Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Stress

Every living thing experiences stress throughout its lifespan. Over time, each organism has evolved a complex set of responses to the stresses it experiences. Human stress response includes behaviors and a complex cascade of hormones and chemicals. Stress is, by definition, an imbalance of mind and body equilibrium.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a holistic view in which the person is an integrated, interacting system of mind and body energies working in conjunction with (or against) its environment. All TCM treatments are aimed toward the goal of balancing a person's energies and restoring balance. Through the use of acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other traditional therapies, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help to relieve stress and unwind its harmful effects your on health.

The Biology of Stress

A healthy relaxed person is in homeostasis, that is, the body is physiologically and psychologically in a state of balance.

When stressed, the body produces adrenalin, cortisol, and other strong chemicals in response, whether the perceived or experienced stress is psychological or physical. The body is well prepared to utilize these powerful chemicals by focusing on attention, dampening perceptions to distractions, limiting the ability to feel pain, or providing powerful boosts to available energy.

When a person is stressed over a long period, though, these substances can cause serious negative impacts on his or her health, including: sleep disruption, chronic headaches, hormone disruption, gastrointestinal distress, weight gain, immune system impairment, cardiovascular impacts, and psychological disturbances.

In the short term, stress challenges the immune system, adjusts blood pressure, increases heart rate, shifts neurotransmitters, and regulates the central nervous system. In the long term, stress damages the body's systems, reduces its ability to cope with disease, and impairs brain function and mental health.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Treatments for Stress

To restore a stressed person to balance, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments focus on unblocking energy flow by physiological and psychological techniques. The combination of mind and body techniques promotes relaxation and mindfulness.

All major TCM treatments have been extensively researched in human and animal models. Thousands of researchers continue to study TCM treatments to understand how they work, and which treatments work best for which patients and under what conditions.

In Oriental Medicine, the theoretical basis for TCM, long-term stress tends to constrict the flow of Qi (vital energy) within the body. This constriction is often diagnosed as Liver Qi Stagnation. As the stagnation of Qi builds over time, individuals generally experience emotional difficulties, such as agitation, depression, and mood swings; digestive disorders, such as Irritiable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and nausea; feelings of distension in the chest and abdomen; and menstrual disharmonies, including PMS, dysmenorrhea (cramps), and irregular periods.


Acupuncture is used to treat anxiety and depression and associated symptoms of stress such as headaches and sleep disturbance. In addition to traditional needles, electroacupuncture, laser acupuncture, and tapping on acupoints have been used with some success.

Some research suggests acupuncture may involve release of dopamine, serotonin and other brain chemicals as one of its effects.

Some conditions caused by or aggravated by stress that have responded to acupuncture in recent research include:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • HIV/AIDS-related stress
  • Pain caused by inflammation and neuropathic pain
  • Nicotine-withdrawal anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans
  • Pregnancy and post-partum depression
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Pre-operative stress
  • Sleep disturbances including moderate sleep apnea and insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Tension neck syndrome (TNS)

In a non-invasive approach, a simple pattern of sequential fingertip taps on specific acupoints has demonstrated effectiveness in some cases of PTSD, phobias, and addictive behaviors. This "psychosensory therapy" may also involve an increase in serotonin and other brain chemical effects.

During an acupuncture treatment, specific points are selected based upon their symptoms and examination of the patient, by palpation of the pulse at the wrist and observation of the tongue. In cases of Liver Qi Stagnation, typical acupuncture point prescriptions include LI-4, Liv-3, GB-34, Pc-6, and SJ-5. Additional points are often included in the treatment to balance the specific disharmony within the individual.

Like tai chi, massage, and meditation, acupuncture often has synergistic effects with other treatments. Several recent studies indicate that qigong energy treatments combined with standard medical interventions often produce better outcomes than either treatment alone.

Chinese Herbal Medicine
Herbal remedies numbering in the thousands, from simple teas to complex decoctions, are the most widely known (and used) component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A number of studies done in Europe, Asia and North America over the past decade suggest that between 50%-80% of patients ranging in age from teenagers to the elderly use some form of alternative medicine, most often an herb or herbal compound, usually without telling their healthcare provider.

Many traditional herbal remedies for sleeplessness and nausea have long-demonstrated safety. Ginseng, green tea, chamomile, and peppermint teas are used around the world to calm and reduce anxiety, depression and stress. In doing so, they help calm and aid sleep.

Complex herbal formulas such as Xiao Yao San, Ban Xia Hou Po Tang, Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, Huang Lian Jie Du Tang, Xiang Su San, Sheng Mai San, Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang, and Wen Dan Tang have shown protective and restorative effects, some notably on the immune system.

Biochemical components of many herbs are exciting researchers with a variety of demonstrated effects on protective, activating and inhibiting actions, important immune functions, antioxidant activity, and actions on brain chemicals. Among these are:

  • Baicalein (a component of Huangqin, Scutellaria baicalensis georgi)
  • Bufalin (a component of the TCM chan'su)
  • Chinese (or Siberian) Motherwort (Herba leonuri)
  • Chinese Long Jing, green tea (Camellia sinensis)
  • Common Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa (Sweet) Nakai)
  • Dan Shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza)
  • Fructus Psoraleae (Psoralea corylifolia L.)
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
  • Gingkolides (Ginkgo biloba)
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
  • Honokiol and magnoloi (Magnolia officinalis)
  • Irisquinone (Iris lactea pallasii)
  • Lianqiao (Fructus Forsythiae)
  • Puerarin (Radix puerariae)
  • Shouwuteng (Caulis polygoni multiflori)
  • Tumeric (Curcurmin longa L.)
  • Zhuling polysaccarides (Polyporus umbellata)

The most commonly prescribe Chinese herbal formula for stress is Xiao Yao San (Free Wanderer’s Powder). This herbal combination is effective at smoothing the flow of Qi in the body, harmonizing digestion, and strengthening the Blood. Herbal prescriptions are often modified to best suit the condition of the patient by the herbalist.

Shiatsu and Tui na massage are hands-on techniques to restore the flow of energy to the joints, muscles and energy meridians. Both these regimens work with acupressure points. Massage has a long history of therapeutic effect with patients of all ages from infants to the aged. The body's ability to heal itself is enhanced when the patient's mind and muscles relax.

A proven technique for calming the mind and, by doing so, promoting the restoration and maintenance of natural hormonal and biochemical balances by reducing stress-caused imbalances, meditation is a mental activity with proven physiological effects. Meditation focuses the mind narrowly, calming heart rate, respiration, and dampening the activities of stress-related chemicals. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has long recognized the connection of the mind to the body's health; recent research has demonstrated the complex communication network between the central nervous system, the brain, and the endocrine system.

Various forms of Taoist and Buddhist meditation practices are used by practitioners of TCM to enhance their own health and diagnostic abilities, as well as to guide their patients to lead healthier and happier lives.

Qigong/Tai Chi Exercise
The physical activities of Qigong and Tai Chi help the body and the mind through concentration and precise movements that gently stretch and energize the body. The resulting harmony unblocks energy flow – or, in the Western perspective, improves respiratory, circulatory and cardiovascular activity. A major advantage of qigong and tai chi exercise is its adaptability – effective routines can be designed for practitioners of any age and any physical conditions including those with disabilities or limited mobility.

In recent studies, Qigong exercise has been used to effectively treat the following:

  • Veterans suffering from PTSD
  • Stressed inner city middle school students
  • Severely learning disabled students
  • Women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Stressed HIV/AIDS patients
  • Seniors with sleep disturbance

Treatment Risks

  • Acupuncture and massage have an extremely low risk when performed by a trained and experienced professional. All acupuncturists in the United States are licensed by the state in which they practice. Education in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine requires a 4-year Masters Degree, which includes clinical training.
  • Exercise programs should be undertaken after consulting a healthcare provider. Certain movements or physical exertion can aggravate some health conditions. It is recommend to seek an experienced instructor of qigong or tai chi to ensure proper guidance in the practice.
  • Herbal compounds have the potential to harm as well as heal, as do all medicines. The active ingredients in some herbs and herbal compounds may interact with other herbs, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Cardiovascular, immune, and respiratory effects are possible. Women in their childbearing years, who are pregnant, or who plan to become pregnant should be alert to the potential of herbs and herbal compounds to interfere with their fertility, pregnancy, or the health of their fetus. Always consult a healthcare provider before using herbal compounds, and inform your TCM practitioner if you believe you may be pregnant.
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