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.

The Five Flavors of your Chinese formula

Have you ever chewed up a Tylenol or Ibuprofen pill? Probably not. We swallow pharmaceuticals whole without tasting them because it doesn’t really matter what they taste like–the flavor isn’t part of the experience or the benefit to taking that type of medicine. Chinese herbs are a different story. If you’ve ever taken a Chinese formula you’ll know that there is a wide range of flavors you may experience, from the most bitter to almost sickly sweet, and anything in between. If you haven’t tried a formula before, I’d like to share with you the backstory on the flavors you may one day encounter so that you can go into the experience with a little excitement and a bit more understanding.

We talk about five basic flavors in our herbal medicine: Bitter, Acrid, Sweet, Sour, and Salty. Each herb can claim at least one flavor, possibly several. Knowing the herb’s flavor is a shortcut to understanding its function in a formula. (I will add that each herb also is said to have a “temperature” ranging from very hot to very cold, which also describe how the herb works, but flavors are enough to discuss in this post.)

The bitter flavor is probably the most noticeable one in a formula. We have some herbs that are among the most bitter things you can safely put in your mouth! You know how drinking your morning coffee usually helps you spend your morning time in the bathroom? Have you heard of drinking a bitter “digestif” after a large meal? Then you already understand the bitter flavor: bitter helps things descend in the body. Taking a formula with this flavor can apply whether you need help in the bathroom, to having a hard time with phlegm in your chest, to having anxiety with panic attacks. Any time something isn’t going down in the body that should–energetically or otherwise–I think of the bitter flavor.

The acrid flavor is called “pungent” in some books. For this discussion I think it’s easiest to describe it as spicy. Ginger has this property. So do clove, nutmeg, fennel, and cardamom, any of which could show up in a formula. You already know what the acrid flavor does, having experienced it when you ate something very spicy: your face turned red, you might have broken out in a sweat, and perhaps if you had any sinus congestion it cleared up. Acrid makes things go up and out.

The sweet flavor can often get drowned out by the bitter in a formula, but it is very important and can work even in the background. One of the sweetest of our herbs is honey-fried licorice, which shows up in practically every formula. Sweet nourishes the body, restores fluids, and moderates strong actions of other herbs. There is another flavor called Bland that fits in alongside sweet. It helps to get fluids to go where they are needed, whether that be from a wet place in the body to a dry place, or just out of the body altogether.

If you have ever bitten into a lemon wedge you understand what the sour flavor does. The word is “astringe,” but sour generally holds things in, just like you purse and scrunch your mouth up when you encounter straight lemon juice. Things that need to be held in can range from abnormal sweating to urinary leakage to excess bleeding. The sour flavor also performs an energetic action when the body is irritable or energy isn’t flowing in the directions it should, softening the impulse to lash out at everyone around you and helping you to return to your calm and rational self.

Just as salt on the roads softens ice, the salty flavor can soften areas in the body where things have congealed or formed lumps, or places where things have become brittle and dried out. It might seem counter-intuitive, but water follows solvents, and when things are rich and salty water and nourishment will flow in and plump things up.

One of the cooler things about Chinese herbs is that the flavors DO matter. I hope I’ve given you the beginnings of a deeper understanding and appreciation of these flavors. When you try your first formula, chances are you’ll think it’s gross. Once you have taken several different formulas your palate will change and expand.

Have you tried Chinese herbs? What was your experience? Or have you eaten something that had a remarkable flavor that you’ve never forgotten? Leave a comment with your story!