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