This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine.
The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of the Liver organ system podcast (link coming soon), but can of course be used on its own to understand your treatment at Watershed Wellness more deeply.
Large Intestine organ system overview
The Large Intestine is a fu / yang organ system like the Triple Burner and Gallbladder. As such, it’s somewhat less studied in the Chinese medicine literature as compared to the more popular zang / yin organ systems such as the Lung.
- Biomedically, the Large Intestine is responsible for the transformation of the food that entered our digestive system into solid waste. In the process, it removes water and does some last minute digestion of food into nutrients via gut bacteria. It is wrapped around the large intestine, around the perimeter of your abdominal cavity.
- The Chinese medicine view of this organ system acknowledges the same basic function. However, it also sees the Large Intestine as responsible for the regulation of temperature in the body – particularly helping to deal with high fevers. But, to be honest, the conventional Chinese medicine view of the Large Intestine doesn’t go much further than that.
- When we look at the Chinese medicine organ clock, other symbolic information, as well as the use of the acupuncture channel associated with the Large Intestine we get a fuller picture of how this organ can be used in treatment.
Let’s see what we can learn…
The Large Intestine acupuncture channel
The Large Intestine channel is very frequently used in modern clinical practice, especially its most famous point, Large Intestine 4, He Gu. That point is combined with the famous point Liver 3 to form one of the most well known acupuncture point combinations, known as the “4 Gates,” used to treat pain, stagnation and many types of dysfunction almost anywhere in the body. It’s about as close to a panacea as Chinese medicine possesses.
The channel begins at the radial / thumb side of the tip of the index / pointer finger. It then goes along the radial side of the index finger and goes between the thumb and index finger on the back of the hand. It then travels up the radial and lateral / outside surface of the arm to the elbow. It continues along the outside of the upper arm to the shoulder joint, then up to the lateral side of the neck, then onto the face, eventually coming to its last point right next to the nostril. When it is on the arm, it runs more or less parallel to the Lung channel which is on the inside surface of the arm.
Large Intestine points are used to treat fevers, red eyes and similar “hot” conditions. They are also used to treat pain, particularly in the wrist, arm, shoulder, face and teeth, though Large Intestine 4 can be used to treat pain almost anywhere in the body. Interestingly, relatively few Large Intestine points treat digestive or abdominal disorders, though many do treat things like atrophy of muscles – which certainly can be related to nutritional problems.
Phase Element – Metal
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.
Large Intestine forms its five phase pair with the Lung. When talking about the Lung, we discussed autumnal energy – that season of harvest and death – and the Large Intestine shares this energy with the Lung. Grief goes with this element. We can think of Lung and Large Intestine as resonating with these, but different aspects. Large Intestine is about LETTING GO, about dropping what no longer serves, which is an essential part of the dying and grieving process. The Lung, perhaps, is a bit more about breathing in the inspiration that can come from the cleansing process of death and grief. But both are metal.
The Lung and Large Intestine, both in biomedical and Chinese medical terms, have the protective qualities of metal. Metal as sword, armor and shield. The Lung, as was discussed, has a crucial role to play in immunity, particularly from respiratory pathogens and environmental toxins that travel over the air. On the other hand, the Large Intestine defends more deeply within the body. From a biomedical perspective we can think about the gut bacteria and the crucial role they play in defending us against ingested pathogens and food allergens. In Chinese medicine, this part of the Large Intestine’s defensive capacity is most related to its conformation, discussed next.
Six Conformations – Yángmíng
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. Yangming can be translated as “yang brightness,” and can be thought of as a blazing hot sun at high noon at summer solstice. Large intestine shares this conformation with 胃 Wèi / Stomach.
Yangming is a strong, aggressive force in our bodies and it is here that we achieve the highest fevers. Fevers that can save our lives when we battle a viral or bacterial illness, but also fevers that can kill us should they get too high. This association with bright, hot, aggressive, intense symptoms also relates to the mental-emotional realm. Yangming treatments can treat symptoms such as very high anxiety, mania and psychosis.
Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – The Transmitter / Transformer
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 Large Intesine:
“The large intestine is the official functioning as transmitter along the Way. Changes and transformations originate in it.”Paul Unschuld translation
This is an interesting statement for the humble Large Intestine. There are many ways to read this line, but the simplest is to note that our food goes from recognizable grains, fruits, meats and other items of the outside world and through the action of both intestines are rendered into two things – our very bodies on the one hand, and waste on the other. Neither look like the food that went in – magic! This is a deep transformation.
We can look a layer deeper – as with all the organ systems – and try to comprehend the more subtle symbolic information in the text. While that’s a bit too much to do for this patient-facing explanatory document, it’s worth just noting how an organ that we think of as just a tube for waste is mentioned in the same breath as “The Way,” or the Dao, that cherished philosophical and cosmological concept most well known from the ancient text the Dao De Ching (Tao Te Ching).
Organ clock – 5am-7am
We are solidly in the morning now. The sun has fully risen, and things begin to warm up. This is a time of great activity among diurnal species – including human and non-human. Plants unfurl. Any frost melts away. Sounds and smells, colors and shadows, everything comes alive with motion and transformation. For people who wake up at an average time in the morning, say around 6am, this is also likely to be the period of their first bowel movement!
What else does this time in the morning bring to mind? Go outside around this time, especially near equinox, and just sit paying attention to the movement of people, animals, wind, water. What comes to your mind? Any of this could be contemplated when understanding the Large Intestine.
Organ clock – March
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.
Just as we’ve solidly entered the morning on the organ clock, we’ve ventured fully into the promise of spring in March. Of course, your particular climate matters, and here on the North Coast, we still have plenty of storms and cold days to go. And yet, the forsythia is in full bloom, many migratory birds have returned, and when the sun is out, it feels warmer than it has in many months. The aggressive growth of plants, busy nesting season for many animals – this energy and activity is part of the symbolic landscape of the Large Intestine.
Organ clock – The Rabbit
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 Large Intestine is related to the earthly branch 卯 mǎo, which is in turn related to the Rabbit. Rabbits are VERY active animals, particularly at night, as they seek out their herbivorous food sources and avoid predation. Some hare species, including the Chinese hare, eats its defecated pellets of herbivorous material so as to obtain maximum nutrition – interesting given the Large Intestine’s role in our digestive process.