People very often seek out Chinese Medicine, both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, for a wide range of mental health issues. Some seek it out because other western options have not worked well for them or lead to too many undesirable side effects. Others are seeking it out to try to work more naturally with their body and work on the causal relationships to their issues. Regardless, many patients do quite well with whatever range of issues they seek Chinese Medicine treatment for. This is particularly so if they are engaged in the process, can make relevant dietary and lifestyle changes, and, when appropriate, obtain some counseling and/or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Within Chinese herbal medicine there are any number of herbal formulas that might be used with people having mental health issues. While the discussion of what the person is experiencing is of utmost importance, in many ways the western diagnoses for mental health issues are not very useful within the context of Chinese Medicine. There are no hard and fast rules in Chinese Medicine – rather, properly applied, Chinese Medicine is tailored to you as an individual (the basics of this is discussed in “Guidelines for Choosing an Herbal Formula” and “Treating the Cause and not the Symptoms“).
That caveat out of the way, the study I’m discussing today is about a widely used Chinese Herbal Formula called Gan Mai Da Zao Wan or the “licorice, wheat and jujube decoction”. The formula is an extremely simple formula ingredients wise, comprising of exactly what the name implies – licorice root (gan cao), wheat grain (xiao mai), and Chinese red dates/Jujube (da zao).
In Chinese Medicine terms the formula itself is technically for what we call zang zao – “restless organ” disorder. This is a name for a combination of what arises from the underlying diagnoses of liver qi stagnation and heart blood deficiency.
In laymen’s terms liver qi stagnation is a common outcome of poor dietary habits, self management of stress with food, alcohol and/or caffeine, and poorly balanced emotional states. It’s essentially some of the mangling of what stress does to our metabolic systems so the body cannot get and use the energy it needs and it gets used to relying on adrenal hormones instead which creates a vicious cycle. Heart blood deficiency is a little more complicated, but in general the “heart” is really closer to the “mind” in western terms – heart blood deficiency essentially being a poorly nourished mind. For more on those see (“My Liver is What?” and “My Heart is What?“).
With the right underlying diagnosis in Chinese Medicine terms, Gan Mai Da Zao Wan could be used for conditions such as post-partum depression, anxiety, crying fits, general depression, manic depression, PTSD, and many others.
In this meta-analysis, researchers from the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon Korea, sifted through hundreds of published clinical studies on animals that utilized gan mai da zao wan. They ended up with 6 randomized and controlled studies that met their strict criteria. Within those six studies which included PTSD, prenatal depression, stress induced depression and acute psychological stress they concluded that:
Regardless of the dose and concentration used, GMDZ decoction significantly improved neuropsychiatric disease-related outcomes in animal models.
Now from a clinical perspective it is critical to point out that, while this may make it look like it is, Gan Mai Da Zao Wan is not a cure-all for psychiatric conditions. From a Chinese Medicine diagnostic perspective there are any number of people with differing underlying factors where this formula would at best do next to nothing and at worse make their symptoms increase. Proper diagnosis and according formula selection is key. This is, however, a very interesting study and one that illustrates that sometimes less is really more. Such a simple formula and such a strong outcome.