Mental health has become just as much of a primary focus as immunity during the global pandemic. Many have struggled to cope with being in isolation, having a loss of income, grief for loved ones, and so many other factors. It seems anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. It is unfortunate that there have been so many drug overdoses and suicides during this time as well. Therapists are working overtime to manage this mental health crisis.

Is there something else that can be done to provide support for people who are struggling besides medication and therapy? For some, the answer may lie in Chinese medicine and particularly in Chinese herbs. In Chinese medicine, practitioners search for the root cause of an ailment. The root cause of anxiety and depression often lies in an imbalance of the liver and heart. It can start when a blockage of energy is caused that creates a liver qistagnation. This liver qi stagnation over time can cause a liver blood deficiency, which leads to a heart blood deficiency.

There is a term calledShenin Chinese medicine. It is a person’s spirit and it resides in the heart. The Shen also has a connection to the mind. When the Shen is disturbed, this is when issues of mental health can arise. Negative thoughts, inability to sleep, night terrors, melancholy and fatigue can be caused by not having enough qi and blood to support the Shen. This is one perspective in looking at mental health through the lens of Chinese medicine. There are other imbalances that may cause mental health issues, but this is a very common way that they occur.

So what can be done to bring back balance? If there is an imbalance in a particular organ, a Chinese medicine practitioner may use a combination of qi gong, acupuncture or acupressure, Chinese herbs, moxibustion, cupping, auriculotherapy, and dietary changes to build back these deficiencies. First, they will do an assessment by asking questions, checking the patient’s tongue, and, if possible, checking their pulses.

Pulse diagnosis is different in Chinese medicine than Western medicine. They check the yangorgans (lung/large intestine, spleen/stomach) and kidney yang on the right wrist and then the yin organs (heart/small intestine, liver/ gallbladder) and kidney yin on the left wrist. Feeling where there may be excesses or deficiencies of these organ systems in conjunction with looking at the tongue (which shows a picture of what is going on in the body) can tell a practitioner which herbs to prescribe. A Chinese herbal formula is a combination of herbs that work synergistically to support the body to heal. Some common Chinese herbs used for mental health are Shishandraberry, red date seed, biota seed, mother of pearl shell, amber resin, coptis root and reishi mushroom. These are just a few herbs that may be used in formulas that will have other herbs that may build blood and qi.

There are also some incredible Western herbs that can benefit mental health. The most commonly known herbs are lavender, chamomile and St. John’s wort. They have a calming effect and can be really helpful with anxiety. If we look at these plants, they love the sun; they can help to bring light to those who use them. There are also herbs like lemon balm, stinging nettles, wild lettuce, mugwort and other wild-foraged herbs that are loaded with phytochemical and compounds that will support the brain and nervous system.

There are a variety of medicinal mushrooms that can be really effective besides reishi mushrooms. Lion’s mane mushroom, in particular, is a mushroom that can support the neurological system. It can open up neural pathways that can awaken areas of the brain that have been affected by anxiety or depression.

There are so many ways that herbal medicine can support mental health. Chinese herbal medicine and herbalism as a whole have been a part of our human existence for thousands of years. There is so much that nature has to offer for healing humanity. Anyone can get started using this medicine just by going outside and connecting with a plant or tree. Oftentimes, this can be impactful in affecting someone’s mental health. If they can find a connection in nature, they can, in turn, find a connection in themselves that can gives them hope and lifts their spirits. This can be a way for their healing to begin.

Erik Harris is the owner of Chi for Healing, located at 352 Main Street in Durham. He specializes in helping people suffering from chronic pain, chronic illness and autoimmune conditions. Connect at 860-593-8397 or

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