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.

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.

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.