Your Chinese organ systems: Part two

Here I continue my illustration of how I see the twelve organ systems as they have been described in Chinese texts and courses of study I pursue. I’m sharing this to give an idea of how I think about how the organs function in the body and how they work together from a Chinese medical standpoint. If you are my patient you’ve probably gotten bits and peices of this, but I hope to offer a more complete picture in this three-part series.

There’s a full introduction to this series and the first four organs in my previous blog post. For now, let’s dive right in to the second grouping of organs: the Heart, Small Intestine, Urinary Bladder, and Kidney.

Please note when I use a Capital versus a lowercase when mentioning organs–that will clue you in to when I’m talking about a concept versus the physical organ.

The Heart

We finally meet the Emperor! The Heart is considered the ruler of the other organs, situated in the upper part of the torso and sending life-giving blood to the whole body. Symptoms such as vivid dreaming or sensations in the chest such as heart palpitations can indicate that the Heart is involved in the patient’s pattern. We can address any imbalances that affect the Heart indirectly by treating the other organ systems, which will restore balance to the whole.

The Heart is the upper source of fire in the body, receiving fire from heaven and sending it down to the lower part of the abdominal cavity. In this way the Heart above connects with the Kidney below.

The Small Intestine

The Small Intestine is the Receiving Official, accepting food from the Stomach and Spleen, separating the turbid from the pure, and sending the waste down and out while sending the nutrition up to benefit the body. In the physiological body too, the small intestine does a large part of nutrient absorption.

The Small Intestine is a yin/yang, interior/exterior pair with the Heart. The warmth of the Heart, sent down from above, contributes to the SI’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Some CM practitioners attribute idiopathic urinary tract infection or discomfort to Heart fire flaring along the Small Intestine, usually due to some external upset or influence. In that case, the SI acts almost like a relief valve for the Heart. There are few other common SI symptoms.

The Urinary Bladder

The Urinary Bladder has functions very similar to our physiological bladder. It holds the urine until it’s time to release it. The strength of the qi of other organs such as the Kidney aid in this store-and-release function. If there is urinary incontinence or difficulty the UB will be treated, but other organs may also need to be addressed. The condition of the UB also relates to the general state of the fluid metabolism of the body.

The UB channel has the most points of any in the body (67) and runs from the corners of our eyes, over the top of our head, in a double row along our spine, and down to the outside of our smallest toe. It covers the part of our bodies often attacked by wind–the neck and nape. You know that feeling when you’re coming down with a cold, and your neck gets all achy? That’s the domain of the Urinary Bladder. The UB is connected in this way to the exterior of the body and the Lung, which as I mentioned in the previous post regulates the opening and closing of the pores.

The Kidney

The Kidney is related to cold water, and is located low in the body. From its position below the other organs, it combines cold water with the fire that comes down from its partner the Heart to steam a fine mist upwards to moisten the other organs and aid in the digestive powers of the Spleen and Stomach (discussed last time). The watchword of the Kidneys is “storage.” If there are things coming out of storage–such as urine leaking out of the Bladder, blood leaking out of the vessels, or fluids leaking from the sexual organs–the Kidney could be involved.

If you have any questions, are curious or confused by this post, or just want to say hi, please email me at or leave a comment here in my blog. I’m always happy to chat with you!

Next time I’ll discuss the Pericardium, San Jiao, Gallbladder, and Liver. Sign up for my email list and/or like me on Facebook to be notified when I publish my next post!

**None of this information is meant to help diagnose any medical disorders. If you have any questions please reach out to me or to your primary care physician.

Your Chinese organ systems: Part one

One of the most important things to be aware of in learning a little about Chinese medicine is that all aspects of the body and mind are interconnected, and none is discussed in isolation from the others. This tenet applies whether discussing blood, body fluids, bones, the emotions, or what I am going to talk about here: the organs.

Those who wrote the classic texts we still reference today knew about the existence of the body’s organs. They chose the metaphor of an emperor and his court to describe the relations of the organs to each other and to the body. This concept would have been understood by all scholars–if an author named the Heart as the emperor, the reader would understand that this meant the Heart occupied a very important, dominant position among the organs. The organs took on something akin to personality in this metaphor, and things they could and could not do might be understood without explanation because everyone understood how royal court worked.

The actions ascribed in the classics to each organ often correspond to the functions of the physical organs as we understand them today in the West. For instance, we’ll say that the Lung “faces the 100 vessels.” This sounds like a poetic way to describe how our lungs oxygenate our blood and send fresh life through the vessels back to the heart, and in a way it does mean that. More relevant to a discussion about Chinese medicine, however, is the emperor’s court metaphor. We will also say that the Lung is in charge of a downbearing effect related to the body’s fluids, and this has little equivalent in a biomedical sense.

Questions such as “how is the lung related to the skin” are ones that prompted me to try to put together some basic descriptions of the organs and their functions at court. I will begin with the first four organs: the Lung, Large Intestine, Stomach, and Spleen. I intend to give an extremely brief overview of each of the 12 organs eventually, mention what parts of the body they correspond with, and how they interact with the whole. I fully expect that I’ll only get more questions in return after publishing this–and that’s what I want!

Please note when I use a Capital versus a lowercase when mentioning organs–that will clue you in to when I’m talking about a concept versus the physical organ.

The Lung

Think about how long you can go without eating versus how long you can go without taking a breath–that’s how important the role is that our lungs play. The air they take in is a very important part of how we generate qi, or energy, for the body. The constant bellows-like motion of the Lung is vital in aiding the Heart to disperse qi around the body. The Lung is considered a Minister in the metaphorical emperor’s court. The energy of the Lung spreads out and downward through the body.

Our lungs are considered the most superficial of organs, connected as they are with the external environment. The Lung therefore is related to the surface of the body–the skin, pores, and body hair. It is intimately connected with our early lines of defense against wind and other extremes of the outside world.

The Large Intestine

The Large Intestine is a yin/yang, interior/exterior pair with the Lung, and is also concerned with the exterior of the body. If you are aware that in Western thought, the food we eat isn’t “inside” our bodies until it gets absorbed into our cells, it will make sense that the L.I. is associated with the exterior.

The Large Intestine is a packaging center, to put things politely. After we have absorbed all we can from our food, it needs to be sent out of the body neatly and in a timely way. Issues with stools, the lower abdomen, and sometimes the skin correlate to the Large Intestine.

The Stomach

The Stomach is said to be in charge of “rotting and ripening.” This refers to its role in digestion, and very closely parallels the actions of our stomach organ. The area the Stomach is related to is the abdomen just below where your ribs separate. When the Stomach is working properly, food enters, is processed comfortably, and moves through to the packaging center (see above) to be handled in a timely manner. It operates in a downward direction–if it is disturbed and its energy flows upwards, we experience it as vomiting!

We shouldn’t notice most what our Stomach does in our day to day life–we should not experience undue rumbling, bloating, or discomfort in this process. If any of those things disturb you, it might be a good time to start a relationship with an acupuncturist!

The Spleen

The Spleen is an organ that performs a metaphorical function rather different from its role in our physical bodies. It is a yin/yang pair with the Stomach (which you recall acts in a downward direction), balancing out our digestive system. The Spleen is said to “hold the middle”–its energy is meant to lift and support our organs in their places, to assist in the ascent of qi and other energies that need to go up towards the upper parts of our bodies, and to send the good things we absorb from our food up and out to the places they are needed. This last function gives Spleen its title of Minister in charge of Transportation and Transformation.

The Spleen is often associated with the muscle layer. If we feel weakness in all four limbs, this may be related to a disruption in Spleen function.

Next time I’ll discuss the Heart, Small Intestine, Urinary Bladder and Kidney. Sign up for my email list and/or like me on Facebook to be notified when I publish my next post!

**None of this information is meant to help diagnose any medical disorders. If you have any questions please reach out to me or to your primary care physician.

Nervous system reset

I had a great experience over the weekend. A patient who has been busy enough this spring that I haven’t seen her in a while came for an appointment. She has had a lot of ups and downs lately and realized that she needed to rest and recharge with some self-care. We caught up on how she’s been doing since her last visit, I put in some needles for relaxation and to boost her qi, and I left her to rest on my heated table in the warm dark room for about half an hour.

The first thing this patient said to me when I came back in the room was, “I feel as though my nervous system has been reset.” It was what she needed to restore focus, calm her mind, and feel energized. I was so pleased to be a part of her healing.

So what does this mean for you? Well, it gives you an idea of the type of things acupuncture can do. Even if your body is feeling pretty good, your mind and spirit can be a little run down. It happens to all of us sometimes just from living our busy lives. One hour-long session (at the beautiful Tribe Healing Arts Center) can be enough to lift your spirits, smooth out tangled emotions, or help clear your mind. If you’ve never had acupuncture before, this little story might help you see that you don’t need to feel sick or have any definable health problem to make an appointment with me. If you have had acupuncture but it’s been a while, check in with yourself and see if you’re due for a tune-up!

You can book a first-time or returning patient appointment here on my website, from my Facebook page, or by going directly to my Square booking site.

Cupping and Gua Sha–what are they?

In response to popular demand, I recently added cupping and gua sha only appointments to my list of services! As of now it is a half hour appointment for $40 at my treatment space on Friday or Saturday mornings.

But what does this mean? In general terms, cupping and gua sha are great for musculoskeletal issues such as sore muscles, tightness from over or under-use, and recover from injury. Both techniques physically break up stagnation and allow freer movement. For issues that go beyond the muscle layer, such as phlegm in the chest or an incipient cold or flu, these modalities can open the surface and allow the body to better return itself to health. If you’d like to learn more about each technique, keep reading!

In Chinese, gua sha translates literally to “sand scraping”.  This name more or less describes the action of gua sha.  It is a technique practiced in many traditional cultures.  The form I have learned from my studies in school uses a curved object which may be a tool designed specifically for gua sha, or may be a spoon, a small metal lid, or any other object that has the curve the practitioner wants.  A lubricant such as lotion or oil is spread over the skin that is to be scraped to protect the surface of the skin from abrasion, and the curved implement is then scraped over the skin with some degree of pressure.  The desired effect is usually some skin coloration, whether it be pale pink, red, or even darker purple tones.  It looks like a bruise, but should clear up quicker.

 Gua sha is commonly used to treat muscular soreness or tension.  The discoloration of the skin means that stagnant blood is being broken up.  Therefore it’s important to drink plenty of fluids after a treatment involving gua sha (just as with a treatment involving massage or cupping).  Gua sha can also be used to prevent or treat a cold: if you get that stiff neck that means you’re about to get sick, see your acupuncturist and they may gua sha the back of your neck to release the pathogen and relieve the discomfort.

Cupping is an ancient form of bodywork practiced in many cultures. In China, cups were once made of bamboo, and suction was created by heating the insides of the cups and pressing them to the skin. These days, most cups used are clear glass. Suction may be created by using a pump or heating the cup with a flame, and blood and qi is moved to help reduce muscle tightness and alleviate pain. Cupping may be quick and fast or cups can be left on the body longer. They can remain in one place or be slid back and forth.

Marks left by cupping may resemble bruising, but should disappear faster than a bruise, and should not cause pain. Your results will be unique—you may leave your treatment with round marks that vary in color from pale red to dark purple. The color and intensity of the marks indicate to your practitioner how long you have had the condition being treated, and other information such as your relative excess or deficient status.

Cupping should not be administered if you plan to wear clothing such as a backless dress that will expose the marks soon after your treatment, due to their sometimes unsightly nature. Family or friends might ask you about your marks—let them know they are part of a treatment that helped relieve pain, create relaxation, and improved mobility.

After your treatment, you should drink plenty of water. Just like with gua sha, avoid exposing the treated area to cold air or water at least until the end of the day.

Why I love acupuncture as a medicine

You may already know this, but when I started college in 1998 I was pre-med.  I wanted to be an ER doctor.  Theater was more fun though, so even though I felt a strong calling to be in a profession where I felt I was directly helping people, I finished school as a lighting design major.

In 2005 I again made a small foray into the world of Western medicine when I attended school and got my EMT certification: again, emergency medicine.  I really thought that was the way to satisfy my desire to help people–you know, be there when they needed me most.  But even before I graduated I knew it wasn’t for me.  You perform the same tasks for every patient, the same basic skills, and then you let them go and may never find out what happened to them.  In the meantime, there’s a ton of paperwork AND a uniform.

In 2010 I attended an open house at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, where I would graduate in four years with a degree in acupuncture and herbal medicine.  Those four years were no cakewalk, and there were many opportunities when I could have done what a lot of students in that program did, and walk away.  But I kept at it, because finally I started to feel as though I’d be helping people the way I wanted to.

Chinese medicine looks at the body as a symphony of systems working together in harmony to create a healthy human being.  Each organ depends on each other one for its functions.  Fluids and energy are created not by any single part of the body, but rather by the body systems in concert.  You only get health when each individual part is healthy.  If any organ or system is out of balance, it throws everything else off.

What makes Chinese medicine different from Western, and what appeals to me, is that it works by determining the underlying cause for the disease or dysfunction in question, and operating on that cause.  We would say we treat the root, rather than the branch.  We treat the cause, not the effect; or the reason rather than the outcome.  This is why three different people who come to an acupuncturist with similar headaches would be treated with three different point prescriptions.  One of those people might have an excess in a particular body system, one might have stagnation in a channel, and one might have a deficiency somewhere else.  The four years of training we go through enables us as licensed practitioners to determine which of those people you are, and how to help lead you to a healthy balance within your body and your mind.

As an acupuncturist, I’m still here when you need me most.  Sometimes I’m the only person who can listen to all of your complaints and be able to tell you, “Yes, this all makes sense to me.  I think I can help you.”   I can work with my patients for however long it takes to resolve their problems, and I get to see a result that both of us can be happy with.  My end goal is to enable my patients to go for months without needing to come in to see me, because we have reached a point where they understand their bodies well enough to know what they can do to help themselves, and because we have worked to restore balance.  Not having become an MD I can’t say for sure, but I think that I have landed in the right place for me, a profession that I will find satisfying for years to come.