In China before the mid- twentieth century, all mental illnesses were treated pretty much exclusively with herbal medicine. Since doctors and hospitals keep records, there is plenty of historical evidence suggesting that such treatments were often successful. Perhaps the best evidence is the famous Fog Tea of Tianmu Mountain, which, after the opium war, helped free millions of Chinese people from opium addiction. Some of us believe that the Chinese herbal psychiatric drugs of the 19th century were at least as effective as whatever European or American doctors were prescribing at that time.

This may still be true today. Despite obvious advancements in the Western pharmacy, we believe that Chinese herbs can still help sufferers of mental disorders by complementing any modern day prescription or therapy. The herbs are safe, and like a food, won’t react negatively with any psychiatric drug.

Psychiatry never really took root in China where the culture never emphasized individuality. Spending large sums of money on personal improvement is a foreign idea and would be considered a kind of vanity. Even today, despite the deluge of Western ideas and money, you’ll find only a handful of psychiatrists in the Beijing phone book.

Psychiatry might also not have evolved because the Chinese had less need for it. Having discovered a pharmacy of herbal psychiatric drugs, such interventions may have been unnecessary in many cases. These herbal methods may be among the great treasures of Oriental medicine.

Not a substitute for modern drugs or counseling, these medicines can still be a valuable tool in the hands of any knowledgeable practitioner or counselor. You don’t have to be a Chinese herbologist to use them, however some basic knowledge of Oriental medicine can help.

‘Qi’ means the flow of our bodily energies. Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that health is linked with these invisible flows, and that when our qi flows improperly we get sick.

Health is also about harmony or balance, or the lack of it. The terms yin and yang help to describe this. When life is out of balance, we say that yin and yang become unbalanced in our body, causing physical or mental distress and disease.

To practitioners of TCM, most any mental disease is, first of all, a sign of poor flow or bad balance. Phobia, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, insomnia, etc. are symptoms of disharmony or congestion, not separate diseases in themselves. Healing these symptoms requires normalizing flow or restoring balance in the life of those afflicted. Herbal medicine can help immensely.

Chinese herbal medicine is easily the most highly evolved medical system in the world. Its immense scale of experience spans countless trillions of administrations over thousands of years. Its pharmacopoeia includes over 10,000 natural substances; vegetable, animal, and mineral.

Some of these may be strange to Western sensibilities; however this article will recommend only safe ordinary substances which can be easily obtained. Sour dates, hare’s ear root, and mimosa bark may not be as available as coffee, tea, or marijuana, but you can easily find these mind bending substances on the web or in Chinese communities throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

Mind bending doesn’t imply that these Chinese herbs are stimulants or psychedelics. Stimulant and psychedelic herbs have a more limited medical use. These herbs, when used in the right combinations affect the mind in far more useful ways. By mind we mean consciousness, emotion, imagination, remembrance, thought, memory, and intelligence.

The Troubled Spirit
We don’t include spirit as an aspect of mind, because TCM reserves a special place for spirit, known as Shen. Shen resides in the heart, not in the brain. Mental disharmonies often indicate that the Shen, residing in the heart, is unsettled or troubled. We call this condition Disturbed Shen.

Anxiety, insomnia, and psychosis all originate with a disturbed shen. Though sufferers may exhibit deviant brain chemistry, these are not brain diseases. They are diseases of the chest rather than the brain, because the Shen resides in the heart, not in the head.

For most people, disturbed shen will not lead to ‘heart disease’ or any physical heart problem. Nevertheless, disturbed shen is a physical condition and will respond to therapies such as exercise, massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicines.

Disturbed shen can have many causes. Shen can be disturbed by events in our life or in our memory, by stagnation, heat, drugs, diet, loss of sleep, loss of blood, by constraint of emotion, or by excess emotions. Besides disturbing the shen, strong emotions can also affect our organs. Excessive joy or being startled can stress the heart, worry eats at the gut, grief endangers the lungs, fear taxes the kidneys, and anger assaults the liver.

Shen is disturbed by tension in the chest. Thoughts about loss, inhibited expression, and guilt among other things, cause the chest to tighten. In this protective state we feel fewer feelings and show less emotion. Modern clinicians call this condition ‘depression’. We call it stagnation of the chest qi, or Liver Qi Stagnation (LQS), and we consider it to be the origin of many mental health problems. To us, clinical depression is not a definable disease, but a sign that the qi of the chest is stuck, constrained, or oppressed. In time, chest constraint can affect the underlying organs,generating anger by inflaming the liver, or anxiety by heating up the heart.

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 anxiety, 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).

Heartening Herbs

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 heart simultaneously.

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 vegetarians.

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). Let doctor Qiqing Li to choose the right formula or herbal pills for your case!



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