It is estimated that one in five North Americans suffered from mental health issues in 2019, a percentage that has only increased with the stress of the pandemic.
Mental illnesses are far more debilitating than just feeling sad or stressed as they can affect our cognition and emotional balance. Conventional medications can offer some help but often have distressing side effects. This has led to the popularity of holistic therapies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) but you may be wondering, are they effective?
TCM has treated mental and emotional disorders for centuries, with customized combinations of dietary or lifestyle advice, herbal formulas, and manual therapies such as acupuncture.
In ‘On Cold Damage’, a TCM treatise written 2000 years ago, there are references to several formulas targeting mental and emotional disorders. The symptoms included are insomnia, nightmares, heart palpitations, fear and fright (panic), depression and poor energy, speaking with ghosts (schizophrenia), eating dirt and singing naked from rooftops (mania).
TCM is helpful for mild to moderate mental and emotional symptoms. When it comes to serious illness such as bipolar depression, schizophrenia, or severe depression, an integrated approach is best, including psychiatric pharmaceuticals and psychological therapy.
Depression and Anxiety
Many patients with depression or anxiety seek TCM therapies. Research reviews have found that acupuncture can effectively relieve depression and anxiety, both alone and alongside other treatments. Studies also demonstrate a rise in mood-regulating neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), such as dopamine and noradrenaline, as well as a reduction in inflammation. Imbalanced neurotransmitters and inflammation are two major underlying causes of depression and anxiety.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common form of anxiety, estimated to affect 6-25% of the general population. In a review of six studies, two found that acupuncture can be as successful as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in relieving PTSD, and that a combination is more effective than either therapy alone. When two others compared acupuncture to antidepressants, one found superior results with the TCM therapies, and the other showed a similar level of efficacy. These included electroacupuncture and moxibustion.
Women’s Mental Health
‘Prescriptions from the Gold Cabinet’, written by the same authors as ‘On Cold Damage’, outlines herbal combination prescriptions for the treatment of postnatal depletion, menopausal symptoms, and postnatal depression. These formulas are very useful in modern clinical practice, due to mothers having children later in life, longer life expectancy, and the increased value placed on remaining active and healthy at older ages.
During menopause, 6-24% of women experience depressive symptoms. Fortunately, a study on 85 women found that the Bushen-Shugan granule herbal formula, alone and combined with TCM-based psychotherapy, was effective in relieving moderate mental and emotional disturbances related to menopause. The herbal formula and psychotherapy significantly reduced depression, anxiety, and some physical symptoms, such as muscle aches and hot flashes.
As for postnatal depression, a review of trials found that TCM herbal formulas provided effective relief, with the best results seen in combination with conventional treatments such as psychotherapy. These herbal medicines had a hormone rebalancing effect reducing excess progesterone while boosting oestrogen.
The Importance of Emotional Balance
Mental health, including emotional health, is essential for optimal physical health. The very earliest existing texts on acupuncture and moxibustion, ‘Yellow Emperors Classic and Classic of Difficulties’, introduce the concept of excessive emotions having detrimental effects on the energy system of the Five Solid Precious Organs (Zang):
Sadness damages the Lung, and causes Qi (energy) to contract in the chest. Pungent flavours can counteract it by stimulating the Lung Qi.
Anger damages Liver Qi, and causes hot Qi to rise forcefully to the head. Sour flavours can counteract this by toning the Liver.
Fear damages the Kidney, and causes Qi to collapse (like wetting oneself). Salty flavours can tone the Kidney.
Excessive joy damages the Heart, causing excess expansion. The bitter flavour benefits the Heart.
Over thinking or worry injures the Spleen, causing binding in the Stomach. Sweet flavours can relax it.
In addition to the flavours of foods, acupuncture is used to rectify these imbalances and create harmony. An excess in any of the five emotions, sometimes called the Five Thieves, will affect its corresponding organ/meridian department, as will excess of certain food flavours putting the whole system into imbalance.
Likewise, a physical disease will lead to emotional symptoms. For example, hepatitis (or liver disease) will cause emotional symptoms such as depression and anger by damaging the liver.
Overall, restoring balance is the primary goal of TCM.
As the world continues to become more complicated and stressful, it is vital that we tend to our mental health as it affects our emotional and physical wellbeing as well.
Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a great deal in the way of maintaining harmony and balance. I am delighted to be able to work with you in restoring physical, emotional, and mental health.