TCM Series #2: Zang-fu: Organs in harmony

Organic living and healthy lifestyle concept with a tree in the shape of a human head and roots in the form of an anatomical heart organ representing a vegetarian life eating vegetables and fruit for a growing body.

Perhaps the most essential principle to understand about Chinese Medicine is that it is based on the belief that the body is supposed to efficiently regulate and take care of its own health. Injuries, trauma, and exposure to pathogens that will make a person sick for a time are inevitable facts of life, but a healthy body is equipped with everything it needs to resolve such problems and move on. So when a person comes to me with a problem that they have had for an unreasonably long time, the main question that I, as an acupuncturist, am asking myself is not, “What caused this problem?” or even, “What is the remedy for this problem?” It is: “What is not working right in this person’s body, so that this problem is not resolving?”

There are a number of different perspectives, or schools of thought from which to approach this question. The one that I use the most frequently is called the “Zang-fu” approach, which assumes that the health problem (whether primarily physical, mental, or emotional) has arisen from a dysfunction in one or more of the major internal organs.

Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes 12 organs which are considered to be of primary importance. Each of these organs needs to do its job efficiently, or the balance of Yin and Yang within the body’s internal environment will be upset, and health problems will eventually occur that do not resolve as they are supposed to do. However, the types of health problems that occur, based on the organs involved, are not always those that would seem intuitively obvious to an individual raised on the ideas we are most familiar with in Western culture. This is because the Chinese understanding of the various organs and what they do does not always correspond to all the Western ideas about organs called by the same name.  For example, while both Western and Chinese Medicine agree that the heart pumps blood through our blood vessels, Chinese Medicine also maintains that the state of health of the heart literally determines how much joy a person experiences. While we in the West think of this as a sort of a fanciful or poetic idea about the heart, it is actually a principle built in to the science and practice of Chinese Medicine.

In fact, even the Chinese medical definition of the word “organ” itself differs from the Western definition, and this is an important point for a patient to understand. An acupuncturist might diagnose a patient with, for example, a Heart or a Lung disorder, and there may be absolutely nothing wrong with the physical heart or lung organs. Whenever an Human sinus and respiratory systemacupuncturist refers to an organ, it is best to think of what’s being referred to as something more like a system, of which the named physical organ is one important piece. “Lung,” for example, refers to everything under which the Lungs have the primary influence in the body, so a problem in the sinuses or the nose is necessarily a Lung problem, because the sinuses and nose are considered parts of the Lung system. And, as I alluded to in the paragraph above about the Heart, the organs also have non-physical functions. Different organs are more closely associated with different emotions, and even certain mental functions. In fact, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the brain is not even considered one of the more important organs!

The twelve primary organs are: the Lungs, the Large Intestine, the Stomach, the Spleen, the Heart, the Small Intestine, the Urinary Bladder, the Kidneys, the Pericardium, the Sanjiao (usually translated “the Triple Burner”), the Gall Bladder, and the Liver. You will notice that I have capitalized each of their names. This is the way they are traditionally written about in almost all Chinese medical literature, which can be taken as a reminder that when we discuss these organs, we are referring to something larger than just the observable physical organs which go by the same names in Western anatomy.

I have also listed the organs in a particular, intentional order. Each of zj1[1]these organs has a “meridian” or “channel” (these words are used interchangeably) associated with it, through which the Qi flows (and each meridian has a branch which connects directly to its associated organ). Each channel also connects, near its end, to the beginning of another channel, so that Qi literally flows continuously from one channel to the next and all 12 are connected along one continuous path. The order in which the channels connect with one another is the order in which I have listed the organs.

“Channel theory” is another consideration sometimes used for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment strategy, particularly if the only significant complaint is musculoskeletal  pain. So you can see that knowing the order in which the Qi flows from channel to channel can be useful, as a blockage in one meridian might be the cause of a problem “downstream” in the next one. Most acupuncture points are located on the channels, and one of the primary things that acupuncture needles do is to manipulate and facilitate the free flow of the Qi through them.

However, it is an important point that each of these meridians also has a branch that connects to its associated organ. Because of this, acupuncture needles can also directly effect the functioning of the organs, and this is what my goal as an acupuncturist frequently is, once I have determined which of the organs are not functioning optimally.

As the flow of Qi through the meridians is in the order that I have listed above, a discussion of the organs is traditionally presented in this same order. In the next entry of this blog I will begin an introductory discussion of each of the organs and what Chinese Medicine says about them and what they do. I will begin, therefore, with the Lungs.