TCM to Treat Depression

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), depression is commonly referred to as Yu Zheng and is thought to affect the Zang Organs. While the Heart Zang is said to store the Shen or spirit, which includes emotional responses to stimuli, traditional theory also holds that each of the Zang Organs plays a role in emotions. For example, the Spleen Zang is associated with excessive worry; the Liver with anger; the Kidney with fear and fright; and the Lung with grief, the inability to let go, and anxiety.

When there is a disturbance in one or more of these Zang from any cause, an imbalanced emotional state can occur. Likewise, an imbalanced emotional state can cause a Zang disturbance. In all cases, however, the Shen is disturbed. The Zang most frequently affected are the Lung and Liver. These Zang often are affected by disorders in the flow of Fundamental Substances in the body. Stagnation (and sometimes deficiency) of Qi and the presence of Phlegm, which disrupts the free flow of energy throughout the body, adversely affect the body's ability to maintain emotional harmony. Likewise, a deficiency of Yin and Blood can disrupt the body's normal functions.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Categories of Depression

While the Shen is always affected (primarily or secondarily) with depression disorder, Traditional Chinese Medicine classifies the cause of the disorder according to the extent to which individual Zang Organs demonstrate signs and symptoms of disturbance and the degree to which their Fundamental Substances are affected. The most common differential diagnosis includes the following categories, or Patterns of Disharmony.

  • Lung Qi Deficiency manifests as depression with an inability to "let go," aversion to speaking, shortness of breath, fatigue, sweating easily upon exertion, and a weak cough. The tongue usually is pale, with a thin white coating, and the pulse usually is thin.
  • Liver Qi Stagnation Affecting the Spleen manifests as depression with feelings of irritability, moodiness, poor appetite, hypochondriac tightness or pain, muscular tension, fatigue, and alternating constipation and loose stools. The tongue is usually pale or dusky with distended sublingual veins and the pulse is wiry-weak.
  • Qi and Phlegm Clashing manifests as depression with a feeling of having something caught in the throat that cannot be swallowed and a sense of constriction in the chest. The tongue usually has a slimy white coating, and the pulse is slippery-wiry.
  • Yin and Blood Deficiency of the Zang Organs manifests as depression with feelings of restlessness, a tendency toward sudden grief and crying, an unexplained need to yawn frequently, emotional reactions out of sync with the stimuli causing them, a feeling of oppression in the chest, and possibly fatigue. The tongue usually is pale and the pulse thin and wiry.
  • Phlegm manifests as depression with an inability to think clearly. Common complaints are fatigue, a sensation of heaviness in the body, expectoration of phlegm, lack of appetite, and difficulty waking up in the morning. The tongue usually has a slimy or sticky coating and the pulse is slippery or wiry.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015