnation.

3. Liver fire – Including all the symptoms of liver qi stagnation and liver heat, the person will face personality changes and mental illnesses. Weight gain can change to weight loss. Also there can be migraine headaches, trigeminal neuralgia, bursitis, tendonitis, and tinnitus.

4. Liver wind – 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 of those areas. That’s why there is something called typhoon (strong wind and rain) in the Pacific Ocean when hot weather exists for a long time. Based on the liver fire, a lot of acute diseases can be generated, such as vomiting blood, stroke, physical violence, vertigo (dizziness), even rabies.

The reason I explain the liver wind condition is because it has a direct effect on liver qi stagnation. There are always actions and reactions in nature, and depression that exists for a long time will lead to these four phenomena.

The ancient Chinese scholar used the word “wind” to describe those acute diseases because wind has the characteristics of coming fast and has a very hard character. In modern terms, we can use the term dialectic science to describe them. Some of the acupuncture points around the back of the head are called wind residence, wind pond. Those pond points can treat rabies, stroke and headache.

Don’t forget – before you get to the stage of liver wind, you would have had the above stages or the disease will come all of a sudden. Unfortunately, these ancient terminologies were translated into modern terms such as international acupuncture chart by using numbers. By doing so, it makes it very difficult for the medical doctor to learn this ancient healing art.

Simple Stories About the Connection Between Depression and Disease

Last year, a lady came to me to complain about tendonitis in the shoulder region. Her face is red, tongue proper is red, the pulse is rapid and wiry. There are 28 types of pulse in TCM. The lung position of her pulse is scattered, which indicates the woman has heat that sometimes can lead to liver fire. Besides, anger affects the liver, sadness affects the lung. I told her that her problems came from grief. Her tears came out and she told me that when she went home one day she found her husband making love with her best girl friend.

The shoulder region is the first channel in human body. It is called the lung channel. When we come to the world, we have to breathe. When the baby is not breathing well, the body will be in trouble in the future. In TCM theory, when the lung is affected, the next organ which is the large intestine will be affected too. When people have disease, firstly it will show in the external area, which is the skin surface; secondly it will affect the channel, thirdly, the internal organs.

For people who suffer from grief, they would manifest lung disorders such as asthma, tuberculosis, lung cancer and also large intestine problems such as colitis, diverticular disease and large intestine cancer. The lung channels are correlated to the large intestine and the pathway of the channels are from the thumb to the chest. Depression can affect a few different organs directly and indirectly.

If you look at your friends and think about your upbringing, personal experience, you will agree with me. The older you are, the more you will find. Wisdom comes with age. The TCM medical system has a very long history; it is very complicated but actually is very down to earth. The human body is an organic whole. When we think about humans, we must disengage the mechanistic thinking. Peace and Harmony!


If you want to learn more about depression, click here:

Tom Fung is a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and Acupuncturist in Markham, Ont. He received a diploma of modern Chinese medicine and Acupuncture in 1975. He established the Tom Fung Holistic Acupuncture Clinic in Toronto in 1979. He graduated as doctor of internal Chinese medicine, and received an Acupuncture certificate in Xiamen China University in 1985. Office: 179 Main St. N., Markham, ON. For information or appointment, email:, call: (905) 554-8849, or visit:

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