Depression is a broad subject, and a condition which affects the entire human being. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches that the body, mind, and spirit cannot be separated. Therefore, depression can affect us on more than one level:
1) Body discomfort – includes symptoms such as tightness, pain (tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disease such as bone spurs), weakened immunity (autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), insomnia, fatigue, headache, stomach ache.
2) Mind and spirit – symptoms can include persistent sadness, pessimism, loss of interest in the usual activities including sex. Depression can also contribute to fatigue, lack of energy, thoughts of suicide or death, anxiety, irritability, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, difficulty in concentration, social withdrawal, and weight loss or gain.
The Liver-Depression Connection
According to TCM, depression is mainly connected to liver problems. This organ’s condition is divided into four stages:
Liver qi Stagnation – The seven human emotions can easily disturb the liver if unbalanced. Unhappiness, and especially anger, can cause a blockage in this organ, which in turn will create different symptoms. In a strong body, irritability, anger, and aggressive behaviour will be noticed; in a weak body, a persistent sadness is often present. Food can affect the liver as well, but the major impact on the liver comes from these emotions. For example, a strong body may experience stagnation for a long time, leading to it becoming a weak body. Qi stagnation can become blood stagnation. Qi is the vital energy, and blood is the human cell. The human body relies on these two major substances. If qi stagnation exists for a long time, it can affect the blood, which comprises the cells. In nature, things can either survive or die – as in an autoimmune disorder (antibodies attack the normal cells).
Liver heat – Beyond those named above, the following symptoms may be present in someone with ‘liver heat’ (inflammation): stiff neck, aggressive or argumentative behaviour, weight gain, swelling in the face, excessive gas, redness, swelling and pain in the eye (eye infection), and gastrointestinal disorders (ulcers, heartburn, indigestion, flatulence, gallstones, chronic colitis, constipation, diarrhea, diverticular disease), hepatitis A, B or C, pain in the stomach area, hemorrhoids, irregular menstruation.
CANCER CONNECTION: Liver heat can lead to stomach heat. The stomach channel passes through the breast, and the female breast has a lot of lymph nodes. The lymph node works like a filter. ‘Heat’ can produce toxins; when the toxins get stuck in the lymph node (filter), the activity of the antibodies in that area will be affected. Remember that, in every single moment there are a lot of things happening in the body. Cells die, cells regenerate. And the abnormal growth of cells – which is called cancer – is also occurring every moment. In TCM, we call this ‘accumulation’, and it is either invisible accumulation, such as a sensation in the throat (plumb seed syndrome), or a visible accumulation such as a tumour. If there is ‘stomach heat’, the cancer cells accumulate easily within the breast. It is especially the case that, in summer when the weather is hot and stomach heat syndrome is present, breast cancer can become worse.
Depression can lead to liver qi stagnation, and liver qi stagnation can lead to liver heat. Modern society is very complicated with a lot of negative emotions and loneliness. This is a major cause of liver qi stagnation.
Liver fire – When coupled with the symptoms of liver qi stagnation and liver heat, a person may experience a personality change and severe mental illnesses. Weight gain can change to weight loss. There may also be manifest a neurological disorder such as migraine headache, trigeminal neuralgia, bursitis, tendinitis, or tinnitus.
Liver wind – In nature, when ‘heat’ exists for a long time, the wind will come because when there is heat, the molecule will expand. The expansion of molecules affects the pressure in those areas. That’s why we have something called typhoons (strong winds and rain) in the Pacific Ocean when hot weather persists for a long period. Likewise in the body, when ‘liver fire’ is present, a lot of acute diseases can be generated, such as vomiting blood, stroke, physical violence, vertigo (dizziness).
The reason I explain the ‘liver wind’ condition is because it has a direct effect on liver qi stagnation. In nature, there exists always an action and reaction. Chronic depression that lasts a long time will lead to one, or all, of these four phenomena. The ancient Chinese scholars used the word ‘wind’ to describe these acute diseases because wind has the characteristic of ‘coming fast’ and being very strong in character. Some of the acupuncture points around the back of the head are called ‘wind residence’, or ‘wind pond’. Working with these ponds we can treat stroke and headache. Please note: Before you get to the stage of having ‘liver wind’, you may have experienced the stages listed above, or the disease may come on suddenly.
I have a simple story to tell about the correlation between depression and disease. A woman came to me complaining of tendinitis in the shoulder. Her face and tongue were red, her pulse rapid and wiry. (There are 28 types of pulse in TCM. When the lung position of the pulse is scattered, it indicates ‘heat’, which can sometimes lead to liver fire. In addition, anger affects the liver, and sadness affects the lung.)
After an examination, I told her that the root cause of her problems was unresolved grief. Then her tears started to flow and she shared how she went home one day to find her husband making love with her best friend. She had been holding that grief and anger in her body for a long time.
TCM theory states that when the lung is affected, the next organ – which is the large intestine – will be affected also. When people have disease, it will show up first in the external area, the skin surface; secondly it will affect the channel; and thirdly, the internal organ. People suffering with chronic, unresolved grief will often manifest a lung disorder such as asthma, tuberculosis, lung cancer, or intestinal problems such as colitis, diverticular disease, or large intestine cancer. The lung channels are correlated to the large intestines and the pathway of the channels runs from the thumb to the chest.
Depression can affect different organs directly or indirectly. If you look around at your friends and think about their upbringing, personal experiences, etc, you may notice the effect that personal experience has had on them, and yourself. The longer you live, the more you will find this to be true.
The Traditional Chinese Medical system has a very long history. It sees the human body as an organic whole, and through experience has found that healing and disease recovery is most successful when patient is treated as a whole being. TCM gets to the root of the problem, and addresses it on all levels with the purpose of healing body, mind, and spirit.