I noticed Billie glancing nervously at the clock and then back to me as we sat in a treatment room during our first visit. Her eyes were not still but constantly roving around the room, finally settling on me after a question or comment had sunk in.
Billie liked her job, had a supportive circle of friends, a loving family, a good diet, exercised regularly and had a satisfying spiritual practice. But she suffered from regular anxiety attacks that really made life unpleasant. The symptom profile on her intake form was blank — no symptoms to report in any body system. Her sleep was good, and she didn’t drink coffee or other caffeine-containing drinks.
Billie had seen many doctors over the 15 years she’d been experiencing anxiety attacks. They mostly told her she had a chemical imbalance, and that the processes in the brain and nervous system that produced anxiety weren’t well understood.
Although modern medicine doesn’t understand why some people have anxiety attacks, several medicines are effective in treating it. The standard group of medicines, first discovered in the early 1960s, is called benzodiazepines. These drugs include Valium, Xanax and Ativan, plus the often-prescribed sleep medication Restoril.
These medications all fit into binding sites in the central nervous system, producing a strong sedative effect. The problem with benzodiazepines is they are too effective. They bind so tightly to our receptors that our natural “feel-good” calming hormones can’t bind. Some people are helped, but these drugs very often lead to a host of unpleasant symptoms such as dry mouth, constipation, loss of memory, worsened anxiety (in some people) and, most insidious, addiction.
Newer drugs, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, increasingly are prescribed because they often have fewer side effects and sometimes will help patients live comfortably with psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
In many cases, anxiety is a product of one’s life and environment. If you take an unhealthy person and add a good measure of stress, poor family relationships, loneliness (which is often the case with the elderly, a group to which benzodiazepines are often over-prescribed), some caffeine and lots of refined foods rich in sugar, you have a case where nervousness, anxiety and depression are almost guaranteed.
Matters of the Heart
Billie had none of these factors, yet she was regularly experiencing anxiety. When faced with a case that is medically unfathomable, I’m grateful that the tools of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) help me understand health and disease on an individual basis.
As I looked at Billie’s tongue, I wasn’t surprised to find a bright-red tip. With tongue diagnosis, each area of the tongue corresponds to a different internal organ. The tip represents the heart system. In TCM, the internal organs are functional systems that encompass processes from several physical organ systems recognized in Western medicine. For instance, the heart system embraces elements of the nervous system and higher cognitive functions, as well as the traditional cardiovascular system. When the heart system is unbalanced, one can experience psychological symptoms such as nervousness, anxiety or depression.
The bright-red color of the tongue body in an area corresponding to a TCM organ system indicates pathogenic (disease-causing) “heat” in that organ — a condition of excess. The job of the practitioner is to help the patient relieve the pathogenic influence of heat in that system. When this is accomplished, the symptoms associated with the heat should disappear. The body systems should be in harmony, each organ system performing its function and at the same time keeping the action of a partner organ working well. The heart system is kept in check by the kidney system, which not only filters and purifies blood, producing urine as a means of waste disposal, but also is involved with the hormonal system.
In Billie’s case, it was necessary to restore harmony between the heart and kidney systems and see if the symptoms would improve along with the tongue appearance. Since Billie’s kidney pulse was weak, I wanted to strengthen this system as well.
Toning the Kidney System
Strengthening an organ when it has become weak usually takes time, so I recommended to Billie that she take a kidney-strengthening formula. A weak kidney system may be associated with an adrenal weakness. Acupuncture, herbs and diet are recommended to support the kidney function, which often will calm down the nervous system.
A wonderful herb for this situation is reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), a medicinal mushroom. Extracts and teas of reishi are particularly effective for relieving symptoms of nervousness, anxiety and insomnia when the symptoms arise from a weakened kidney system. I’ve found the most effective kind of reishi product to be a dried and powdered tea extract in capsules or tablets. The dose is about 1 to 2 grams, in the morning and an hour before bedtime, which should be taken for at least six weeks to three months.
Though she was understandably skeptical at first, Billie agreed to take a formula to “Quell heart fire and tonify the kidney.” The Western mind doesn’t always wrap itself easily around such a concept. The kidney-tonifying formula contained American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and ligustrum (Ligustrum spp.), with the addition of milkwort rhizome (Polygala spp., or yuan zhi) to reduce heart fire and calm anxiety. The herbs are available in powdered extract form and in bulk to make a tea. They should be taken for at least six to 12 weeks for best results.
Treat the Root of the Imbalance
Another important principle of TCM is “treat the branch, treat the root.” I wanted to treat the root of the problem by toning the kidney and eliminating the cause of Billie’s anxiety. Western herbs are very good at treating the branch — helping reduce symptoms quickly. I recommended Billie take a formula of calmative herbs while we addressed the deeper sources of her distress.
Billie agreed to try the following herbs as a relaxing tea in the evenings and anytime during the day: linden flower (Tilia ¥europaea), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
I asked her to rotate the herbs each week to see which was most effective. They’re tasty and easy to find in herb shops. She drank 1 to 3 cups daily.
Finally, I had Billie carry a small bottle of lavender essential oil with her. Smelling lavender oil has a calming, relaxing effect on the mind. This method became a great way for her to calm down when she started to feel anxious.
Achieving Excellent Results
The regular use of the herbs I’ve mentioned here, along with reducing simple carbohydrates a little, has made a believer out of Billie. The path from starting with the herbs to total relief of her anxiety hasn’t been a straight one, yet she told me this was the “kindest and yet sustainable” program she had found for reducing the severity and frequency of the attacks.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.