The Nervous System through a TCM Lens - Root + Bones

The Nervous System through a TCM Lens

In the holistic framework of TCM, the nervous system encompasses a variety of coordinated organ systems, tissues, metabolic functions, and energetics. As such, its regulation is an excellent reflection of comprehensive harmony—not just on the physiological level, but on the mental and emotional, too. Being a perfect example of our inherent interconnectedness, viewing the nervous system through a TCM lens illuminates the many opportunities we have to instigate a domino effect of healing by cultivating balance. 


The nervous system is one of the body’s intrinsic regulatory mechanisms, designed to help restore balance through the changing internal and external circumstances of life. Comprised of the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) and sympathetic (“fight or flight”) states, nervous system regulation is not just about calming down, but being able to appropriately respond to stimuli by moving between the two states. This requires energetic balance, healthy stress response, and multi-organ support. 


In TCM, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system states can be characterized as Yin and Yang, respectively, and each state is associated with a variety of metabolic processes. The Yin parasympathetic state is slow, calm, and reparative; its focus is on the conservation and accumulation of energy through the absorption of nutrients from breath and food. The Yang sympathetic state is activated by a stressor or (perceived) threat, initiating the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones. It facilitates enhanced performance through a quickening of the heart rate and an expansiveness in the lungs. Because stressors are so abundant in modern times, chronic stress is extremely common, leading to excess nervous system Yang—which means deficient Yin. Of course, the importance of balance between Yin and Yang underlies all of TCM wisdom. 


Modern stressors like overstimulation, environmental toxins, and overactivity contribute to compromised sleep, nutritional deficiencies, and the chronic experience of stress—all of which deplete Yin. In simplified terms, Yin deficiency looks like burnout, and can be additionally expressed as hormonal imbalance, fatigue, emotional turmoil, sleep disturbances, impaired immunity, dryness (which prevents flexibility and flow), rising heat, and nervous system dysregulation. Thankfully, TCM herbalism has a whole category for tonifying Yin, comprised of herbs that are generally sweet in taste, cooling in nature, and have a calming, grounding effect on the nervous system, helping to clear excess heat (Yang) that can cause agitation.  These include Pearl, Tremella, and our Beauty blend. 


Lion’s Mane is a revered medicinal mushroom for balancing Yin and Yang within the body, as well as tonifying the primary organs—all of which are a crucial part of emotional and mental health in the TCM framework. Lion’s Mane resembles the brain and indeed supports cerebral and cognitive function, helps to enhance focus and memory, and supports nerve regeneration and repair. It even has downward-cascading spines that resemble our nervous system, hinting at its classification as a nerve tonic. By stimulating the creation of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), Lion’s Mane promotes the production of new cells and strengthens existing ones, thus protecting the nerves and enhancing neuroplasticity. This is extremely important as it relates to the nervous system’s ability to change the way it responds to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.


As the foundation of overall Yin and Yang energetic balance in the body, the Kidneys represent another crucial component in understanding nervous system regulation. Furthermore, the Kidneys hold the highest concentration of Jing (essence), which provides the material basis for the brain and spinal cord. In the Five Elements framework of TCM, the Kidneys correspond to the emotion of fear—specifically that which lives deep in our nervous systems and can be intimately connected to ancestral or inherited trauma. This deeply embedded emotional baggage can be triggered and rise to the surface, contributing to a disproportionate activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This points to the many pathways for remediation available to us in TCM—in this case, the importance of Kidney/Jing tonics to nervous system regulation. 


Schizandra nourishes all Three Treasures (Jing, Qi, and Shen), tonifies Yin, and promotes optimal Kidney function. As a true adaptogen, Schizandra helps regulate the body’s nonspecific stress response via the HPA axis and sympathetic-adrenal system. This incredible berry is particularly protective to the adrenals (part of the Kidney organ system in TCM), preventing physiological damage from extreme or chronic stress. Revered by the Taoists for its support in developing their spiritual power, Schizandra has also been shown to improve vision and even enlarge one’s field of vision and perceptive skill. It actually enhances the capacity of the central nervous system to analyze inputs from our peripheral sensors, facilitating a profoundly balancing effect on the nervous system. 


The HPA axis is the body’s emergency alert system, intimately connected to nervous system regulation through its threat detection responsibilities. Sarah Ramey, author of The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, explains that on the physiological level, things like blood sugar imbalances, sleep deprivation, gut dysbiosis, inflammation, and pain are all internal stressors that accumulate and compound our experience of stress. This can effectively result in the over-activation of the HPA axis, leading to dysregulated cortisol (“adrenal fatigue.”) Cortisol is a stress hormone and the hormonal imbalance resulting from its excess in turn leads to disruption of the endocrine system as a whole, which compromises the immune system, and so on and so forth. 


An incredibly versatile and true adaptogen, Rhodiola not only supports the nervous system and helps lower cortisol, but promotes an enhanced capacity for adaptability and therefore resilience. With benefits largely credited to Salidroside, which is believed to promote feelings of well-being, cellular health, nerve repair, and neuroprotection, Rhodiola is often used to treat stress, anxiety, and depression. Nourishing to the adrenals and offering significant benefits to the nervous system, it’s a trusty and uplifting ally if one is feeling exhausted, blue, or both. Rhodiola can prevent or tend to active immune depletion caused by physical overexertion, excess productivity, or even extreme toxic exposure, making it a great ally for mitigating all kinds of stressors. 


The brain and nervous system are considered to be closely related to the function of the Heart, which houses Shen (spirit), responsible for presiding over our emotions, consciousness, and thoughts. Although each of the primary organs has a specific emotional correspondence, it is ultimately the Heart that’s responsible for feeling and filtering all of the other emotions. Thus, it is uniquely susceptible to being emotionally overburdened and requires adequate rest in order to be truly nourished, including through healthy sleep cycles. The Heart is stabilized and nourished by Blood and Yin, and compromised by excess Yang/heat. When we consider issues affecting the nervous system, Shen disturbance is often indicated. Conversely, Shen can truly flourish when our basic needs are met. 


Our Shen formula was created specifically to bring well-rounded support in calming the mind, uplifting the spirit, and nourishing our Hearts. It features Reishi, Jujube Seed, White Peony Root, Asparagus Root, Polygala Root, and Albizia Bark—a variety of premier Shen and nervine tonics. It also features many of TCM’s most studied sedative herbs, which have a balancing effect on neurotransmitters, thus supporting restorative and healthy sleep cycles. Reishi, known as the mushroom of “immortality,” is extremely protective on the physiological, cognitive, immunological, and therefore spiritual levels. As a premier spiritual potentiator, it soothes nervous tension, modulates stress, and supports our capacity to distill the wisdom of our experiences. Together, the herbs of this formula expertly synergize to support nourishing sleep, expanded perspectives, clarity of vision, and a sense of safety so that we can truly relax. 


In TCM theory, emotional and mental health is closely tied to the proper functioning of the organs, and it is the coordinated function of many organs that supports nervous system regulation. Although this has just been an overview of the intricate and integrated mind-body-spirit forces at play, it reminds us that tending to a sense of harmony in the body will always initiate a cascade of healing effects that promotes comprehensive and holistic healing.