Updated: November 24th, 2020

Did you know traditional Chinese medicine is recognized by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a complementary therapy that is effective for alleviating pain and improving quality of life? Chinese medicine is so appealing to the NIH that the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is currently funding a variety of research studies on its effectiveness for conditions such as fibromyalgia, joint pain, and heart disease.

This 3,000-year-old practice is also promising for dozens of other health conditions. In fact, many experienced practitioners utilize Chinese medicine as a natural treatment for anxiety and depression.

Associate Professor Heidi Most describes how, from a Chinese medicine perspective, “depression and anxiety can be understood as a disturbance to the shen, roughly translated as our spirit.” Most explains in this interview how acupuncture, herbs, dietary therapy, qi gong, and tai chi are all useful for treating depression and anxiety.

Broadly speaking, how can Chinese medicine help address issues related to depression and anxiety?

From a Chinese medicine perspective, depression and anxiety can be understood as a disturbance to the shen, roughly translated as our spirit. When the shen is disturbed, manifestations might include a feeling of lack of meaning in one’s life, an inability to connect to other people, feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing, lack of energy, and feeling inauthentic, among other things. Also, if qi/energy is stuck in the body, not moving smoothly, the emotions may also get stuck, in fear, or anger, or grief for instance. Chinese medicine treats these conditions by reconnecting the spirit with the deepest sense of our self, and with something larger than our selves. And it can guide the qi to move more smoothly, alleviating feelings of being stuck emotionally or spiritually.

What Chinese medicine therapies are most beneficial for those with depression and anxiety?

Acupuncture, herbs, dietary therapy, qi gong, and tai chi are all useful for treating depression and anxiety. No matter if you choose acupuncture or herbs, or use them both, one should always be eating healthfully and exercising. Chinese dietary therapy can help identify the best foods for a particular constitution. Qi gong and tai chi are gentle ways to learn how to move energy in your own body. Another concept in Chinese medicine is the importance of opening our sensory orifices, the portals of perception, so we can see and taste and hear the world in a different and healthier way. In this case, one can use incense, chanting, voice therapy, sound therapy, and visualizations to help move out of depression or anxiety.

What acupuncture point or herbs would a practitioner generally recommend to a patient with depression and anxiety?

Chinese medicine always treats the individual and not the disease. The beauty of Chinese medicine is that there are no set point formulas or herbal prescriptions…the treatment is really based on the individual. It’s like making a beautiful meal: the points and herbs work synergistically to create something that is larger than the individual ingredients.

Having said that, there are particular points and herbs that might be very useful. For instance, there are a group of points on the upper chest called the Kidney transport points. Each of these points deals with an emotional or spiritual aspect that relates to one of the five elements. For instance, if I am stuck in grief, I might use the point that is associated with metal to help acknowledge and move beyond that emotion. There are herbs that are used for wound healing which are very useful in treating anxiety and depression. The thought is that the spirit can be wounded just like the physical body. There are points and herbs that can help open our eyes so we see the world differently and that can help calm our fears, or give us the will to face the world.

What are the best Chinese herbs for anxiety?

Chinese herbal remedies for anxiety have been scientifically studied for decades. A well-known Chinese herb for anxiety is ginkgo biloba, one of the world’s oldest tree species.

Many herbal remedies contain blends of specially-crafted ingredients that promote a soothing anti-anxiety effect on the mind. A popular remedy is Banxia houpu decoction, which contains pinellia tuber, magnolia bark, hoelen, perilla herb, and ginger rhizome.
Most traditional Chinese medicine practitioners recommend using herbs for severe anxiety or anxiety disorders while under the direct supervision of a healthcare provider.

What are the best Chinese herbs for depression?

In the ancient tradition, Chaihu is a classic Chinese medicine for depression that works by soothing gan (liver) qi stagnation, a syndrome characterized by a depressed mood and chest tightness. Other Chinese herbs for depression, such as Banxia houpu decoction, are also used for anxiety.

Chinese herb formulas used for depression and supported by scientific research include haihu shugansan ganmaidazao decoction, sinisan, kaixinsan, shuganjieyu capsules, wuling capsules, and yueju.

How long might it take for someone to notice results?

People are often helped during the first session by the powerful language of Chinese medicine to describe disturbances of the spirit. But like many complicated conditions, it takes the dedication of patient and practitioner working together to make the necessary changes in one’s body, mind and spirit. Length of treatment very much depends on the severity of the condition. Anxiety can often be addressed quickly. Long term, debilitating depression can be a much longer process. But during the process, the patient can see progress, in small and large ways. This is another important concept in Chinese medicine: there is always the possibility for healing, no matter how intractable the disease.

Western vs. Chinese medicine for treating anxiety and depression

The conventional Western medicine approach to alleviating anxiety and depression centers around two main treatments: prescription medications and psychotherapy. While these approaches do have scientific support, they can cause uncomfortable side effects, are often prohibitively expensive, or (in the case of medications) tend to focus only on treating symptoms. Not everyone responds positively to conventional Western approaches, either. We see this in the rise of a phenomenon called treatment-resistant depression.

Many Western doctors have accepted the concept of natural treatment for anxiety and depression through techniques such as exercise, dietary modifications, mindfulness techniques like meditation, and (less commonly) traditional Chinese medicine. However, these are generally relegated to adjunct therapies, if they are even discussed with patients at all.

Unlike their Western peers, traditional Eastern practitioners focus on healing the individual rather than simply treating or masking symptoms of a disease. With the support of their practitioners, individuals utilizing Chinese medicine and herbs for anxiety and depression embark on a journey of restoration in body, mind, and spirit. In the Chinese medicine tradition, treating depression naturally begins by identifying and supporting the individual’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and energetic needs.

Conclusion

Chinese medicine for depression and anxiety has been practiced for thousands of years and is still popular today in both Eastern and Western societies. At a time when mood disorders and crises of mind and spirit are on the rise, many health experts and individuals are looking for natural treatment for anxiety and depression as a way to restore the individual, planetary, and collective sense of well-being and harmony.
If you’re interested in discovering how traditional Chinese medicine can benefit your mental health, find a qualified practitioner in your area who can provide you with the therapies, techniques, and support needed to accelerate your healing journey.

Frequently Asked Questions about Chinese Medicine

Is hypnosis used in traditional Chinese medicine?
While hypnosis is not a standard methodology in traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners may use other mindfulness-based techniques such as meditation and chanting which can have a hypnotic affect. Recently, there have also been studies examining the possible synergistic effect of hypnosis combined with acupuncture.

Does Chinese herbal medicine work?
Chinese herbal medicine works for a range of health conditions including mood disorders. Decades of scientific data along with thousands of years of application support this ancient practice as an effective way to promote natural healing in body and mind. Like any treatment or intervention, traditional Chinese medicine may affect people differently, and in rare instances, adverse effects may occur.

Is Chinese medicine safe?
While most Chinese medicines are safe, some may be contaminated by heavy metals, pesticides, toxins, mislabeled herbs, or microorganisms due to shoddy manufacturing processes. These contaminants may cause health problems or adverse effects. In rare cases, reports of serious adverse effects have been reported in some individuals after using Chinese medicines.
To maximize the safety and experience of your Chinese medicine treatment, always seek the supervision and guidance of an experienced traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and select high-quality products.