‘Free and Easy Wanderer’: Herbs for depression and stagnation

2014-04-02 10.12.16Want creativity and vision – not irritability, depression or tension? Spring is the best season to make sure your Liver energy is flowing freely! In the traditional Chinese medical worldview, the Liver has a huge responsibility – circulating Qi and Blood smoothly around the body. If it’s stagnant, it can lead to all kinds of problems, emotionally and physically.

Below is an example of how a famous Chinese herbal formula (Xiao Yao San) can be traditionally prepared. I’m sharing all the gory details because:

  • in this age of fast food and fast pills, it’s easy to forget how intimately we can come to know plants, and how they affect our bodies and minds
  • many don’t know about how Chinese herbal medicine works, or how formulas can be tailored to each person

Xiao Yao San is one of the most well-known Chinese herbal formulas, and “encourages the free-flow of Liver Qi, allowing for open-mindedness and a free or rambling spirit” (Bensky, Chinese Herbal Medicine Formulas and Strategies). “Xiao Yao” can be translated as “free and unfettered”, and “San” means “powder”.

These days we often throw the dried herbs into the pot and boil up a formula, without preparing each herb separately. Or even more conveniently, we may have the formula in pill or granule form instead. In this example, I’ve chosen to use traditional preparation methods to see how much more effective the formula can be when carefully tailored and adjusted for a particular patient.

This preparation is customized to help a specific individual with her low mood, stress, irritability, frustration, irregular menstruation and bowel movements, fatigue, and body tension/pain. In Chinese Medicine terms, the formula frees the Liver Qi, strengthens the Spleen (digestion) and nourishes Blood, making it a very balanced formula.

Chai Hu prepared with vinegarHerb #1: 45 g Vinegar-prepared Chai Hu (bupleurum root)

Chai Hu has a number of useful functions in Chinese medicine. It is used for early colds and flus (of the “Heat” type), and for allowing clear “Yang” energy to rise to the head. In this formula, we want it to (a) focus the formula on the Liver energy system, and (b) unblock stagnant Liver Qi. For these purposes, preparing it with vinegar makes it more effective. I’ve soaked it here in organic brown rice unpasterized vinegar (15:100 vinegar to herb) until absorbed by the Chai Hu. I then fried it on low heat until the herb was golden with a slightly burnt aroma.

Dang Gui - angelica root, a famous herb for menstrual regulationHerb #2: 45 g Wine-prepared Dang Gui (Chinese angelica root)

Dang Gui is one of the most well-known Chinese herbs for regulating menstruation. It nourishes the Blood (for example it is used with Astragalus Root after excessive blood loss). It also helps move Blood when there is some stagnation causing pain.

For this patient, who has tension and mild muscle/joint pains throughout her body, I prepared the Dang Gui with yellow rice wine, soaking it first in the wine to soften it (15:100 wine to herb), and then frying it on low until the herb dried up. The wine helps the Dang Gui to move Blood and reduce pain.

If not wine-prepared, Dang Gui can also be used dry-fried (chao Dang Gui), which is better for gynecological conditions accompanied by diarrhea. If earth-fried which directs its actions more toward the digestive system. When vinegar-fried, Dang Gui (cu Dang Gui) can also focus on the Liver and this may help to reduce bleeding. However, the best preparation for stopping bleeding is to char it (Dang Gui Tan).

Bai Shao - white peony rootHerb #3: 45 g Cinnamon-prepared Bai Shao (white peony root)

Bai Shao is often used with Chai Hu to harmonize, ‘soften and comfort’ the Liver – meaning to relax tension or spasms, nourish the Liver Blood, cool and calm it down. I’ve used an unconventional preparation here, soaking it in a decoction of cinnamon bark (Rou Gui) and then frying until dry. According to Zhang Bing-Cheng in the Convenient Reader of Materia Medica, this method “greatly calms the Liver.”

Rou Gui can also help lead ‘fire’ energy downward from the Heart (aka ‘mind,’ which gets overactive when there’s too much fire) to the Kidneys (lower abdomen/pelvic region) – for this patient that would also help her particular balance.

You can see in the picture the beautiful golden brown colour of the prepared Bai Shao (on the left), though you can’t smell the spicy cinnamon aroma it’s left with! Like Dang Gui, Bai Shao can also be dry-fried, prepared with wine, earth, vinegar or in charred form.

Bai Zhu - bran friedHerb #4: 45 g Bran-prepared Bai Zhu (Atractylodis root)

Bai Zhu is excellent for strengthening the Spleen (digestion) and drying up Dampness (excess fluids in the body where there isn’t supposed to be). To focus its actions more on harmonizing the Spleen and Stomach to treat poor appetite, bloating and lethargy, I fried the Bai Zhu in wheat bran (100:15 herb to bran) until it turned a beautiful yellow colour.

If the Bai Zhu was unprepared, it would be better for drying Dampness (e.g. in cases of edema, excess phlegm, swelling and pain in joints, heavy legs, vaginal discharge, etc.). If the herb was fried with earth, it would be better for diarrhea. Scorching it would be best for when someone’s Spleen is extremely weak.

Fu Ling chinese herb

Herb #5: 45 g Fu Ling (Poria root) 

I used Fu Ling raw here, as that is the best preparation for draining Dampness. The person this formula is for does have a bit of Dampness. As I already bran-fried the Bai Zhu, I wanted to retain the Damp-draining functions here instead.

To drain dampness, Fu Ling is a mild diuretic and helps to remove excess water from the Spleen, helping digestion to perform more efficiently.

Honey-fried licorice root (Gan Cao)Herb #6: 23 g Honey-fried Gan Cao (Licorice Root)

Gan Cao is the most used Chinese herb. It is used in countless formulas to “harmonize” the formula – meaning to balance and moderate the actions of all the separate herbs in the formula. It also supports the Spleen (digestive) system to process and digest the formula, and protects our digestive system from any harsh herbs.

Gan Cao can also help clear Heat and reduces hot toxicity in the body, such as in sores, sore throat, toxic effects of other herbs or drugs, etc. It can also moisten the Lungs and stop coughing and wheezing. Here, the Gan Cao also works with Bai Shao to moderate any spasms – in this case, variable bowel movements (from intestinal spasms) as well as occasional calf/muscular spasms.

By frying the Gan Cao in honey first, we reduce its Heat-clearing function, but enhances its ability to (a) harmonize the formula and (b) strengthen the Spleen and Heart. First, the honey must be cooked to purify it – the foam is removed from the top. Afterward, the cooked honey is used in a 2:10 ratio (honey to herb) to soak the Gan Cao (the honey must be diluted with enough water to cover the herb). After soaking for awhile, the herb is fried on low heat until it is no longer sticky, and is a golden yellow colour.

Traditionally, the above herbs are ground into a fine powder and divided into doses of 6-9 g each. Each dose is then boiled for 5 minutes with the following herbs to create a cup of medicinal tea:

wei jiang - baked gingerHerb #7: 6 g Baked Ginger (Wei Jiang)

Ginger is excellent for treating nausea, phlegm and stomach upset. When used raw, it helps with the early stages of a cold or flu (Cold-type). When we don’t need its acrid dispersing nature for expelling the cold or flu bug, we can bake it. This strengthens its action on the harmonizing the stomach and preventing stomach energy from ‘rebelling’ upward (nausea, heartburn, reflux, etc.).

I was taught to bake it by the friendly folks at Great China Herbs on Dundas Street in Toronto. They showed me to slice it and simply bake on low (250F) in a toaster oven. Traditionally it was wrapped in paper before baking, but they assured me this was unnecessary.

2014-04-02 12.51.31Herb #8: 3 g Bo He (field mint)

Mint is similar to Chai Hu in its functions. It helps to release stuck Liver Qi, and to cool down the Heat that can build up with this stuck energy. In this case, it is drank with the tea to support Chai Hu, as well as to settle the stomach, and make the tea tastier!

The herb was used dried, and did not need to be prepared – in fact, cooking it too long can take away some of its properties, as this herb has volatile oils easily destroyed by cooking.

So that’s it!  

Hopefully with regular consumption of this elaborate custom-made tea (1-2 doses per day), the patient will feel calm, free, unfettered and relaxed with more stable digestion, less tension and pain!

For a personalized Chinese medicine assessment, nutritional and other recommendations, contact me.

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