The Upside to Feeling Down: The Earth Element & Depression (Part 6)

by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

This final survey of depression from the perspective of the Five Element Theory will address the Earth element. In Chinese Medicine, Earth energy is about transformation.

The Earth element organs are the Spleen and Stomach and the Spleen also correlates with the pancreas.

Therefore digestion and the conversion of food into energy are the fundamental functions of Earth energy.

This transformation of nutrients into Qi energy equates to the creation of cellular energy or ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule of energy created by every cell of your body for biochemical reactions.

This is why in Chinese Medicine, your Earth energy is considered the center of your being.

Earth element and depression

And since the centralized organs of digestion create the energy that drives your brain function, weakness of your Earth energy can cause a decline in mental acuity, and become a fundamental reason for the development of depression.

The Earth energy’s powerful influence over mental faculties is a primary reason why according to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen stores the Yi, or the Mind.

The Yi encompasses your mental intelligence, providing the ability to think analytically, have memory retrieval and clarity of focus. All of these functions are thus supported by your Earth energy, specifically, your Spleen’s Qi.

Keeping your digestive system healthy and managing a healthy diet are therefore critical in the support of healthy brain function and the resolution of depression.

The Gut-Brain Connection

When the Spleen and Stomach are not functioning optimally or the diet is creating toxicity, a condition called Dampness will likely develop.

Dampness is a form of gut toxicity rooted in an imbalance of the microbiome wherein bad bacteria, fungus/yeast and parasites or worms overrun the good bacteria.

Dampness is a Chinese Medicine term that describes an internal terrain that is too moist, and pathogens like fungus—most commonly in the form of a yeast known as Candida Albicans—love moist environments.

Having some fungus in the body’s gut microbiome is normal, however, the common occurrence of Candida infestations is likely due to today’s modern diet that’s high in sugar, grains and alcohol, as well as certain medications such as antibiotics and steroids like Prednisone that create a cold, damp terrain in the body.

If you’re suffering from chronic sinus congestion, postnasal drip or recurring ear infections (especially in children), we can surmise there is too much Dampness accumulation in these areas of your body.

As a Chinese Medicine practitioner, we can confirm this supposition by checking your tongue. If it is abnormally swollen or has too much coating, then there is fluid stagnation and dampness has developed.

In cases of chronic depression, there’s usually fatigue, apathy and a lack of motivation, so we generally expect to find some degree of weakness of Spleen Qi (low energy) as well as an internal environment of Dampness which is making the Qi circulation sluggish throughout the body and dampening the functioning of the brain.

Even many incidences of dementia and Alzheimer’s are rooted in conditions of Dampness. In fact, modern medical science often refers to Alzheimer’s as Type III Diabetes because of its association to elevated blood sugar which leads to the overgrowth of yeast and plaque in the brain.

Healing Your Depression

If you’re looking to heal naturally from depression, I suggest working with diet, herbal medicine and acupuncture to reduce your damp terrain and only after you’re feeling better, begin to work with your doctor to reduce the dosage of your depression/anxiety medication.

It’s imperative to reduce foods that increase sugar in the blood, primarily carbohydrates, including concentrated sugar in any form such as fruit and melons. You may need to eliminate all grains for a period of time or eliminate just the gluten grains. This is where a Paleo diet can be useful for a period of time.

Excess fats also create dampness, so fish, avocados, coconut oil, fried foods and nuts may all need to be reduced or eliminated for an extended period to clean up your system if it’s overrun with dampness and a fungal terrain.

As you clear the dampness out of your system, your mental faculties will sharpen, your moods will stabilize and your depression may begin to lighten up.

Be patient if you’ve suffered from depression for a long time.

It may take several months before you start noticing a difference in your brain function and emotional state. As I mentioned in previous articles, sometimes you need to also clear the Blood Stagnation that’s trapping the emotional trauma in your body, or strengthen the Lung and Kidneys or detoxify the Liver.

Considering these factors, you can see why it’s important to find a qualified Acupuncturist to work with to support you in gaining clarity on what specifically needs to be addressed for you to achieve the quality of life you seek on your path to wellness and your journey to fulfilling your every dream.

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at

Is It Time for a Brain Detox?

By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

While we've all heard of or experienced a colon or liver detox, we rarely hear about detoxifying the brain. A decline in brain function is a common complaint many people have and the multitude of related symptoms can be due to both brain weakness and brain toxicity.

Abnormal brain function symptoms can vary between hyper and hypo-activity. Both conditions can be rooted in the accumulation of excess toxicity in the brain or a deficiency of adequate nutrition to properly feed the brain's neurons. When the brain’s neurons are overstimulated, symptoms such as epileptic seizures or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can develop. When the brain is under active, symptoms such as brain fog, brain fatigue, poor memory and weakness in critical thinking can develop.  

Brain dysfunction can arise from the condition of systemic inflammation and systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. In addition, poor brain nutrition is not just the result of a poor diet but also due to poor digestion and poor assimilation of nutrients.

Anything that involves the function of the gut and digestion in Chinese Medicine relates to the Earth element organs, the Spleen and Stomach. Restoring balance in our Earth organs is always going to be a fundamental issue to restore function in our brain.

From the point of view of Western medicine, as we age, the production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes declines significantly, making it more difficult to properly break down and assimilate the nutrients we consume. Furthermore, the combination of toxic food, toxic medications and toxic thoughts all contribute to inflammation of the gut.

Toxicity that brews in the gut due to imbalances in the microbiome, or gut flora, can lead to 'leaky gut syndrome.' A 'leaky gut' causes improperly digested proteins and unwanted microbial agents to pass through the intestinal wall and enter the blood stream. This dysfunctional process can then trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses throughout the body. This is one of the main causes underlying the degenerative process of systemic inflammation which can create a "brain on fire" and lead to many of the brain disorders we commonly see today.

Treatment of degenerative brain disorders therefore requires the restoration of healthy digestion and elimination so the brain can be properly nourished and detoxified.


A Classical Chinese Perspective on the Brain

In Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM), the brain is considered one of the six Extraordinary Organs and also called the “Sea of Marrow.” The Jing, or Essence, corresponds to the body’s constitution and relates to our genetic material. The Kidney system stores the Jing which supports the brain, so maintaining the health of our Kidneys is fundamental in Chinese Medicine to establishing a healthy, long life. It is the Marrow that comes from the transmutation of Jing Essence which creates the substance to form the brain, the spinal cord, as well as the bone marrow. 

As we age, Jing declines, so there is naturally a decline in brain function with aging resulting in shrinkage of brain mass and decline of memory and other mental functions as well as sensory decline such as hearing, taste and vision. This process relates to our cells dying off with aging and the decline of our genes' ability to replicate and rebuild tissue as efficiently as they did in youth. In Chinese Medicine, this reflects the natural decline of our Water element.

The brain needs blood to function properly as blood brings oxygen and nutrients to support its structure and function. Some of the nutrients transported from blood comes from water. As we seeing clearly in the elderly, a lack of proper hydration through water consumption has a dramatic impact on reducing brain function.

According to Chinese Medicine, building and storing blood in the body is a function of the Spleen, Heart, Lung and Liver. Supporting the brain is therefore a function of all five primary organ systems found in the Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine. The Spleen and Heart combine to produce the substance of blood, the Lung’s provide the Qi or oxygenation to complete the blood production, and the Liver stores the blood and helps send it up into the brain to support proper neurological function.  


The Brain's Built-in Detoxification System

We learned only five years ago through a major medical discovery that the brain’s waste disposal system is far greater than what had ever been known.

It was discovered that the brain has an independent and unique drainage system, called the Glymphatic System that's far more efficient and powerful than the cerebrospinal fluid system we had previously thought was the only drainage system in the brain. The reason for such a late discovery of the Glymphatic System is that technology just recently developed the capacity to study the living brain in action. Prior research was done on dead brains and the Glymphatic System works through live cellular action and not through a structure of its own.

The glymphatic drainage system was actually discovered in the process of researching amyloid protein circulation and its abnormal accumulation in the brain in the form of brain plaques thought to be associated with Alzheimer's disease. 

The Glymphatic System is, in fact, much more proficient in moving nutrients and waste in and out of the brain than the cerebrospinal fluid system. It is like comparing a system that works on a drip process versus a system that is activated by the powerful pumping force under the pressure of blood flow. 

To make a theoretical correspondence to Chinese Medicine, I would say the Glymphatic System is under the functional domain of the Liver and Gallbladder systems.

The Liver meridian ascends blood into the brain for nourishment and the Gallbladder meridian is the main drainage system of the brain to support detoxification. 

Both the Liver and Gallbladder are Wood element organs established in Five Element Theory. According to Five Element Theory, the Wood energy is strengthened by the Water element and this makes the connection how the Kidneys (Water) support the Liver (Wood) for healthy brain function, especially in memory retrieval.

More specifically, long term memory is supported by the Liver and short term memory is supported by the Spleen which brings us back to the Earth element and gut health. If you find yourself having difficulty with memorization, than this is a weakness of the Spleen often due to dampness from excessive sugar in the diet. Dampness or a fungal terrain can also be attributed to excessive use of antibiotics, birth control pills or corticosteroid medications. So any of these medications can impact one's brain health in a negative way.

You may notice that your brain gets fuzzy, lazy and tired after eating too many sweets. This is often due to blood sugar quickly dropping with the consumption of simple sugars and the resulting dampness that impedes brain function. A damp terrain is a fungal terrain. Just as chronic sinusitis is now recognized to be associated with fungus, the same fungal pathology can seep into the brain to down-regulate brain neuron function.

Sugar in any form feeds fungus in the body so it's easy to see why the condition of dampness is a very sticky, stubborn pathology to clear up.

Dampness therefore, according to Chinese Medicine, essentially needs to be dried up or drained out of the brain to support proper function and impede the disease process that leads to brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It is imperative for those suffering from these disorders to eat a very low carbohydrate and low sugar diet. If you've known anyone with these disorders, their diet is usually heavy on carbs, sugar and dairy -- the exact foods that feed the fungus in their brain.


Inflammation, Inflammation, Inflammation

You may find you can't recall things as well as before, or perhaps you easily get tired while reading. These everyday occurrences that people brush off as aging can be early stage signs of a brain inflamed with toxicity. 

Inflammation is associated with most chronic degenerative conditions and what we have now realized in modern medicine is that systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. The problem is that Western medicine protocols are not addressing this fundamental issue and rely on toxic drugs to try and ameliorate symptoms without addressing the underlying problems. All the while, the medications are tearing apart the very system that is already inflamed and deteriorating.


Chinese Medicine Offers Clues to Evaluate Subtle Indications of a "Brain on Fire"

Based on the associations of the organ systems and brain function as outlined above, we can make some direct correlations you may find helpful to evaluate your own brain health.

If you're suffering from inflamed joints not due to an injury, then it’s time to consider healing your digestive system in order to cool down inflammation that's likely also occurring in your brain. Hip inflammatory problems relate to the Gallbladder system and knee inflammation relates to the Kidneys. Since these systems are directly related to healthy brain function, if you are suffering from any systemic inflammation or, specifically, these large joints are chronically painful and stiff, your brain is also likely inflamed. 


Beginning the Process of Brain Detoxification 

Chinese Medicine offers some of the most potent medicine available today to restore brain function which has been damaged. 

Chinese Medicine is a comprehensive medical system that looks to restore healthy brain function in a holistic way by addressing the other supporting organ systems involved in the brain's function. 

The brain can be directly targeted therapeutically through Acupuncture and herbal medicine, which can provide nutrition and support the flow of nutrients into the brain. In addition, these modalities can stimulate the dissolution of brain plaque and the clearance of toxic debris. 

Acupuncture can stimulate the Gallbladder Meridian to detoxify the brain. 

The Gallbladder Meridian system offers direct access to drain toxicity from the brain and support the removal of debris such as denatured amyloid proteins that cause plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Acupuncture can essentially stimulate the Gallbladder system to flush the brain and help reduce toxicity leading to brain inflammation. Acupuncture as a form of manual therapy is a critical part of detoxification because it is very common for the body to form blockages internally which impair detoxification and interfere with the recovery process. These blockages can be efficiently released through Acupuncture, Cupping and Gua Sha (a type of scraping therapy).

It is imperative to note: for acupuncture and herbal medicine to work optimally, a person's diet must support the healing process that is being instigated by these modalities. Otherwise, you may be disappointed with your progress and blame the medicine for failing. You must clean up your habits for healing to take place, there is no way around this fact. We cannot continue the same lifestyle habits that created our problems. We must change in order for change to occur.


Chinese Herbal Medicine: An Important Component for Restoring Brain Function

Some Chinese herbs target the Gallbladder system to decongest and move the lymphatic circulation for detoxification. Some herbs are specific to break up amyloid tissue and plaques that block the brain neurons from functioning optimally. Other herbs support the nutritional aspect and provide nutrients for the brain to work better as well as the different organs involved in its function. There are herbs to strengthen the Qi energy of the Spleen to improve overall energy and others provide nourishment to help the Spleen build up the blood. These benefits support healthy brain function.

Other herbs specifically nourish the blood of the Liver to improve memory retrieval and vision. In addition, there are Chinese herbs used specifically to increase the Qi of the Lungs which improve oxygenation of the brain in order to quicken brain function and reduce brain fatigue. Perhaps most importantly, there are herbs to strengthen the energy of the Kidneys which as we now know has a direct correlation with the brain and is fundamental to maintaining the health of one's hearing and brain function overall. 

What is most exciting, is that many herbs have been shown to reduce brain inflammation and amyloid plaque deposition which interfere with brain circulation and neuron function.  And perhaps most importantly, herbs such as Turmeric, Gotu Kola and Bacopa Monnieri have been found to stimulate the regrowth of brain neurons to restore lost function as well. In fact, these three herbs support all of these critical actions for restoring brain health. There are a number of studies to support these claims, mostly international studies from China, Japan, Korea and India.


Healing the Brain Takes Time

Keep in mind, when working on the level of the constitution which includes anything related to the brain, it takes a minimum of three months of treatment before one can evaluate the progress of one's condition. Usually results are noticed right along, sometimes quickly, but studies show it takes a few months to regrow brain neurons to improve brain function. Older, weaker individuals and those with more serious brain dysfunction will require longer periods of time to restore brain health.

Healthy brain function allows us the awareness to experience a more full and meaningful life. Awareness is important to put us on the path of healing. My hope is that this information brings you awareness that there is always opportunity to heal and improve your health. Depending on your situation, the path may be easy or challenging, but if you persevere, you may find yourself living in greater health with an active, lively brain for many years ahead.

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at



Hope for CTE Part II: Healing our American Warriors with Classical Chinese Medicine

By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

In Part I of this CTE series, I discussed how the pathology of brain degeneration found in patients with CTE is similar to those with Alzheimer’s disease. Part II is presented to further establish the legitimate benefits of Classical Chinese Medicine in the treatment of CTE and other types of dementia.

As we explore treatment options for CTE through the use of Classical Chinese Medicine, keep in mind this information is also useful for maintaining healthy brain function in general and addressing the issues of age related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. 

First, let’s consider the conventional medical treatment options available today for CTE.

From a Western medical perspective, treatment for these types of brain degenerative diseases is not yet established. A quote from the Mayo Clinic’s website regarding standard medical treatment for CTE at the time of this writing clarifies this fact.

CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease for which there is no treatment. More research on treatments is needed…” (Mayo Clinic website)

The best treatments western medicine offers today are 1) medications to try and control the severe headaches, seizures and mood disorders related to CTE, 2)  two medications (Aricept and Memantine) that support cognition but do not help regenerate brain neurons or treat the pathology driving the brain degeneration and 3) simple suggestions such as: reduce physical activity, get plenty of rest and write things down to compensate for one’s loss of memory.

In the meantime, individuals suffering with CTE and other types of dementia continue to degenerate because there is no prescription medicine to control the progression of these degenerative brain diseases or restore brain neuron function.

Do we need to sit idly watching ourselves or loved ones wither and suffer with the progression of brain diseases such as CTE, Alzheimer’s and age related dementia? 

One thing I have learned in almost 30 years of practicing alternative medicine is that there is always hope.

So here’s the good news…

Over more than 20 years of clinical research in Japan, China and Korea has provided extensive proof supporting the use of herbal medicine for the treatment of various types of dementia.

In fact, Chinese herbal medicine has been clinically proven to help restore brain function even after degeneration has developed due to the amyloid and tau protein plaques found in CTE and Alzheimer’s disease. 

But time is of the essence. 

The sooner treatment is started to address the pathological process damaging the brain, the easier it will be to restore normalcy to one’s brain function and to one’s life.

As discussed in my first article on CTE, a primary factor underlying the pathological plaque buildup in the brain that occurs with CTE and Alzheimer’s is due to inflammation from abnormal oxidative stress. The question is what is driving this inflammatory process in the brain.

In Chinese Medicine, brain plaque due to inflammation/oxidation correlates to the pathology of Phlegm-Heat and research shows Chinese herbal medicine can reverse this condition and the related problems of amyloid and tau protein plaques causing the neurofibrillary tangles associated with symptoms of CTE and Alzheimer’s.

Furthermore, it has been clinically proven that Chinese herbal medicine can stimulate regeneration of brain neurons to restore brain function that has been lost as well.

Now that’s exciting!

Classical Chinese Medicine covers all the bases in treating the syndrome of CTE. Through reversing the progression of the disease to restoring the damage done to the brain, Chinese medicine can achieve the ultimate goal of enhancing one's capacity to think and perform daily life activities. 

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence, too. An article in the 2009 issue of Traditional Chinese Medicine featured Dr. Qiu, a medical doctor with over 40 years of experience, who has successfully treated many patients with advanced dementia using Chinese herbal medicine. 

Though there are a multitude of factors underlying the inflammatory process according to Chinese Medicine, I suggested in my first CTE article that according to Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM), the brain degeneration found in CTE and Alzheimer’s disease is going to be likely rooted in an excess of dampness and heat in the stomach system. This is described as both Spleen and Stomach Damp Heat pathology in CCM.  

According to Western medicine, this association is gaining scientific traction in terms of Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes where elevated blood sugar and insulin levels have been found to be involved with changes in brain chemistry that create the plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. 

In fact, the incidence of Alzheimer’s among diabetics is 70% higher than the non-diabetic population.

Keep in mind that according to CCM a person does not have to be diagnosed with diabetes to have an extreme problem of dampness and heat in the Stomach and Spleen systems. Diagnosis for this pathological imbalance can be determined via traditional diagnostic parameters by assessing the tongue, the pulse and the abdomen in Chinese Medicine to evaluate the extent damp-heat is driving the brain degeneration. 

If a patient is having a lot of symptoms such as headaches, irritability and confusion, there is likely too much dampness and heat in the the Stomach and Spleen that needs to be reduced via diet, herbal medicine and acupuncture.

You need to be proactive to empower yourself and your life.

If you are noticing symptoms of brain degeneration such as memory loss, brain fog, mental fatigue, severe mood swings, seizures, headaches, etc, seek the advice of a Chinese Medical practitioner and begin your journey to healing and regenerating your brain so you can once again live life with vitality and clarity of mind. 

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, CA, where he specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine & is one of the leading US practitioners of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare non-insertion form of Acupuncture. More information at

Here are some references regarding the use of Chinese Herbal Medicine (also refered to as Japanese Kampo medicine) and the use of Essential Oils for the treatment of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

  1. Yang Y, Liu Q.Therapeutic Effect of Therapy of Warming Yang and Tonifying Kidney, Removing Blood Stasis and Phlegm for Alzheimer's Disease. Journal of New Chinese Medicine. 2014-10.

  2. Liu S, Pan B, Cheng T (Department of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, Second Hospital of Xi'an Jiaotong University, Xi'an 710004, China). Effects of various traditional Chinese medicinal prescriptions on learning and memory disorders in model mice with vascular dementia. Journal of Xi'an Medical University. 2002-04.

  3. Yan L , Liu B , Guo W , Li G , Li Y , Gao H , Cui H , Sun L , Wang M Weifang Medical College, Shandong Province. A clinical investigation on Zhi Ling Tang for treatment of senile dementia. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 2000 Jun; 20(2): 83-6.

  4. Koh Iwasaki MD, PhD, Seiichi Kobayashi MD, PhD, Yuri Chimura MD, Mayumi Taguchi MD, PhD, Kazumi Inoue BS, Shigehumi Cho, Tetsuo Akiba MD, Hiroyuki Arai MD, PhD, Jong-Chol Cyong MD, PhD and Hidetada Sasaki MD, PhD. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial of the Chinese Herbal Medicine “Ba Wei Di Huang Wan” in the treatment of dementia. Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 2004-10.

  5. Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, Ohadinia S, Jamshidi A, Khani M. Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2003;74.

  6. Jimbo D, Kimuro Y, Taniguchi M, Inoue M and Urakami K. Effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Psychogeriatrics. 2009; 9: 173–179.

  7. Mizukami K, et al. A randomized cross-over study of a traditional Japanese medicine (kampo), yokukansan (Yi Gan San) in the treatment of the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2009 Mar;12(2):191-9.

  8. Watari H, Shimada Y and Tohda C. New Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease, Kamikihito (Jia Wei Gui Pi Tang), Reverses Amyloid--Induced Progression of Tau Phosphorylation and Axonal Atrophy. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 706487, 10 pages. Article ID 706487.

  9. Terasawa K, et al. Choto-san (Gou Teng San) in the treatment of vascular dementia: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Phytomedicine.1997 Mar;4(1):15-22.

  10. Hagino N. An overview of Kampo medicine: Toki-Shakuyaku-San (Tang Kuei Shao Yao Tang). Phytotherapy Research.Volume 7, Issue 6, pages 391–394, November/December 1993.