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Can Chinese medicine help with depression, anxiety, insomnia and other mental health issues?

Updated: May 11, 2023

> Chinese medicine recognizes depression, anxiety and other mental disorders as physical conditions of excess, depletion, deficiency or stagnation.

>According to Chinese medicine, depletion of any of the five precious substances of Qi, Xue, Yin, Jing or Shen can cause various mental ills.

>Imbalance in any of the five major organs of Chinese medicine Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs or Kidneys can cause the associated emotions to dominate.

>Skillfully administered Chinese medicine treatments of acupuncture, herbs, diet and/or exercise have different impacts and significance for various mental complaints.

>If paired with psychotherapy, Chinese medicine treatment can greatly reduce the suffering of a patient.


I often wonder, how much more effective would counselling be if paired with Chinese herbal therapy, dietary changes, supplementation and acupuncture?

I think the universal average would be 50%, meaning that in some cases this would be up to 80% and in others 20%. There would be cases where Chinese medicine protocol would solve all the problems, and there would be others where it wouldn't make much difference at all.

Substance depletion is where Chinese medicine excels.

Generally speaking most mental disorders are depletion-based. What that means is that one or more of the precious substances of Qi, Xue, Yin, Jing and Shen gets depleted and fails to perform its assigned functions, causing the creation of unpleasant emotions, blockages or outbursts. The concept of substances is unique to Chinese medicine and enables it to precisely address many other current health problems which arise from their lack, and makes it that much more valuable compared to western medicine in treating chronic illness. On the other hand, Chinese medicine is helpless when it comes to acute conditions like physical trauma or need for surgery, in which western medicine excels.

The five precious substances in Chinese medicine.

Let's have a look now at Chinese medicine's list of 5 precious substances in human body:

Qi - in the Chinese medicine context of substances and for the purpose of this article I will define Qi simply as energy or strength of function. For example if Spleen Qi is deficient this means that the organ is weakened and not able to perform its function of transforming food and drink.

Xue - often mistranslated as blood only, includes also other fluids of the body like bile, lymph or intercellular fluid. In CM, when we say Xue is depleted, we mean that either the volume or quality of it is insufficient and therefore unable to properly nourish, lubricate or cool down bodily tissues.

Yin - refers simply to organic, physical structures of the body as in the tissue of the organs, bones, ligaments etc., but also fluids which are called thin Yin. Therefore Xue is also part of the Yin reservoir. When we say Liver Yin is depleted we refer to the actual physical structure being damaged, which occurs as a consequence of poor nourishment by Xue over an extended period of time.

Jing - is also called the Kidneys' essence. This is our reserve for this lifetime, inherited from our parents and whose level cannot be replenished but is easily depleted by poor lifestyle choices like: extreme sports, poor diet, lack of sleep, chronic stress, too much sex (in men), use of drugs and alcohol, exhaustive, continuous physical or intellectual work etc. The level of Jing defines our health constitution and longevity potential. It is believed to be the most valuable substance by many, as in times of crisis it can be transformed into any of the other four (Qi, Xue, Yin, Shen). Depleted Jing manifests as premature aging, greying of hair, weak bones and teeth, mental confusion, lack of concentration, dementia or impotency.

Shen - loosely translated as spirit, is the most elusive of all and refers to the psycho-emotional state of an individual. When Shen is deficient, one is depressed, has not much will to live or face challenges. On the other hand, when Shen is strong, a person can overcome many limitations like severe illness, life obstacles or a poor physical constitution. Chinese medicine has a lot to offer in the way of nourishing depleted Shen, which makes it that much easier to diagnose and treat mental problems.

The five major organs in Chinese medicine and their associated emotions.

Now, before we jump into a list of mental disorders we still have to look at CM's concept of 5 major organs and the emotions associated with each one to fully understand the point of this article.

Liver - emotion Anger - depletion of Xue or Yin of Liver will cause anger issues causing fits of rage, envy, grudges and resentment but also insomnia and impatience.

Heart - emotion Joy - as in excessive joy, over-excitement and also agitation. Depletion in this department could cause restlessness, problems sleeping, anxiety, inability to feel joy and love, panic attacks and/or sadness.

Spleen - emotion Worry - but also overthinking and overanalysing. Depletion in this element coupled with Lung depletion is the main organic frame for depression.

Lungs - emotion Sadness - but also pensiveness and grief. Depletion of Lungs will manifest as a tendency towards sadness and depression

Kidneys - emotion Fear - but also fright, stress and anxiety will be generated if Kidneys are depleted.

It also needs to be noted that the above associations work both ways eg. a depleted Liver will cause a short temper and anger, and excessive anger will damage the Liver.

Chinese medicine organs and associated emotions
Emotions in Chinese medicine
The Chinese medicine interpretation of most common mental disorders.

Let's have a look now at some of the most common mental disorder profiles from a Chinese medicine perspective:

Depression – manifests often as Spleen Qi deficiency coupled with disharmony in the Lungs and/or Kidneys. The spleen in Chinese medicine is considered a mother provider as it feeds all other organs in the body. Lapsing Spleen Qi translates into a gradual shutting down of the whole system caused by Spleen's inability to provide nourishing Qi for the other organs, and usually is accompanied by gastric problems, feelings of cold, weakness, tiredness, sadness and melancholy. Prognosis is good to very good, but treatment can take a very long time. Still, Chinese medicine can bring certain relief relatively quickly. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Primary Exercise: Primary Acupuncture: Secondary

Spleen Yang Qi deficiency with Xue depletion

Severe Spleen Qi deficiency

(swollen tongue with teeth marks)

Xue depletion (pale tongue)

Kidney Yin depletion

(narrowing towards the end)

Sleep problems: insomnia, shallow sleep - inability to sleep well is usually caused by disharmony in the Heart and/or Liver and overall depletion of Xue. Shen (spirit) rests in the Heart as the Chinese say, and if the Heart is malnourished by weak Xue, this is impossible. The Liver has a lot to say here as well. Raising Liver or Heart Qi (Yang Qi) is also a major cause of this problem. Treatment usually focuses on nourishing Xue, Heart and/or Liver or descending of raised Qi (Yang Qi) depending on the underlying cause. Improvement can be expected relatively quickly but treatment could be long. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Secondary Exercise: Primary Acupuncture: Primary

Heart Yin depletion with Xue depletion

Heart Yin depletion

(dented t and split tip of tongue)

Xue depletion (pale tongue)

Irritability, anger, rage, frustration – this is solely Liver's domain, and manifests as Liver Qi stagnation often coupled with Liver Heat. Prognosis is very good and improvement quick but if it is accompanied by Yin depletion of the Liver, the treatment is long. Liver Qi stagnation often comes into play here. It is a kind of energy blockage caused by anger, stress or frustration and it is easily treated with acupuncture, exercise or even dancing or singing. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Secondary Exercise: Primary Acupuncture: Primary

Liver Qi stagnation with Liver heat

Live Qi stagnation

(swollen sides)

with Liver Heat

(red sides)

Chronic fatigue – this is a complex issue and can have lots of different aspects. Generally speaking in great simplification, this is a matter of Spleen/Kidneys depletion and deficiency. In many aspects it is similar to depression (above) but with different symptoms. In chronic fatigue there is more emphasis on adrenal exhaustion. Prognosis is mixed depending on the physical damage to the adrenal glands and the depth of depletion. Treatment consists of nourishing all substances (Qi, Xue, Yin, Jing and Shen) over a long period of time. It is important to understand that this is the only way, since western medicine still doesn't understand the significance and role of substances in the human body and therefore has nothing to offer in cases of depletion. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Primary Exercise: Primary Acupuncture: Secondary

Anxiety, restlessness, impatience – manifests usually as disharmony in the Heart. but also the Liver and/or Kidneys. Prognosis is very good, and improvement quick, but the underlying cause's treatment depends on the source of the problem. If it arises from excess of Qi (Yang Qi) it should be quick but if caused by depletion of Yin, it will be much longer. Still, Chinese medicine can bring immediate relief in this case. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Secondary in Excess, Primary in Depletion Exercise: Secondary Acupuncture: Primary

Heart heat

Heart Heat (red tip)

Liver Yin depletion (narrowed sides)

Panic attacks, fear - these are often caused by Kidney Yin depletion coupled with problems in the Heart, Liver and raising Qi (Yang Qi). People afflicted with this disorder often have very fragile and depleted Shen (spirit). There are great CM herbs to treat this symptomatically and causally. The relief should be relatively quick but nourishing the underlying cause could take months. Treatment significance: Herbal: Primary Dietary: Secondary Exercise: Secondary Acupuncture: Primary

Kidney Yin depletion and Kidney Qi deficiency

Kidney Yin and Qi depletion

(depression and narrowing at the back of tongue)

Epilepsy, dementia, mental fog, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Tourette's syndrome. Why are all these lumped together? Well, they all have one thing in common and that is what Chinese medicine calls phlegm, or rather an accumulation of it often blocking the Heart which in Chinese medicine is where the mind resides. Phlegm disorders form a separate group of illnesses and deserve their own post. Is there a cure in Chinese medicine? It really depends on individual cases. Some can be super spectacular, almost miraculous, but others are too far gone and will not experience improvement. None the less, it is always worth a try especially if it's someone you care for deeply.

Summary and conclusion.

Obviously, this short list is a great simplification and very rough presentation of often very complex issues caused by a variety of personal tragedies and misfortunes. However, as stated at the beginning, most of these disorders thrive on depletion or deficiency in the human body and for that matter it is safe to say that the personal experience and level of suffering of a patient is greatly magnified when these conditions are met.

Moreover, Chinese medicine is one of the few methods out there that recognize Shen (spirit) as a separate substance of the human being, and it has a lot to offer in terms of reviving and nourishing it, both in herbal and acupuncture treatments.

In conclusion, nourishing substances, removing blockages and reducing excess as understood by Chinese medicine can often bring quick and mostly lasting relief, and greatly enhance the effectiveness of any psychotherapy.

by Maciek

Maciek at Terrealuma healing refuge

The author is an Integrative Chinese medicine practitioner offering online consultations. In his online practice he works with herbs, supplements, diet, and emotions and has great success in improving mental condition of his clients.

Check out his clients testimonials.


I am not a medical professional or a doctor and none of the content of this article constitutes medical advice. You should always ask your doctor if you experience any ill symptoms.

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