What is Chinese Medicine, and how is it used to treat depression and anxiety?

January 29, 2022 Dr. Forrest Wilkinson

Chinese medicine is a 3,000-year-old practice that utilizes acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy, qi gong, and other forms of bodywork to bring the body’s health back into balance. Acupuncture utilizes hair-like needles inserted into points along the body to stimulate, regulate, and harmonize energy that flows through meridians in the body. Chinese herbal formulas and food therapy are used to support, nourish, and clear the body simultaneously with acupuncture treatment.

From a western perspective, when acupuncture needles are inserted into points along the body, they signal to the brain to release neurotransmitters. This includes dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, essentially all of the ‘feel good hormones’. Acupuncture also signals to the brain to release growth and healing factors into target areas to help repair an area that may have tissue or nerve damage, swelling, or inflammation.

Chinese herbal medicine utilizes thousands of different herbs to create intricate and complex formulas to help the body heal synergistically with acupuncture. Many of the herbs can reduce inflammation, alleviate pain, improve mood, harmonize digestion, and increase energy.

Chinese medicine does not separate the mind from the body. Whatever you are feeling mentally and emotionally can affect the physiological body and vice versa. Feeling a lack of meaning in one’s life, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing, an inability to connect to others, fatigue, feelings of inauthenticity; These experiences can disrupt the flow of energy and cause physical imbalances in the body.

From a Chinese medical perspective, depression and anxiety can be translated and understood as a disturbance in the body’s spirit, which is also known as shen. When the shen is disturbed, symptoms of depression and anxiety may manifest. Chinese medicine diagnoses are based on patterns of symptoms an individual may experience. Through a comprehensive intake, a Chinese medical practitioner makes a pattern diagnosis and creates a treatment plan to target the particular pattern of symptoms.

The important thing to remember is that Chinese medicine always treats the individual and not the ailment. There are no set acupuncture protocols or herbal prescriptions for a diagnosis. 10 individuals may come in for treatment, all diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and each individual will be given a unique treatment plan and prognosis, tailored to their presentation and constitution.

Chinese medicine is also effective working in conjunction with western medicine. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help alleviate side effects from prescription medications. Bodywork, qi gong, and tai chi can be used to help relieve anxiety and tension in the body.

Chinese medicine is always meant to be used as a preventative medicine where the individual is empowered for self-care in conjunction with treatment. Chinese medicine has a term called ‘yang shen’ which is defined as the common practice to cultivate health and harmony through daily activities, and maintain balance by concentrating on well-being, rather than treating sickness. Chinese medicine is the underlying framework for yang shen’s support structure to help achieve your goals of health and wellness. The goal for self-care is to provide you the support you need at your current comfort level.

Here are at-home few tips for self-care for those experiencing anxiety and depression:

1. Moderate stimulant or coffee consumption.
If you are able to reduce the amount of coffee you drink, and/or switch to green, white, or oolong tea, this will help keep your nerves and mind in a calmer state. Tea has less caffeine than coffee, but it also has antioxidants and polyphenols that help maintain free radicals and inflammation in your body. You can also try switching to coffee alternatives such as Ryze or Raza. Or you can try supplements to boost energy such as Raw Meal Replacement, MudWatr, or Ka’Chava. By finding the right fit for you, this will prevent your adrenals and nervous system from getting exhausted, which can exacerbate symptoms.

2. Practicing acupressure at-home.
Acupressure can be very effective on the days you are not coming in for treatment. If you press on the fleshy area between your thumb and forefinger on your hand daily for 5-10 minutes, this can help relieve tension and headaches, and improve circulation. Another great acupressure point just below your knee on the outer side of the shin bone. This point is a great immune booster, and can improve overall energy. A great acupressure point for insomnia is located in between your eyebrows. This point helps calm the spirit, and reduces anxiety. Lastly you can press directly on top of your head at the vertex. This point can help relieve depression and improve memory.

3. At-home Chinese food therapy.
Utilizing ginger by itself, or in cooking can help nourish and heal your gut biome, which research has found is directly linked to your brain, affecting mood, cognition, and your emotions. Drinking freshly sliced ginger with honey, green tea, and lemon can help harmonize digestion, repair the stomach lining, and regulate gastric juices. You can add minced or shredded ginger into soups, stir-fry’s, baked foods, or add them to marinades or sauces.

4. Moderate eating or drinking ‘cold’ food and drink.
Try to drink room temperature or warm water, rather than cold. Cold water, although may be thirst quenching on a hot day, it can slow circulation and can shock the stomach lining. This can affect gastric juice stimulation and peristalsis, which can lead to a decrease in food absorption and assimilation, thus impairing the nutrients your body needs to maintain a balanced mood. ‘Cold’ food would be considered raw foods, such as salad, smoothies, or uncooked foods. Focus on eating warm foods with salads to offset the colder ingredients.

5. Practice qi gong breathing.
Qi gong breathing is the art of therapeutic breathing. Remember to make an effort to take deep breaths through your nose and out your mouth. Make sure to push your abdomen outward on the exhale and try to push the exhale into your lower back. You can also take the tip of your tongue and hold it to the roof of your mouth while you breathe, this is said to connect the meridians of energy that create a circuit through your entire body. This practice enables your heart rate to be more in sync with your breath, leading your brain to release endorphins, thus calming nerves, and reducing stress and anxiety.