Fatigue is not a disease in of itself; it is a symptom that can stem from many causes like serious illnesses to temporary situations like a stressful work week. Whatever the reason for fatigue, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can assist in several ways including helping to find the source of the fatigue, treating it, or as a complementary therapy for fatigue caused by a diagnosed illness. For example, acupuncture has been shown to be beneficial for fatigue and pain caused by cancer and cancer treatments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a medical system developed in ancient China and still used some 2500 years later, a testament to its usefulness in helping with health conditions. While there are several theories in the TCM methods, energy (qi) is one of the essential principles.
TCM and Energy
Energy runs through the entire universe including the human body. Disruptions or blocks in the body’s energy can lead to pain and illness. While fatigue can have numerous causes, in TCM qi is effected. Fatigue is divided into two types of symptomatic energies, depletion and stagnation.
Depleted energy is exemplified by feeling very tired at the end of the day or even in the middle of the day, but after a good night’s sleep, you are no longer tired. Stagnant energy presents as having energy, but not able to access it. According to TCM practitioner, Marilyn Yohe, Lic.Ac., MAOM, a person with stagnant energy feels tired upon waking or sitting still for extended periods.
Yin and Yang Energy
The two energetic polarities of yin and yang that are part of TCM and Eastern philosophy are also a part of fatigue. Slow, cumbersome, and cold are a few characteristics of yin energy. Light, fast, and fiery characterize yang energy. When yin and yang are in balance, the body is healthy, and there is no stagnation or depletion of energy except for temporary situations like an occasional long work day. Fatigue is represented by depleted or blocked yin or yang energy.
Yang energy that is low feels incapacitating. The person may feel like they can’t get out of bed and activity can make tiredness worse. Yin deficient energy can make a person feel both tired and frazzled at the same time. Night sweats, dry skin, and restless sleep all hallmarks of yin energy deficiency. Women going through menopause often experience yin depleted fatigue.
Other TCM sources of fatigue may be caused by:
- Blood irregularities
- Liver stagnation
- Phlegm buildup
Treating Fatigue in TCM
Traditional Chinese Medicine has many sources for treating exhaustion. Depending on the underlying reasons for fatigue, the TCM practitioner may use only one treatment or a combination of therapies. What is important to know is that the TCM practitioner will develop a treatment plan that is individualized because TCM seeks to treat the individual and not the disease. That said, here are a few TCM approaches to managing tiredness.
Herbs and other botanicals, such as mushrooms, play a huge role in treating diseases in TCM. Some individualized formulas can have up to ten or twelve herbs depending on the practitioner’s diagnosis. However, there are specific herbs known to increase energy and combat fatigue:
- Cordyceps mycelium,
- Astragalus root
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza root)
Acupuncture to treat fatigue stimulates yin energy and soothes yang energy. The acupuncturist will insert needles along meridian channels (energy pathways) depending on the diagnose for the cause of the fatigue and the type of qi depletion. Acupuncture is said to have a quick and direct effect on qi, so it is very beneficial for treating exhaustion.
Food is energy, and different foods have different types of energy that can affect the body. For example, some foods can slow down digestion which leads to the body needing to use more energy to digest food that could be used for other functions. As a general guideline, TCM suggests avoiding alcohol, cold foods, sugar, and processed food for fatigue symptoms.
Qigong types of exercises such as tai chi is said to stimulate yin energy and help with tiredness. There are several forms of qigong so it may take trying a few to find the one that speaks to you.
Rest and Sleep
Rest and a good night’s sleep are some basic tools to increase energy. In particular, mindfulness activities such as meditation, quietly enjoying nature, reading, drawing, or listening to soothing music can relieve tiredness caused by stress. Also, learning to say “no” can help with fatigue brought on by doing too much.
While fatigue is an all too common condition of modern living, it does not need to be this way. Traditional Chinese Medicine can not only get at the root cause of your exhaustion; it can also help in treating it.
Always consult your healthcare practitioner when considering a new therapy or taking herbs, especially if you are under medical supervision, pregnant, or nursing. This information is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended to diagnose, remedy, treat, or recommend any specific treatment or therapy.
- Patterns of Fatigue in Chinese Medicine (March 19, 2012). Retrieved from http://acupunctureinthepark.com/health-conditions/patterns-of-fatigue-in-chinese-medicine/.
- Rawls, Bill, M.D. Cordyceps. Retrieved from https://rawlsmd.com/herbs/cordyceps.
- Soo-Wan Chae, et al. Mechanisms Underlying the Antifatigue Effects of the Mycelium Extract of Cordyceps (Paecilomyces hepiali, CBG-CS-2) in Mice in the Forced Swimming Test (February 2015). Retrieved from http://file.scirp.org/pdf/FNS_2015021514572036.pdf.
- Sifflet, Seanna Lac, MSW. 5 Ways to Treat Fatigue with Traditional Chinese Medicine (March 28, 2014). Retrieved from https://www.onemedical.com/blog/live-well/tcm-fatigue/.
- Weil, Andrew, M.D. Rhodiola For What Ails You? (January 3, 2013). Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/supplements-remedies/rhodiola-for-what-ails-you/.
- Yohe, Marilyn, Lic.Ac., MAOM. Three Kinds of Tired: Which One Are You? http://acupunctureincambridge.com/2012/12/19/three-kinds-of-tired-which-one-are-you/.
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