This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine.
The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of the Heart podcast (linked here when it is ready) but can of course be used on its own to understand your treatment at Watershed Wellness more deeply.
Heart organ system overview
The Heart is known as 心 xīn in Chinese.
The Heart is one of the 5 most frequently referenced organ systems in Chinese medicine, along with the Liver, Spleen, Kidney & Lung. While the holistic system of physiological understanding we’ve been discussing in these pages doesn’t have a true hierarchy, in some ways of thinking, the Heart is the “most important” of the organ systems, serving as a kind of leader for the rest.
In Chinese medicine, some of the major functions of the Heart organ system are:
- Being the home of the Shen, or spirit, sometimes having a spiritual connotation as we know it in the West, but more often being related to the consciousness
- As such, the Heart has a close relationship with our mental faculties, and can be one aspect of treatment of a range of mental-emotional and sleep disorders
- The Heart is of course related to the moving of the blood around the body, in Chinese medicine it is commonly said that the Heart “commands” the blood
- Again related to its more commonly understood functions, in Chinese medicine the Heart can also be used to treat issues with the cardiac muscle including heart rhythm issues and various kinds of chest pain
- The Heart is often related to the tongue, and thus can be used to treat issues of speech
Let’s dig in a bit more using the various structures and symbols associated with the Spleen.
The Heart acupuncture channel
The Heart acupuncture channel is one of the shortest on the body with 9 points. In some lineages and ways of understanding acupuncture, the Heart channel should only rarely be needled. This has to do with the refined nature of the Shen, as previously discussed, and also has something to do with the Heart’s status as the “Emperor/Empress” of the body, which we will talk about below.
The first point is in the center of the armpit, the channel travels down the inside of the arm from there eventually travelling to the ulnar (pinky) side of the inner forearm until it reaches the hand. It then moves out onto the palm between the pinky and ring fingers, ultimately ending on the radial corner of the pinky fingernail.
The truth is that despite this being one of the shorter channels, many of the points are only rarely used in clinic. Of the 9 points, the four points near the wrist are the most commonly used. They can be a little tricky to needle due to the presence of many tendons, blood vessels and nerves, but are very powerful when they are used.
Phase Element – Fire
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.
Earth, Metal, Water and Wood all relate to two organ systems a piece. Fire alone relates to four organ systems. This emphasizes the importance and centrality of the Fire phase element. Fire is yang, it is warmth, it is how we cook our food and how we stay cozy when the weather is intense. Fire brings to mind campfires, hearth fires and all kinds of combustion that make life as we know it possible.
Fire tends to rise, rather than sink, and is a dynamic, moving and energizing element.
Six Conformations – Shàoyīn
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.
The Heart, along with the Kidney, is related to Shàoyīn. This is a vital pillar of physiology in the body, one that we commonly see showing weakness as people age. Shaoyin disorders generally involve fatigue, cold sensations in the body, and of course dysfunction in the Heart and Kidney.
Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – The Ruler
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.
This is one place where the Heart really shines within the context of Chinese medicine symbolism – because it is here that the Heart is given a place atop the hierarchy of the body – as ruler.
In the text, this translation by Paul Unschuld, it is said,
“The heart is the official functioning as a ruler. Spirit brilliance originates in it.”
The ruler / empress / emperor in ancient China had a kind of inviolable power because they were viewed as having the “mandate of Heaven,” or in other words, they were divinely chosen to lead the people. This, of course, led to many abuses! But aside from the socio-political implications, we can surmise that the ruler was seen as an extremely important individual. What they did, thought and said had vast impacts for the country. In the same way, the Heart in Chinese medicine is seen as having far reaching impacts on every other organ system in the body.
Organ clock – 11am – 1pm
The heart is where we begin our descent into the afternoon and, eventually, evening. Depending on the time of year, this is a time of big sun, big heat & big activity.
Organ clock – June
Note : The lunisolar Chinese calendar doesn’t match up perfectly with the months of the Gregorian calendar. I’m using the closest month on the Gregorian calendar that makes sense.
Like the time on the organ clock, the month associated with the Heart is when we cross from more ascendant energy to begin our descent. In this case, we begin our descent into the fall and winter. It’s always difficult to remember that, starting June 22, our days grow shorter. Because the hotter months of the year actually come in July and August in most places in the Northern Hemisphere, we forget that by the end of August, our days have grown noticeably shorter. The yang has decreased.
Organ clock – The Horse
Every organ system is related to an “Earthly Branch” which is one of the pieces of the ancient Chinese calendar system. To make those symbols easier to relate to, the Chinese associated each with one of the 12 zodiac animals from Chinese astrology.
The Heart organ system is related to the Horse in the Chinese zodiac. The horse is an extremely powerful animal, with great endurance, and beauty that captures the human imagination. A fitting companion for the Heart. Most of us also know that the horse is an animal with a close connection with human beings, it seems to sense emotions and respond to them – for good or ill. As with all these organ system – animal combinations, considering our personal experiences with horses, or stories we’ve heard about them, can help us to understand the Heart organ system more deeply.
Acupuncture & Herbs
Heart 7 Shén Mén (acupuncture point)
Guìzhī – Cinnamomum cassia (herb)