Anxiety and Depression  |  Treatments

TCM For Mental Health


30 July 2021  |   6 min read

For many, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remains in a different realm from modern medicine. If you sprained your muscle or feel the effects of heatiness when too much heat has built up in your body, leading to mouth ulcers or even sore throat, you may turn to TCM remedies.

Today, however, the practice and awareness of TCM have advanced significantly. Acupuncture, for instance, has gone from being recognised by the World Health Organization in the 1970s to being integrated into modern medicine.

Over the years, medical acupuncture techniques have been refined by the latest understanding of disease pathology, anatomy and physiology. It is not uncommon to see medical doctors who have also been trained in TCM administer acupuncture.

Beyond this, TCM can treat other symptoms such as mental health issues too.

“Many people are not aware that TCM can play a role in the treatment of mental health conditions,” shared Physician Lim Yin Jia, Senior Physician at Nanyang Technological University’s Chinese Medicine Clinic.

Interestingly, she has observed that many locals do not associate TCM with mental health conditions, while foreigners seem to be more open in seeking TCM treatment for mental conditions.

While it is not clear why there is a distinction between locals and foreigners, she noted that there are patients with mild depression or anxiety who choose to manage their condition with TCM and they are coping well.

“However, if one’s condition is more severe and falls beyond our expertise – with recurrent episodes of mood instability, suicidal tendencies, or hallucinations – we would encourage them to seek medical attention with the relevant experts, with TCM as the complementary treatment,” added Physician Lim.

Treating the person, not just the symptoms

TCM adopts a holistic approach to treatment, focusing not just on the disease but also on patients’ general condition, lifestyle and habits. It allows physicians to pick up on other details of patients’ lives relevant to their mental health.

Dr Tan Siang Ing, Principal Acupuncturist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, cited an example of how some patients with insomnia may need to review their diet.

If their inability to sleep is caused by digestive issues, then they should avoid late-night suppers, for instance. Dietary recommendations such as the consumption of soothing teas containing rose or chrysanthemum or porridge cooked with lotus seed or dried lilies may help ease stress-induced insomnia, said Dr Tan.

TCM adopts a holistic approach to treatment, focusing not just on the disease but also on patients’ general condition, lifestyle, and habits.

Symptoms aside, physicians also examine other TCM-related health indicators and biomarkers to check for energy imbalances in internal organs. According to Dr Tan, the process includes history inquiry, pulse taking, tongue inspection, and complexion analysis.

Gathering information about the patient’s symptoms and biomarker profile enables physicians to conduct a more accurate evaluation of the patient. People with depression may present with different TCM syndromes, such as stagnation of the liver qi, malnourishment of the heart spirit, or deficiency of the heart and spleen. Identifying the patient’s individualised signs and symptoms can facilitate a better diagnosis and a personalised TCM prescription, said Physician Lim.

“This is part of the holistic approach of TCM, which aims to treat the person, and not just the disease,” she explained.

Variety of treatment options

Besides herbal medication and acupuncture, treatment for mild mental health issues could also involve tuina massages (for internal medicine conditions) and traditional Chinese exercises such as qigong (to promote relaxation and restore balance in the body).

“These methods aim to optimise the yin-yang balance, improve the qi and blood flow in the body, and strengthen the organ functions,” said Physician Lim. “Enhanced physical health allows patients to better cope with external stress and demands — and regulate their emotions.”

In TCM, she added, mental and emotional health is most strongly associated with the heart (君主之官) and liver (将军之官), akin to the emperor and general.

“Therefore, ensuring their optimal functions is of utmost importance. This includes nourishment of the heart and maintaining efficient qi regulation by the liver,” she recommended.

Each of the five organs is closely associated with a particular emotion. An excess of or the inability to manage that emotion could harm or affect the organ function.

  • Heart – happiness
  • Liver – anger
  • Spleen – deliberation, contemplation
  • Lungs – sadness, grief
  • Kidney – fear, shock

TCM physicians tend to carry out comprehensive consultations to understand the patients’ difficulties better to identify the root of the issue for treatment. Physicians will also advise patients to adjust their lifestyle habits in areas such as diet, sleeping patterns and exercise. This holistic approach helps patients to adopt a positive mindset. Dr Tan’s favourite advice to patients with mild depression is to take up exercise for better treatment outcomes, in addition to receiving TCM therapies such as acupuncture or herbal medicine.

With the variety of treatment options, it is no wonder Physician Lim has been seeing more patients who seek TCM help to alleviate their mental health issues.

Physician Lim, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in counselling, said: “I am happy to see that the psychotherapy and communication skills acquired are able to enhance the efficacy of the TCM-based treatment, leading to an overall improvement in patients’ emotional and physical well-being.”

Similarly, Dr Tan also sees great potential in TCM’s role in alleviating or preventing mental health problems. “Current research on herbal medicine or acupuncture have mostly produced positive results in mild and moderate forms of mental health issues, be it solely just with TCM treatment or when integrated with modern medicine.” shared Dr Tan.

Elijah Ng is a freelance copywriter and a person of many divergent interests. Outside of writing, his other preoccupations are with AI, engineering, and psychology