TCM and Brain Health

May 02, 2021

If we want to know how acupuncture can help improve brain health, it is important to first understand how the brain is viewed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). When I first started studying acupuncture, I struggled to reconcile my existing knowledge of common Western medicine theories with those of classical Eastern medicine. I was often perplexed by how differently each science communicates their understanding of the human condition. While Western medicine is firmly rooted in neat, textbook style theories, Eastern medicine is more conceptual in nature, with an almost poetic twist to it. However, there are many similarities between them, and we only need dig deeper to find that the underlining message is very much the same and has been echoed through time, again and again.

The TCM brain is considered one of the six Extraordinary Organs. It is often referred to as “The Sea of Marrow” and like in Western medicine, is responsible for:

  • Intellect
  • Concentration
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • The five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing)

Also, similar to Western medicine, the healthy functioning of the brain is largely dependant on an abundant supply of blood, oxygen, energy, nutrition, and rest.

Establishing these similarities, we may now begin expanding our understanding of how TCM’s understanding of the brain begins to diverge from its western counterpart. According to Chinese medicine, the TCM brain has its origins in “essence” (closely related to DNA from a Western perspective). We receive our “essence” from our parents at the time of conception, i.e., the semen and egg. It is stored in our kidneys and is the original source of life-giving or “Pre-heaven” (before birth) energy or qi. It is finite and begins to decrease from our very first breath. “Essence” plays a vital role in many of the body’s functions and is a major contributor to the creation of marrow, which fills our bones and brain. In short, healthy “essence” leads to a healthy brain!  

The TCM brain is also closely dependant on three other organs, i.e., the spleen, heart, and liver.

Where the TCM kidneys are the source of “Pre-Heaven “qi, which is sadly finite and not replenishable, the TCM spleen is considered the primary source of “Post- heaven” qi or energy we receive from the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Post- heaven qi can be replenished, and its quality can be controlled through our lifestyle choices, such as a healthy well-balanced diet, exercise, and sleep. The TCM heart plays an important part in creating and supplying fresh blood to the brain. It also nourishes the spirit (Shen), which in housed in the mind.

Last, but not the least, the TCM liver is responsible for ensuring the free flow of qi in the body. When qi is allowed to flow unobstructed, it results in sufficient blood circulation to the body and mind, easy conversion of nutrition to energy and the healthy functioning of all organ systems. Therefore, a healthy liver makes for a healthy brain.

For me, brain health encompasses not only the ability to learn and communicate knowledge, but also how well we can process complex emotions and environmental stressors, in order to maintain our mental and emotional wellbeing.

TCM and acupuncture can help achieve both these goals through a variety of modalities and techniques. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine, sterilized needles into the body at specific areas called “acupoints” with the aim to bring balance to the mind and body. The amazing thing about acupuncture is that because it works closely with the nervous system. Many conditions can be treated by applying needle therapy at both the area of concern, but also at points that are further away from the site of injury or trauma.  For example, a headache can be treated by working with the scalp but also by working with areas on the hands, arms, legs and feet. In fact, your TCM practitioner will often combine local and distal points when creating your treatment plan.

Here are a few ways in which acupuncture can help with brain wellbeing:

  1. Physical pain management: Acupuncture works closely with the brain and nervous system to release endorphins (the body’s pain-killing chemicals). It can also control the body’s release of adrenaline and return the body to a state of rest and digest. It has had clinical success in treating any type of headache and migraine.
  2. Knowledge processing, retention, and communication: As explained above, the heart, liver, kidneys, and spleen all play an integral part in the formation and maintenance of brain health. Each organ is further involved in the development of its own type of intelligence. For example, the TCM heart is in charge of long-term memory, while the TCM kidneys are responsible for short term memory. The TCM spleen, being the source of “Post- heaven” qi is responsible for cognition and intelligence, and the TCM liver ensures that the other three organs have enough qi and blood supplied to them to function smoothly. A recent article published by the Journal of Neural Regeneration Research found acupuncture treatments can lead to improved cognitive function. Functional brain MRIs showed an increase in activity in the areas of the brain connected to cognitive function and memory. Strong cognitive functioning increases our ability to stay focused and alert.
  3. Emotional and spiritual wellbeing: Acupuncture can help regulate moods, by boosting the production of serotonin (the brain’s “happy hormone”) and thereby contributes to a feeling of relaxation. It effects the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body. In this way acupuncture can help with anxiety, stress, insomnia, frustration etc.
  4. Increased blood flow to the brain: While acupuncture has long been believed to improve general blood flow in the body, making it a useful tool to alleviate musculoskeletal pain, it can also improve the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, helping you function better overall.

The next time you visit your acupuncturist, with concerns about brain fog or fatigue, forgetfulness or a lack of concentration, insomnia, or anxiety or even a headache, they might use points such as Tai Yang or GV20 (Hundred Meetings) to ease your headache or migraine. SP 06 (Three Yin Intersection) or ST36 (Leg Three Miles) to invigorate blood generation and circulation. Or perhaps, HT 07 (Spirit Gate) and Yin Tang to calm your heart. They might even throw in the Four Gates- LI 04 (Joining Valley) and LV03 (Great Rushing) to regulate qi flow for good measure! In reality there are hundreds of point combinations to choose from, your acupuncturist is there to help you find your custom fit therapy. In addition, they might use cupping therapy, or massage or gua sha to manually sooth the nervous system, or moxibustion to warm and nourish the body.  Traditional Chinese medicine is a rich and complex science that takes a holistic approach to healing. It is wonderful because, just like you brain, your treatment will be unique to you and your needs.

Click below to book an appointment with Desiree.

Desiree is a licensed Registered Acupuncturist (R.Ac) in good standing with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (CTCMPAO). She completed her acupuncture training at Eight Branches Academy of Eastern Medicine, Toronto. Her practice is governed by the understanding that we each have a right to invest in our health and well being, and that the path to healing is never linear but instead is constantly evolving based on our unique experiences.

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