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Enhance Brain Function and Learning with Traditional Chinese Medicine

By: Lori Kelsey, RN-BSN DOM Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM)

In Chinese medicine, a healthy mind involves harmony between the Sea of Marrow (brain) and the Shen (spirit). You can enhance brain-spirit harmony with certain nutrients, herbs, and acupressure. A TCM practitioner can further treat the organ systems, meridians, and acupuncture points that benefit specific patterns of disharmony associated with memory, retention, recall, learning, growth, development, aging, trama and stress.

The Spleen, Kidney, and Heart organ systems influence intellect. Certain meridians, and acupuncture points further influence the brain directly. For example, the Du meridian enters the brain to influence all neurological activity by nourishing, stimulating, or calming the brain and spirit. Special points on the neck harmonize the flow of Qi between the mind and body; or the two brain hemispheres. Ear and scalp points that correspond to glands and sensory areas in the brain regulate information processing, and response to external stimuli.

The Spleen organ system influences short-term memory, analytical thinking and concentration and is damaged by worry and poor nutrition.  The Kidney organ system influences short-term memory and retention, and is damaged by fear and aging.  The Heart organ system influences long-term memory and recall and is damaged by emotional and chemical over-stimulation.  

To enhance general learning Chinese medicine focuses on improving the flow of Qi to the brain, regulation of information processing and response to external stimuli.  Nourishing the Kidney organ system, and the constitution is also required when children fail to meet growth and development milestones like learning to walk, talk, and socialize. There is clinical evidence that the ear and scalp points, along with the Du meridian, benefit attention problems associated with ADD/ADHD, and autism.   Less commonly seen is impaired learning and attention in adults due to a febrile episode in childhood. This requires clearing the Heart channel of residual heat in order to reset circulation of Qi and blood in the brain.

A healthy mind need not decline with age. Primary prevention of age-related cognitive issues involves safeguarding the Kidney yin, yang, and jing (adrenals, hormone balance, and genetic endowments) throughout the life span with a healthy diet, lifestyle, and avoidance of toxins; spiritual harmony in the environment and relationships; using the healing arts (acupuncture, herbs, and Qi gong); and balanced activity and rest.

When the brain has been damaged by trauma (e.g. stroke), acupuncture is best combined with occupational and physical therapies to retrain the brain-body connection. Recent studies show that electro-acupuncture may benefit certain types of dementia.


According to the circadian cycle of Qi, a good time to nourish the mind is at noon, and a midday nap is beneficial. Midday is considered to be "Heart Time." This is because the Heart organ system grounds the spirit in the mind; during sleep the brain detoxifies, and adrenal glands recharge. The inability to rest and recover from excessive stimuli (Heart), fear (Kidney), and worry (Spleen) with sound sleep, often results in stress-related problems that impact mood, learning, focusing, and reacting. Some of the more serious problems associated with stress and trauma include traumatic-stress disorders, impaired focus, decision-making or problem-solving ability, and aggressive, impulsive or compulsive behavior.

Nutrients for Brain Health

Glutamic acid is a precursor to GABA--the main calming neurotransmitter in our bodies. Almonds, wheat bran, and mackerel are high in glutamic acid. Taurine, a calming neurotransmitter that is depleted by stress, is found in salmon, mackerel and halibut. Glycine enhances memory and cognition. It is a non-essential amino acid found in high-protein foods such as fish, dairy, and gelatin from animal bones. Lipoic acid is an antioxidant that improves memory and cognition, and prevents neuro-degeneration. It is found in organ meats, collard greens, and chard. Oats contain silica, which strengthens the nerves to benefit neurasthenia, a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. The silica from oats can be found in sprouted oats, oat tincture, oat straw tea, oat milk, oat bran, and oatmeal.

Herbs for Memory and Cognition

Lemon balm is a sleep aide shown to improve memory, and cognition. Rosemary stimulates memory, and is a strong antioxidant against normal aging of the brain. Skullcap detoxifies the brain and strengthens the nerves. Oolong Tea, Jujube, and Salvia are three Chinese herbs that detoxify the brain, Heart and Kidney meridians; nourish Qi, blood, Spleen, and spirit; and improve microcirculation.  

Acupressure to Stimulate the Brain

Yin Tang:  Apply pressure to this acupuncture point that is in between the eyebrows--a significant point to calm and clear the mind. Some believe it corresponds to the pineal gland, which links the nervous system and hormone system for mental and spiritual harmony.

Scalp Massage: This can benefit the meridians that encompass the brain. With the tips of the fingers spread wide apart, vigorously stroke the scalp between mid-line and the ears from front to back (as if combing the hair).

Yuan Source Points: These points on and near the ankles and wrists tonify all the Chinese organ systems. Manually massage the hands and feet, brush them while bathing; or rotate the wrists and ankles.

Shoulder Rolls: These free the flow of Qi and blood between the mind and body. Shrug the shoulders then very slowly press them backward and downwards, then forward and downwards. Gently inhale or exhale into tense and tired areas.

Qi Gong Breathing: This can strengthen the diaphragm, and also massages the Liver to regulate the smooth flow of Qi, blood (and oxygen) to the mind.   To view a demonstration of a special exercise that helps bring energy and oxygen to the mind, see Lung Exercises: Jumping Lungs on YouTube.

Call an acupuncturist in your area today to see how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help you enhance your focus, memory and learning!

About the Author
Lori Kelsey RN-BSN DOM graduated from Southwest Acupuncture College. She specializes in integrative primary care and prevention at SpiritSpring Acupuncture & Herbs.

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