膽 Dǎn / Gallbladder

This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine.

The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of our Gallbladder podcast, but can of course be used on its own to understand your treatment at Watershed Wellness more deeply.

What if you don’t have a Gallbladder?

The little pear-shaped organ tucked under your Liver is what we know biomedically as the gallbladder. Its removal is one of the most common surgical procedures done in most developed nations. Over a million gallbladders are removed each year in the US! So, it isn’t uncommon for a patient to come to their acupuncture appointment without an intact gallbladder. That yours has been removed does NOT mean that your Gallbladder channel, or your Gallbladder organ system function from a Chinese medicine point of view, is impacted in any particular way. Remember – the organ systems in Chinese medicine include, but transcend, the biomedical organ’s structure and function.

The Gallbladder channel

The Gallbladder channel is one of the longest on the body, with 44 points. It runs chiefly on the side of the body, starting on the head and descending to the foot.

It begins just outside the outer corner of the eye, zigzags along the side of the head, visiting the ear and the nape of the neck, goes to the top of the shoulder then down on the ribs on the side of the body, to the side of the waist, then towards the inguinal region, and begins its travel down the leg at the big depression in the middle of your gluteus muscle. It then travels down the side of the leg to the knee and side of the calf, ultimately traveling out between the 4th and 5th toes to end on the outer edge of the toenail of the 4th toe.

Phase Element – Wood

The five phases, also known as the five elements or five phase elements, is one of the most common symbolic systems used in Chinese medicine. The five phases are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each phase has its own basic character and series of associations, all of which can be used to understand human health, as well as other aspects of reality.

The Gallbladder is one of two Wood phase organ systems, the other being the Liver. Wood is associated with spring with its new growing plants and glowing green color palette. It’s also associated with the tendons and ligaments, the eyes and some aspects of sexual functioning. Wood is also associated with the emotion of anger in all its shades, including the way in which irritation or anger can provoke a person to take action when they have been passive.

Six Conformations – Shàoyáng

The six conformations is a system of diagnosis that divides the twelve organ systems into six synergistic pairs. There are a variety of ways to parse the information contained in this system, which is chiefly used when diagnosing and treating infectious conditions such as colds and flus, but has utility beyond that use. Shaoyang includes the Gallbladder and the Triple Burner. Because of this connection, learning about one organ system may help you understand the other!

These organs both rule the sides of the body and the in between spaces such as the lymphatic system and the interstitial spaces. Shaoyang dysfunction is characterized by intermittent symptoms, like fever alternating with chills, or pain that comes and goes. Shaoyang is also associated with the kinds of symptoms and pathogens that are difficult to treat – the Shaoyang layer isn’t connected with any easy exits from the body and so pathogens have a tendency to go there and stay here. Herpetic infections are one example of a Shaoyang type pathology. The Gallbladder can be useful in treating any of these kinds of situations.

Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – The Rectifier

One of the most important books in Chinese medicine is the Huángdì Nèijīng or Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. In Chapter 8 of that text, all of the organ systems are described using language that relates to the operation of a country or state. This is a common way of symbolically discussing physiology and pathology in ancient Chinese texts.

In this chapter, it is said of the Gallbladder:

“The gallbladder is the official functioning as a rectifier. Decisions and judgments originate in it.”

Paul Unschuld translation

This is interesting! This introduces us to a unique aspect of Chinese medicine organ systems – personality traits, psychological states and the capacity or tendency to certain types of actions can all be connected to physiology and pathology of these systems. The Gallbladder, traditionally, has long been associated with the capacity to make decisions – people who are very indecisive may suffer from deficiency of this organ system.

However, it can also be interpreted a bit more metaphorically. Sometimes, “rectifier” is translated as “field general,” the commander on a battle field that takes the strategic instructions from the general, and makes them tactically actionable, adjusting to suit conditions. To rectify is to put right or to correct, combined with the rest of the line it suggests an organ system that helps the body to utilize resources wisely and to correct or maintain appropriate balance. We can think about this with reference to the digestion (as its biomedical function might suggest) or perhaps with regards to endocrine excretion or the adjustment of other substances that are part of our blood and lymph.

Organ clock – 11pm – 1am

This is deep into the night – most creatures are asleep and everything is cool and dark. However, we’ve crossed the midnight line and the early morning hours aren’t far off. While we don’t see it in the material world, we’ve crossed into yang territory on the clock. So, if you’ve stayed awake until this time you may find yourself with a “second wind” and unable to fall asleep if you want to do so. This is why most standard Chinese medicine advice is to get to bed during the previous period – during Triple Burner time.

Organ clock – 11th month (Mid December – January)

The Gallbladder rules over solstice – the time of the longest night. The longest night, of course, heralds the gradual return of light! Many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere have celebrations that relate to this, since sun and warmth are so important to the flourishing of most creatures on Earth. While like the 11pm-1am timeframe we are still seeing darkness, cold and stillness, the promise is that warmer and more hospitable days are on the way.

Sometimes, practitioners will use this symbolism and treat the Gallbladder (and Liver – next on the organ clock) when someone is stuck in the darkness and cannot see the light. In other words, in cases of depression and hopelessness. It can also be an interesting organ system to treat in chronic fatigue situations, where the yang is having difficulty manifesting on the surface resulting in very low energy.

Organ clock – paired across clock with Heart

One of the most interesting pieces of information from the organ clock related to the Gallbladder is what’s known as it’s “clock pair.” Every organ system has a companion directly across the clock from it. It’s thought that these organ systems can assist one another – when one is strong (during its time on the clock) it can assist its pair (which is at its “low tide” at that time).

The Gallbladder-Heart connection is an interesting one. The Heart is the Emperor of the organ systems, often noted as the most important system in the body – the one that gives instruction and direction to all the others. The Heart is also associated with the mind and the spirit, our capacity to know, to think & to feel our connection to something greater than our small selves. The Gallbladder by contrast seems far more humble, more material, more functional, less exalted. But in its connection to decision making capacity, and the dawn of the light at solstice, we can see how even this humble organ system harbors great power over our experience of the world.

Gallbladder in clinic

Any of the things that have been described so far can be treated using the Gallbladder channel, or using herbs and formulas that impact the Gallbladder from a Chinese herbal theory point of view.

Most commonly, the Gallbladder is used in the following situations:

  1. Musculoskeletal problems especially those involving tendons, or those with a quality of stiffness or tetany. Also, of course, any pain or dysfunction in the musculoskeletal system along the Gallbladder channel. Hip, knee and ankle problems are treated particularly well using this channel.
  2. Headaches, especially temporal headaches and migraines, or any headache involving digestive symptoms at the same time.
  3. Mental-emotional conditions that involve indecisiveness, irritability and anger, or extreme emotional volatility.

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