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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Psychiatric Disorders

By Kathleen Rushall

While mental health is often considered a separate issue from one’s physical well-being, the two have always been linked in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. In TCM, emotions and thoughts are considered to have a direct impact on the physical health of a person, and furthermore, mental and physical health are equally valued.  Because of the importance placed on the mind in traditional Chinese medicine, there are many methods available within the profession that are geared toward the renewal, healing, and upkeep of mental wellness.

Over 28 million Americans take antidepressant and anti-anxiety agents, and depression is considered among the most common of behavioral disorders. While there are a myriad of prescription drugs and therapists available for disorders such as depression, there are also some interesting Oriental methods available for this affliction. Peace-providing physical exercises such as Tai Ji and Qi Gong have been known to help align the energetic forces of the body and soothe anxiety. Massage therapy is a well-known stress reliever, and consistent breathing and meditation exercises can have long-term effects on high-strung individuals.

Even the approach to diagnosis in TCM differs. In his article Can Chinese Herbs Help Clients with Depression? Andrew Gaeddert discusses the contrast between diagnosis for psychiatric problems in Eastern versus Western medicine.

Gaeddert writes that in Western medicine, when a person sees a doctor with an emotional complaint, the patient is often quickly prescribed with an anti-depressant to ‘relieve’ the difficulty instead of being carefully diagnosed to ascertain the root cause. In Eastern medicine, Gaeddert asserts “When diagnosing a patient, we do so through the four techniques of looking, listening and smelling, asking, and palpating.” Gaeddert goes on to explain that in Chinese medicine, emotional presentations are treated just like any other disease, since the seven emotions are intimately connected with the health of an individual.

Chinese herbal therapy is one manner of healing mental conditions in traditional Chinese medicine. Wei Liu, LaC, writes in his advice article, Traditional Chinese Medicine for Depression, that “The Chinese herbal formula Mood Smooth (Jia Wei Xiao YaoWan) has been in use for six hundred years in China to deal with depression. The Chinese call this old remedy "the happy pill" because of its well-known anti-depressant effect.” Liu expands on Chinese herbal therapy, writing about other common herbal remedies for depression. These include spleen tonic herbal formula, known as Bu Zhong Yi Qi Wan, kidney nourishing herbal formula, known as Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan, and many other curatives that are widely used with different patterns of depression, treating the organs that may correspond to the emotion.

In his article, Liu also directs his attention to acupuncture as a treatment for depression. Many clinical studies have been performed to test acupuncture’s affect on mental health, and Liu claims that in by the end of one such study, more than half the patients no longer met the criteria for clinical depression. Statistically, this means that acupuncture is just as effective as antidepressants. A study performed by the Health Education Alliance for Life and Longevity is one such example of acupuncture’s triumph over depression. A new pilot study by psychologist John Allen of The University of Arizona in Tucson and Tucson acupuncturist Rosa Schnyer suggests that acupuncture may prove to be at least as effective in the treatment of depression as psychotherapy or drug therapy. The study was a double-blind study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.

It compared the reduction of major depression in three groups of women. For eight weeks the first group of women received specific acupuncture therapy for depression. The second group received acupuncture treatment for symptoms not associated with depression. The final group was put on a wait-list. The raters who assessed the subjects' degree of depression before and after the trial were also blind to the treatment conditions of individual subjects. At the end of eight weeks, Allen and co-workers found that the women who received specific acupuncture treatment for depression were significantly less depressed than the women who received acupuncture treatment for symptoms not related to depression.
Traditional Chinese medicine can offer an entirely new method of healing for patients suffering from mental health issues. Depression is most commonly discussed, but ailments like anxiety, mania, various phobias, stress, and even schizophrenia can be alleviated by traditional Chinese medical methods like acupuncture, herbal treatment, massage, and qi gong exercises. Above all, patients may find it refreshing that the very process of diagnosis in TCM is different than in Western medicine. The TCM process is thought to be more personal, taking an increased amount of history and examination into account to design a unique treatment tailored to the patient, one that addresses both symptoms and the pattern of disturbance in the energetic equilibrium of the body.


Gaeddert, Andrew. Can Chinese Herbs Help Clients with Depression? The Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine News Source.

Liu, Wei, TCMD, MPH, LaC. Traditional Chinese Medicine for Depression. The American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAA0M).

Health Education Alliance for Life and Longevity. HEALL. Study: Acupuncture Helps Depression.

Cooperman, Oliver, MD. Traditional Chinese Medicine Characteristics in Addiction. Medical Acupuncture. 19 (3): 129.

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