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.

Autumn Refresh

Although the Chicago weather might encourage us to pretend it’s still summer, today we enter the season of autumn. Trees are slowly turning gold and we can sense the days shortening. I see this as a time of great opportunity. To me, it almost makes more sense to set a goal to give something up at this time of year, rather than on January 1. We can take inspiration from the natural world:

When the days begin to shorten in the fall, a tree responds to the lessening of sunlight and cuts off circulation to its leaves, pulling back its resources to the essential trunk and roots. The leaves dry up and fall away, and as they return to the earth they enrich the soil the tree grows from. In this way the tree survives the short, cold days of winter. It can reproduce its foliage in the spring, when once again resources will be abundant.

The tree is a metaphor, but our bodies go through a similar transition. In my practice I talk with my patients about their feelings at this time of year. Many people notice a turning-inward, an inclination to hibernation, or a desire to snuggle up at home with warm carbs. We can all understand the impulse to sleep earlier and be a little less social when the days are short. These feelings are natural because our bodies are part of nature. We don’t need to fight them, and in fact I would suggest we embrace them. There is opportunity here that I invite you not to pass up.

With shorter days comes more time for introspection and possibly self-improvement. We all have things we hold on to that no longer serve us. Whether it is a grudge, old clothes, a habit, or a hairstyle, the autumn energy can inspire us to release the old to make way for the new. As these things fall away, we may be able to see more clearly the path to further growth. Maybe take a minute today to write down a few goals for the fall season, harnessing the potential of this time. Think of it as the start of a new era, rather than the end of an old.