Treating Depression Using Traditional Chinese Medicine

Bindi Zhu, M.D. (China) Ph.D. and Ileana Bourland, MSOM, Lic.Ac.

Approximately 35 to 40 million Americans suffer from depression. We all experience variation in our emotions - irritation, disappointment, temporary sadness or grief from the death of a loved one. These emotional fluxtuations are normal, but prolonged periods of excessive depression are not. In this situation, one must seek treatment. This paper seeks to explore the different options for treatment for depression within conventional and Chinese medicine.

What is depression? We experience joy and sadness as part of our experience of everyday life. Sadness often results naturally from defeat, trauma, catastrophe, and loss. Losing a loved one through death, divorce, or romantic estrangement often produce grief and bereavement.

Depression, a feeling of prolonged sadness following a recent loss or other sad event, persists beyond an appropriate length of time. Depression that occurs after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, is called situational depression . Depression that occurs without a particular precipatating effect, or endogenous depression , may have a genetic component.

Physical diseases can cause depression directly or indirectly. A thyroid or hormonal imbalance would be considered a direct cause. Pain and disability due to surgery or arthritis might indirectly cause depression.

Conventional treatment options: Medications are the cornerstone of treatment for depression in conventional medicine today. Other treatments include talk therapy, or psychotherapy and electroconvulsant therapy.

The four main classes of antidepressants are tricyclics, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and psychostimulants. People may suffer from depression for months or even years. Severe cases of depression, such as those with suicidal tendencies, may respond best to conventional treatments in combination with Chinese medicine.

If you receive treatment for depression from a physician, you should continue to do so until you are released from their care. Abrupt ceasing of medication can have severe consequences and should only occur under the supervision of your physician.

Chinese medicine treatment options: Conventional medicine and Chinese medicine come from two very different paradigms. Modern medicine as we know it began its development during the Renaissance, a period in Western civilization marked by the transition from medieval to modern times. Chinese medicine has a 5,000-year history based on empirical evidence. According to Chinese medical theory, the body constantly strives to maintain a relative balance, one represented by yin and yang.

The relationship between yin and yang is further illustrated with Five Element theory. By observing the natural world, ancient Daoist monks compared the natural progression of changing seasons with the function and interaction of the body's organ systems. They came to parallel conclusions regarding seasonal changes, their associated properties (e.g. temperature, humidity level, color, flavor, audible tone, etc) and interactions within the body's organ systems.

This concept of interdependence raises the question of mind-body interaction. Confucius (551-479 BC) spoke of this interdependence subtly, saying that a correct way to live exists, and how you live ultimately affects your health. Although diet and exercise play a critical role to good health, so do spiritual and emotional balance. The way you experience emotions, treat yourself, and others can tilt the balance between health and sickness.

Our bodies operate as one unit, not as separate an isolated structural elements. Our emotions also affect our physical health and vice versa; certain illnesses affect our emotions. Each organ system interacts and depends on every other organ system. You cannot operate or treat one part of the body without having an effect on the rest. Thus, if one of the body's organ system's is compromised, it's effects will be felt throughout the body.

The Liver **governs emotions such as anger, irritation, frustration, and depression. It dominates mood swings and emotional changes. The liver functions not only as an important filtration and blood cleansing organ, but as a major conduit for qi, or vital energy. If the liver cannot maintain a smooth flow of qi, depression may occur.

Within the five element paradigm, the Heart relates to joy, the Lung to grief, the Spleen to anxiety or worry, and the Kidney to sadness. An excess or deficiency of qi in any of the preceding organs may cause a tilt toward sadness, anxiety etc.

Acupuncture: Chinese medicine originates from experimentation with medicinal substances from animal, plant, and mineral sources and pressure points, exact three-dimensional points of varying sizes, called acupuncture points. Empirical evidence collected from these experiments combined with Daoist and Confucian philosophy produced the body of knowledge that today we call Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Acupuncture increases the free flow of qi in the body, opens meridians and promotes blood circulation to maintain the free flow of qi. By doing so, "obsturction" or stagnation is removed and mood improves.

Chinese herbal medicine: Chinese herbal medicine uses a variety of medicinal susbstances to treat depression. Each case of depression, mood disorder etc is treated according to Chinese medicine diagnosis and differetiation of syndromes.

Differentiation of syndromes, a term used for a collection of symptoms, states that even within the same "disease," each stage (e.g. pre-menopause, menopause, post-menopause) will have a different treatment. In addition, each individual presents their symptoms in a way unique to their body's constitution. For example, when treating depression, traditional Chinese medicine subdivides the disorder further into four different types. The corresponding treatment will differ for each presentation even within those four categories.

One popular and effective formula, Free and Easy Wanderer Powder (xiao yao san) and its modifications, has tremendous success for mild forms of depression, stress, and anxiety. Other types of depression might require a custom formula made by mixing herbal powders and pouring them into capsules. Chinese herbal medicine has been used for many thousands of years and Dr. Zhu has used it for over twenty. Most patients see results after two or three treatments.

**Capitalization of organ names refers to organ system classification according to Chinese medical theory, not necessarily to the physical organ.

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