Organ Systems in Chinese Medicine

Overview

Chinese medicine has a rich and unique theoretical foundation that includes anatomy, physiology, pathology and ideas about how healing takes place. While all US Chinese medicine students learn Western biomedical versions of all these disciplines, we find that acupuncture and Chinese herbs work best when the ancient Chinese concepts are used to direct diagnosis and treatment. One of the most often referenced anatomical concepts in ancient Chinese medicine are the 12 organ systems.

The organ systems in Chinese medicine have names most of us would recognize from any typical biological science class in all but one case. The Chinese medicine organ systems do include the anatomical organs we are familiar with. But that is where the similarities end. Chinese medicine organ systems are complex functional entities that encompass all the structures, functions and tissues of the body in 12 mutually interdependent portions.

So, when your practitioner is discussing the “Heart” after feeling your pulse, for instance, they are most likely not talking about the biomedical heart. They are talking about the broader system that includes the structure beating to the left of center in your chest, but also the Heart channel that runs up the inside of your arm, the blood vessels, aspects of your body temperature, and even your mind, consciousness and sense of “spirit.” Which aspect of the Heart is treated depends on the specifics of the treatment rendered, but all of these pieces are involved every time the Heart is worked with.

Some additional reading about the Chinese medicine organ systems

  1. A basic intro to the organ clock (by Eric on his Whole Life Practitioner website)
  2. The best version of the “Chinese organ clock” – this one by Heiner Fruehauf, he calls it a “holomap.” We will reference this often.
  3. 7 Unique Facets of Chinese Medicine Organ Systems (old article by Eric on his Whole Life Practitioner website)

Every organ system can be understood using a holistic combination of the following pieces of information

  • The central biomedical organ (except with the Triple Burner)
  • The primary acupuncture channel and other associated channels
  • One of the five phase elements
  • One of the six conformations
  • A designation as predominantly yin or yang, generally associated with its classification as a solid or hollow organ system
  • A designation as being in one of the three “jiao” or “burners” of the Triple Burner
  • Various pieces of information associated with the organ clock discussed above, including:
    • 2 hour time period in a 24 hour day
    • Approximately 1 month out of the calendar year
    • “Agricultural nodes” or “Solar terms” which are agricultural and nature based observations about nature during the time of this organ system
    • The organ system that is across the organ clock from the organ system in question
    • One of the 12 “tidal hexagrams” of the Yijing / I Ching
    • One of the 12 earthly branches and its associated zodiac animal
  • And of course, the history of use of that organ system in various types of treatment

More on each organ system

We are currently developing a page of detailed information about each organ system from a Chinese medicine perspective. We will be mostly doing these in order of the monthly podcast series we're doing on the organ systems.

  1. 三焦 San Jiao / Triple Burner / Triple Heater