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.
Treating Depression With Herbs
Western medicine treats depression and
Anxiety as symptoms of abnormal
brain chemistry. By altering the neural chemistry, modern drugs mimic
our sense of normalcy and, to a certain extent, can be effective in the
management of mental illness.
TCM, on the other hand, views depression as a chest problem. Unrelieved,
it can also lead to a feeling of agitation in the chest known as Heat
in the Heart. This condition is usually diagnosed as
insomnia, tachycardia, or panic disorder. Some heart arrhythmias and
many forms of psychosis have their origins here.
All these disorders are actually qi disorders, and therefore physical.
That's why some of the most effective ways to relieve do not involve
talking or counseling. Depression and
Anxiety can be instantly relieved
by vigorously moving the qi of the chest. Push-ups work as well as
Prozac. More relief can come from boxing, breathing exercises, yoga
techniques, massage, and forceful crying and wailing, all of which can
release the qi of the chest.
Herbs can also be used to promote the circulation of qi in the chest and
to clear heat from the heart. Herbs used to relieve depression and
anxiety generally move the Liver Qi (qi of the chest). Taken alone,
these herbs may have only a mild effect. In certain combinations,
however, the results can be quite powerful.
Hare's ear root, also known as chai hu, or bupleurum, is the best
known of these herbs. It strongly moves the qi of the chest (Liver Qi).
Its ability to do this is further enhanced by combining it with a small
amount of ordinary mint (bo he).
Other herbs that move the Liver Qi include immature tangerine peel (qing
pi ), cyprus (xiang fu), chinese rose (mei gui hua),
white peony root (bai shao), caltrop fruit (bai ji li),
and bitter orange (zhi shi).
Besides relieving constraint, the herbologist can affect the mind by
administering herbs that Nourish the Heart. These substances have
a markedly calming effect and help to create a comfortable environment
for the Shen. You'll find herbs that nourish the heart in many formulas
used to combat insomnia. Some of these substances are sour date seed
(suan zao ren), longan fruit (long yan rou), arbor vitae
seeds (bai zi ren), and wheat berries (fu xiao mai).
Mimosa tree bark (he huan pi) is one of the most useful of this
group. Though classified as a heart nourishing herb, when combined with
salvia miltorrhiza (dan shen), it also strongly moves the qi of
the chest. Thus, it can relieve stress in the chest and nourish the
Herbs that Settle the Spirit
These type of substances are used when emotions run high. Many of these
substances are rich in calcium and other heavy minerals. There's a long
history of using these stabilizing herbs in formulas to treat psychosis.
There's nothing in the old texts about schizophrenia, but there are many
references to delusional behavior, including muttering to oneself, and
hearing voices. To practitioners of TCM, delusional behavior indicates
that the spirit, under extreme duress, has indeed taken flight.
Anchoring herbs are then required to settle the agitated spirit.
Oyster shell (mu li), pearl (zhen zhu), fossil bone
(long gu), amber (hu po), and loadstone (ci shi) are
some of the heavy stabilizing agents that settle the rising spirit They
are given for short periods of time, as they are hard to digest, and
long term use could damage the qi.
Fire and Phlegm
When used to treat psychosis, anchoring herbs are usually combined with
herbs that Dissolve Phlegm, because in these cases, phlegm has
become an additional disease factor.
Now phlegm is a concept that is a little hard to grasp, but worth the
effort, because it is phlegm that can turn a mild depression into a full
blown psychotic episode. Actually, it's pretty simple. We already
understand phlegm as a synonym for mucous, a viscous bodily fluid.
According to TCM, heat causes fluids and gases to shed water and become
thick, and phlegm can be a thickening of any fluid or of any vapor.
Thickened fluids can obviously impede flow, and thickened vapors can do
so as well.
Psychosis happens when heat thickened vapor (hot phlegm) has obstructed
the portals of consciousness, clouding it, obscuring the Shen, and
causing the mind to lose contact with its spiritual connection.
Phlegm-Fire in the Heart, as this psychotic condition is known,
requires medicines to Extinguish Fire and Dissolve Phlegm.
Sweetflag rhizome (chang pu) is the chief herb used to dissolve
phlegm blocking the portals of consciousness. You'll find it in formulas
for psychotic conditions as well as for ADD, mania, compulsive
disorders, and other conditions hinting of clouded consciousness.
Common herbs that put out fires in the heart and liver include gardenia
seed (zhi zi), rush pith (deng xin cao), tree peony root
bark (mu dan pi), and lotus plumule (lian xin). Not so
common is rhinoceros horn (xi jiao), endangered and banned and
never the legendary sex tonic of folklore, but really just an herb used
to treat heat induced convulsions, mania, and delirium. Water buffalo
horn (shui niu jiao) is usually substituted in larger amounts.
Raw foxglove root (sheng di huang) is a good substitute for
Herbs Don't Work, Formulas Work
Before going any farther, you must understand the limited value of these
single herbs. Used alone, none of these herbs has very much therapeutic
value, and used alone any of them could present problems. That's why TCM
is all about using herbs together. Call them formulas or recipes or
mixtures or combinations; by combining herbs, synergies have been
discovered that vastly increase the medicinal effects. Blending herbs in
this way also allows us to neutralize unwanted side-effects. Herbs such
as licorice, poria, codonopsis, and ginger are often added to increase
digestibility and absorption. Since stagnation and deficiencies underlie
many of these conditions, formulas will also contain herbs that increase
the quantity and stimulate the flow of qi and blood. The famous 'women's
herb' dang gui is often used because it both builds and
invigorates the blood simultaneously. This effect is magnified when
combined with red or white peony root.
Formulas usually consist of principal herbs, assisting herbs,
directional herbs, and herbs that reduce the side effects or aid the
digestion of a particular herb. Herbs can be ingested as boiled teas
called decoctions (tang), milled or granulated powders (san), pills (pian),
tablets (wan), or tinctured extracts (gin).
Joel Harvey Schreck, L.Ac. - A
California licensed acupuncturist and herbologist, Joel has been
dispensing advice on the web as Dr. Shen at
DrShen.com since 1998. Schooled in Hong
Kong and San Francisco, he's been practicing since 1987. He is
co-founder of the Shen Clinic and co-founder of the popular
line of natural medicines, sold nationally in many natural food stores.
He is also adjunct faculty member and lecturer at AIMC, Berkeley's
Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College.