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Chinese Herbal Prozac: Depression and Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Brian Benjamin Carter


In clinical setting we frequently see patients who are taking antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, and Wellbutrin. Chinese herbs like Albizzia may be an alternative to psychiatric drugs. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic medicine- it has never separated the mind and body, and so can comprehensively treat conditions with both physical and mental symptoms.

Depression & Chinese HerbsCauses of Depression

As with all disease, we need an accurate diagnosis before we can begin treatment. Depression has many causes. Not all of them will be helped by antidepressants. If your self-esteem is intact, your mood does not vary during the day, and you are not impaired socially, your depression may have a physical cause.

Some physical/biomedical causes of depression are: chronic pain, chronic fatigue, normal grief, vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, folate deficiency anemia, viral disease, connective tissue/collagen disorders (arthritis), an organic brain disorder, drug side-effects, cancer, and endocrine abnormalities. Chinese Medicine can enhance the health of anyone with any of these conditions.

Psychiatric Drug Therapy

Controlling depression with pharmaceuticals usually requires weeks or months of experimentation with various drugs at different dosages. During this experimentation, the patient experiences physical and mental side-effects which can range from the annoying to the unbearable. Chinese herbal medicine, properly practiced, does not cause side-effects and so may ultimately be preferable to psychiatric medications.

However, there are many grave situations where psychiatric pharmaceuticals are essential, and not taking them can endanger the well-being, or even the life of the patient. More and more M.D.'s are now working to minimize the amount of pharmaceuticals taken by each patient, and some are even working with OMD's to utilize acupuncture and Chinese herbs to slowly take the patient off of drugs and cure the root problem.

How Chinese Medicine Diagnoses Depression

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we always conduct a thorough evaluation of the patient. Symptoms and other diagnostic findings are like the pieces of a puzzle. The puzzle is a diagnosis that describes a patient's particular imbalances. Treatment arises naturally from this diagnosis. In TCM (unlike western biomedicine) there is a treatment for every diagnosis.

One simple way to understand depression is to use TCM's 5-Element system. The 5 Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Each element is associated with a particular strength, weaknesses, color, sound, etc. Three common 5-Element types in depression are Earth, Water, and Wood.

Earth-Type Depression

Water-Type Depression

Wood-Type Depression

"Can't keep up" "Can't get it up" "All bunched up"
Digestive Problems, Weight Gain, Fatigue, Loose Stool Impotence, Morning Diarrhea, Knee and Low Back Problems, Frequent Urination Eye Problems (red, painful, dry, etc.), Wiry build, Pain in ribcage area, Headaches on top or sides of head
Worry, Overwhelm Fear Irritability, Frustration, Anger, Short Temper

Earth types can't keep up. They often experience digestive deficiency, become tired and overwhelmed easily, and are prone to worry and weight gain. They become depressed as a result of deficiency.

Water types have deficiencies in their 'root' energy. This is most associated with old age, or extreme chronic illness.

Wood types get depressed because ≥they are all bunched up. They are easy to anger. When anger is focused inward, it turns into depression. They are irritable, have short tempers, and tend to be skinnier than the Earth type. Wood types become depressed as a result of stagnation.

Of course, a TCM diagnosis must be much more specific than this before treatment can begin. Then the practitioner moves from diagnosis (What is the disease?) to treatment principles (What strategies should we use to balance the patient?). For example, they may want to increase the patient's energy, move stagnation, and calm the spirit. Herbs and herb formulas are chosen that fit the patient's symptoms, diagnosis, and the practitioner's treatment principles.

Albizzia - Chinese Herbal Prozac Alternative?

Cortex Albizzia Julbrissin (mimosa tree bark) is a TCM herb in the Nourish the Heart and Calm the Spirit category. It is traditionally used to calm the spirit and relieve emotional constraint when the associated symptoms of bad temper, depression, insomnia, irritability and poor memory are present. It also relieves pain and dissipates abscesses and swelling due to trauma (including fractures).

The flower of the mimosa tree is also used to relieve constrained Liver qi, and calm the spirit when the associated symptoms of insomnia, poor memory, irritability, epigastric pain, and feelings of pressure in the chest are present. Research has shown that the flower of the mimosa tree has a sedative effect.

German scientists assert that mimosa tree bark is part of the heavily-guarded Coca Cola recipe (a concoction that has been making people happy for decades!).

Understanding the meaning of åSpiritπ

In Chinese Medicine, åspiritπ is conscious awareness, the more emotional and elusive aspect of being. The body must be in a good state of health, and there must be sufficient nourishment and balance for the spirit to be at peace. When improper diet, extreme emotions, trauma, and external diseases injure the body, the spirit does not have a comfortable place to rest. To address this problem, we balance the underlying problem, but in the meantime we also calm the spirit. Thus, in TCM, we treat the cause of the depression AND we calm the spirit so that the patient feels happier and more at peace.


It is safe to say that there are people on anti-depressant medications that do not need them. More exacting diagnosis by all healthcare practitioners will lead to more appropriate treatments. Psychiatric medications often cause unwanted side-effects. Proper TCM treatment does not cause side-effects. Because TCM is a holistic medicine that integrates the body and mind in its diagnostic process and treatment strategies, it is a viable solution for the treatment of depression.

Brian Benjamin Carter is the Editor of The Pulse of Oriental Medicine, a writer for Being Well (a monthly e-newsletter), and an Intern at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Brian lives in beautiful San Diego, California and is shamelessly addicted to double espressos.

Copyright 2001, The Pulse of Oriental Medicine


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