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.

What are yin and yang?

Yin and yang are the basic tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, yet when I am asked in clinic what they are I find myself fumbling to explain them. They are so basic and underlie almost everything I do, so much so that I don’t often question how to describe them. I wanted to give an idea of what they are and an illustration of how they work together, especially since this time of year provides such a good example.

At both their most simple and most complex, yin and yang are opposites. Everything and anything you can think of can be described as either very yin, very yang, or more commonly some degree of a mix between the two. Things which are more yin are hidden, darker, quieter, perhaps wetter. Yang types of things are bright, energetic, growing, moving, and changing. Yin is a feminine energy and yang is more masculine. Picture a hillside in the early morning: the side being warmed and brightened by the sun is more yang, and the side still dark and covered with dew is more yin.

You never have yin or yang alone–they always work as a pair. Now, sometimes you’ll have a situation where something is skewed so strongly in one direction or the other that imbalance starts to occur (and you need to visit your acupuncturist!). But one of the more interesting aspects of yin and yang is that at their extremes they begin to transform into one another. This can be explained using the example of the solstice.

The winter solstice, which we will experience on December 21, is a time of ultimate yin. We are deepest into our journey away from the sun. The days are shortest and the night is longest. We’re inspired to hibernate. But I always like to take note of the solstice because it is then, even if we can’t sense it at first, that the days begin to lengthen toward spring. Like a pendulum beginning to swing in the opposite direction, yang is returning to our lives. I find it comforting to note the couple of extra minute of sunlight we begin to receive, even as it gets colder here in Chicago. If you’re feeling the winter blues, I invite you to join me in finding and celebrating yang elements in this cold, yin-predominant season.

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.

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.

The “why.”

I finished grad school over a year ago and have been in private practice for 14 months.  In dealing with all the minutia of finding a practice space, making business cards, setting up a web site, buying sheets and supplies, etc etc, I have found it very easy to forget why I chose to do all of this in the first place.

This blog is partly to remind myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing, but mainly to share with others my inspirations and goals that I hope to see accomplished through my acupuncture practice.  It’s almost the end of the year 2015, which means that a new year is about to start–and what better time to renew one’s commitments, look ahead, and set new objectives?

When I think about the kind of practice I want to have, in the most general terms I want to partner with patients who are interested and ready to become part of their own ongoing good health.  This means engaging in a dialogue with these people to help them and myself understand their bodies and minds better, so that ultimately these patients can take charge of their own health and feel comfortable making choices to keep moving forward in wellbeing.

Chinese medicine–acupuncture and herbs–provides an amazing way to work with patients to accomplish these goals.  The basic tenet of the diagnostic systems of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is to find out why someone has the issues they are coming to me with.  My challenge is then to correct any imbalance, bad habits, or so on that are contributing to the pathology.

You’ll notice I mentioned “bad habits”.  That’s just an example, but you can see that the process of attaining better health necessitates a dialogue between the acupuncturist and the patient.  This to me is the most interesting and possibly the most important part of what I do.  That work is what sets TCM apart from the usual Western treatments most of us Americans grew up with.  I’ll listen to you.  I want to join forces with you to help you feel better.  That’s my “why”.