The Brain, Memory and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine, cognitive health, dementia, Health & Fitness, holistic remedies, Mental Health, Nutrition, Uncategorized

In ancient China, the understanding of human physiology was rudimentary. The doctors developed an elegant healing system that worked well, despite their lack of medical technology, and it is known today as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is based on an energetic model of the body (unlike the western biochemical model). Symptoms and diseases are thought to be manifestations of imbalances of vital energy, or qi. A sufficient and harmonious flow of qi throughout the body and among the internal organs is essential for good health and longevity. Restoring the body to energetic balance remains the goal of modern acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The analysis of a patient’s imbalance is inherently holistic since all signs and symptoms are considered when diagnosing a syndrome.

Ancient TCM texts did in fact note that thinking, intelligence and memory were conducted in the brain. However, TCM theory departs from western medicine in the idea that the other organs in the body may contribute to the decline or ill-health affecting the brain or the mind. The main organs associated with the mind/brain function are the heart, kidneys and liver. The brain is often called the “Sea of Marrow” which derives from Kidney essence and is an outgrowth of the spinal cord filling the skull cavity. The heart, on the other hand, is thought to “house the mind,” thus some syndromes affecting the mind/brain might be classified as heart disorders or kidney deficiencies, and so on. In TCM, the aging process is in part caused by a decline in kidney energy which results in weak bones, graying hair, tooth loss, lowered energy level and forgetfulness. Liver imbalances and excess syndromes such as phlegm disorders also might give rise to dementia and cognitive impairment.


Lately, it is clear that more and more people are suffering not only from mental health issues like depression and anxiety, but grave problems like dementia. Dementia itself is not a disease; rather, it is a symptom (or group of symptoms) which is the result of a disease or condition- most commonly Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of brain degeneration and reveals protein and plaque deposits on autopsy. Vascular dementia, another common cause, is usually from small strokes which rob areas of the brain of oxygen, causing cell death. Patients with other diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, Huntington’s, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, and Lewy Body disease, to name a few, may also have dementia. Dementia can be caused by alcohol abuse, drug interactions or brain trauma- boxers (and now allegedly football and hockey players) are at risk due to concussions sustained in the sport. In some cases, the dementia may be treatable if it is caused by stress and depression, by vitamin deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, drug interactions, substance abuse or some cases of head trauma and so on. However, if it is caused by a neurodegenerative or vascular disease, there is no cure and it is irreversible and progressive. Presently, the only hope for these cases is to control the progression and manage coinciding symptoms. Patients with dementia usually show early signs of short term memory loss, depression, anxiety, agitation, and sleep disorders. It leads to personality and mood changes, language problems, difficulty reasoning and thinking and eventually may lead to motor impairment and complete disorientation and incontinence, rendering the patient helpless. Dementia is a condition that is traumatizing not only to the patient (who may or may not be fully aware of it, due to their own disorientation), but to the caregivers and the family and friends of the sufferer.

Help for Poor Memory, Dementia

An MRI or CT scan might reveal hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) or brain infarction from diseases associated with dementia, but Alzheimer’s is currently only officially diagnosed on autopsy, when the plaques can be visualized. The sooner a problem is detected and addressed, the better the management and prognosis. Being proactive about your brain health is important not only because this issue is increasingly common, but because lifestyle impacts the state of your brain: what affects your physical body affects your mind, too.

I have recently been reading some encouraging information on dementia and brain health: in a recent study, patients diagnosed with vascular dementia had acupuncture twice a week for three months and reported statistically significant lower levels of anxiety and depression, two symptoms that often coincide with dementia. The herbal formula Yi Gan San has also shown promising results in neuroprotective properties in both mice and in humans. (As always, when administering herbs or acupuncture, the practitioner makes an official TCM diagnosis that encompasses the dementia and accompanying symptoms to select a proper formula or acupoint protocol for the patient.) Ginkgo biloba, ginseng and danshen are Chinese herbs that are thought to help brain function and to stall the progression of brain disease. Other research and experts have supported the use of vitamin D, B vitamins, antioxidants, Sam E, Huperzine A, coconut oil, fish oil, green tea, and eating a diet low in high-glycemic carbs, lean protein, low-fat dairy, nuts, seeds and fruits and veggies- especially the green leafy and cruciferous type (think Mediterranean diet). Healthy sources of fat are beneficial such as olive oil and avocadoes and saturated fat from animal sources should be grass fed, free-range and hormone and antibiotic-free. Coffee supposedly helps, as does regular exercise and sleep. Reducing inflammation in your body and controlling risk factors like smoking, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and depression are imperative. Keeping mentally active and learning new things is great exercise for the mind. It’s never too late to jumpstart a brain-healthy lifestyle!

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