Xiao Yao San – or, “Free and Easy Wanderer” is probably the most commonly prescribed Chinese Herbal Remedy in the United States. Depending on the patient’s presentation, it can be a useful therapy for a wide variety of symptoms, including feelings of stress, tight neck and shoulders, bloating, diarrhea, insomnia, anxiety, menstrual cramps, irregular periods, headaches, migraines, vertigo, blurry vision, and mental restlessness. How can it address all these symptoms?
Chinese Herbs are taken in a formula, with anywhere from 2 to 20 herbs working together. Within a traditional herbal formula, there is a set structure that the herbs operate within, to address different layers of imbalance within the body. These layers of imbalance are understood to correspond to different energetic systems. These symptoms are named after organs (ie, we talk about the Heart energy system, and the Liver energy system), but don’t refer to the actual organ in the body. Rather, each of these energetic systems has a certain kind of energy that is in charge of certain specific physiological functions within the body.
The “chief” herb within a formula addresses the primary energetic imbalance within the body. In this formula, the chief herb is Chai Hu (Bupleurum Root). Chai Hu circulates the Liver (Wood) energy within the body. The Liver energy is primarily tasked with ensuring that all blood and energy is moving as it should throughout the body. When the Liver energy gets stuck (as frequently happens with stress), symptoms of tension and stagnation arise – these include a feeling of muscle tension (particularly in the neck and shoulders), headaches, jaw pain, stomach cramps, menstrual cramps, and feeling irritable or overwhelmed.
The “deputy” herbs within an herbal formula either support the actions of the chief herb, or address a secondary energetic imbalance. In the case of Xiao Yao San, the deputy herbs, Bai Shao (peony root) and Dang Gui (Chinese Angelica root) address a secondary energetic imbalance – a weakness in the blood energy of the body. When the blood energy is weak, the following symptoms occur: trouble sleeping, not feeling rested in the morning, irregular menstrual flow or lack of periods, eye twitches and blurry vision, and anxiety.
The “assistant” herbs in the formula support the deputy and chief herbs, and also address a tertiary energetic imbalance. In this formula, the assistant herbs nourish the Spleen Qi, our day-to-day energy and our digestive function. Bai Zhu (Atractylodes rhizome) and Fu Ling (Poria) strengthen the Spleen Qi. When the Spleen Qi is weak, we tend to feel tired, have an upset stomach, and have a hard time turning off obsessive thoughts. We also worry more, and feel weak. The assistant herbs in this particular formula address these issues.
Lastly, herbal formulas contain “Envoy” herbs. These herbs help to balance out all the other herbs in the formula, help the other herbs work together, treat any possible side effects, and also direct herbs to a particular part of the body. In this formula, the envoy herbs are Sheng Jiang (Fresh Ginger Root), Gan Cao (licorice root), and Bo He (Field Mint). Sheng Jiang and Gan Cao “harmonize” the other herbs in the formula and help them work together. They also nourish the digestive system and help the body to process the herbal formula efficiently. Bo He primarily supports the work of Chai Hu, in that it helps to circulate Liver Qi. It also has a cooling quality, so is particularly useful if there are heat signs in the body (ie, a feeling of heat, a red face, a bitter taste in the mouth.)
Taken together, these herbs make up the traditional Chinese Herbal Formula Xiao Yao San, “Free and Easy Wanderer.” And looking at all these symptoms together, what does the formula treat? For many, it treats what happens when we get stressed – feelings of tension, trouble sleeping, digestive upset, a racing mind.
Stress does funny things to our bodies. One of the first thing that stress does is causes the Qi to stagnate – to not flow smoothly. This leads to Liver Qi stagnation (addressed by the chief herb.) When Liver Qi is not flowing properly, nutrients are not able to get to all the systems where they are needed, and blood and Qi weaknesses can develop (addressed by the deputy and assistant herbs.)
Xiao Yao San is not a cure-all, and is not appropriate for everyone. However, many of us operate in a constant state of stress that presents with the above-named energetic imbalances. In those cases, Xiao Yao San can greatly help to alleviate symptoms and get us back to feeling good - to feeling like our energy is flowing freely and easily, that we are not tense and stress and tired!