The Value of Stability (August, 2021)

It’s been a hard couple of years, to say the least. Most of us are hurting in one way or another, or in multiple ways. So why might acupuncture help?

For starters, acupuncture is primarily a therapy whose goal is homeostasis. In other words: “stable equilibrium between interdependent elements,” as defined by my dictionary. Keeping everything, or returning everything, to a normal, balanced state. A million different factors can knock this balance off, and acupuncture’s primary goal is to act as a reset.

This, of course, assumes that the default setting is a good one, which Chinese Medicine always does. That’s something I’ve always loved about this medicine. It has this wonderful, great faith in the body to work splendidly and maintain itself without further assistance, so long as it is reset to its natural state.

In a sense, acupuncture is a very simple therapy, because the goal is always the same: to restore homeostasis.

In these very UN-stable times which we are currently enduring here in 2021, it’s not surprising that homeostasis has become difficult for most of us. Perhaps this includes you, dear friend. Maybe your lung functioning  has become a little compromised. Maybe your digestive system is feeling the effects of stress more than usual. Maybe you are feeling a little more reactive to perceived threats than usual (irritability? anxiety? allergies flaring up?)

Fortunately, acupuncture has a rather unique way of restoring homeostasis. How? Primarily, it does this by keeping energy (Qi) moving. Your body has an extensive system of energy pathways (popularly referred to as “meridians’), each one associated with a particular internal organ. These meridians connect to the organs, and to each other. If Qi is flowing through these meridians, and through the organs, unimpeded, the body self-regulates and homeostasis is maintained. When organs are subjected to trauma, stress, overwork, invasion by pathogenic factors, etc, disruptions in the associated meridians will occur. (And, worth noting, the opposite is also true. If a disruption in Qi flow in a meridian occurs, such as from a physical injury, a disruption in smooth functioning may occur in the associated organ.)

When a skilled acupuncturist inserts needles into the right places along those meridians, adjustments to the state of the organs can be made, obstructions in the meridians cleared, and homeostasis returned. It isn’t magic; it just feels like it.

A Shared Journey of Healing

In his wonderful forward to Stanley Rosenberg’s Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Stephen Porges, Ph.D. states, simply and beautifully, that “Healers enable the body to heal itself.” He goes on to describe how effective healers enable and empower their patients to heal through their bodies’ own mechanisms. This is an important foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as I pointed out in my previous post. But Porges adds that an effective “healer” must have the ability to “co-regulate” with those they seek to help. Essentially, this means creating and maintaining the proper environment in which healing can occur, and supportively sharing that healing space with the patient during their journey.

This is one of the foundational principles of the work that I do. I have learned that, while healing can occur even under less than ideal circumstances, it has a much higher likelihood of success when the environment for healing is optimal. This involves, among other things, the state of mind of both the doctor and the patient. If there is too much fear, stress, or mistrust in the room, a treatment is less likely to succeed. Without compassion and empathy from the practitioner, success will likely be limited.

This does NOT mean, as I sometimes hear patients express, that it’s important that you have some certain sort of “belief in” acupuncture for this medicine to work. Quite to the contrary, I particularly enjoy how often I get to see patients SURPRISED by the success of their treatment, as many enter a course of treatment with a great deal of skepticism.

What it does mean is that it’s helpful for the doctor and patient to find at least some degree of connection. And for them both to recognize, as they work to unravel the problems that brought the patient in to the office, that we are, after all, all in this together. Finding connection with every patient is a skill that I’ve worked to cultivate, though it’s something that comes fairly naturally to me anyway. But learning how important this can be to healing has been one of the most profound discoveries of my career.

The human body (as well as the mind) has a tremendous capacity to heal itself. You have the capacity to heal from illness or injury within your body already. No healer needs to give you that. Sometimes, though, the body might need to be reminded how to heal itself, or given a little help in initiating the process. This is what this medicine that I practice can do.

Why It Works

Our bodies are supposed to be self-regulating. That’s why we can live for 80 or 90 years, in spite of all the crazy things we do and all the various awful things that happen to us. Pain and sickness will always come and go, but pain should not be a constant feature of life.

If you smash your thumb with a hammer, it’s going to be swollen and hurt for a while. But if it still hurts and is swollen a month later, something is wrong. Something in your body is not doing its job, and at some point, just waiting for a problem to get better is not a good plan. Fortunately, all problems really do have solutions. Even yours.

Chinese Medicine’s specialty is zeroing in on which system(s) in your body are not operating efficiently. Keeping you healthy is ultimately your body’s own job, but acupuncture is one good way of getting it back on track when things go awry.

According to the wisdom of Chinese Medicine, your body comes with a system of energy pathways that connect each of the internal organs to predictable areas close to the surface of the body. These are called “meridians” or “channels,” and along these is where acupuncturists find most of the acupuncture points. While Western Medicine is well acquainted with the pathways of the nerves and the blood vessels, these “meridians” are a more subtle circulatory system which is not part of the Western medical model.

When your body doesn’t resolve problems and they become chronic, this means that something has gone wrong: Either one or more of your organs is not doing its job efficiently, or there’s a blockage in one or more of the meridians, keeping the healing energy from those organs from getting to where it’s needed. Through observation, consideration of your symptoms, and perhaps carefully feeling your pulse and looking at your tongue, a skilled acupuncturist can determine where to put needles to readjust the flow of energy through your meridians, and assist your body to return to its normal ability to self-regulate and heal itself.

Spring is Springing!

Spring is here! So get out there into the garden, or into the mountains, or onto the ball field of your choice, but be careful! Loosen up first, and don’t be careless about your body mechanics. Check in with your body, and feel the earth solidly under your feet before you do any heavy lifting. And if you’re not as young as you used to be (and you’re not), remember to respect that in the ways that you need to.

If you do end up with a strained and hurting back or other sprain, acupuncture can quickly get you right again. Many people know that acupuncture is great medicine for arthritis and other chronic pain conditions, but many don’t realize how effective it can also be for quick relief and resolution of sprains and strains. We can get you back in the game before you know it.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, Spring can also mean irritating allergies as well. An important thing to remember is that you don’t want to wait until your symptoms are already driving you crazy to try to do something about them. Like any illness, allergies respond much better to treatment if you catch the problem and treat it early. In the case of allergies, the very best results come from treating before symptoms have even begun.

There are many options available for allergy sufferers that may be effective besides the standard over-the-counter drugs that may have side effects. Some homeopathics can be very effective, as can various herbal remedies. Increasing exercise to build up your lung strength, and increased fluid intake can even help, and frequent hand washing and bathing to minimize the pollen sticking to your body is a good idea, too. At the same time, you shouldn’t feel too bad if you occasionally need to reach for that Allegra on the days when the pollen count is at its highest.

In my practice, I’ve had good success treating allergies with a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Treatment should be begun ASAP for best results for this year, and is generally done approximately weekly until the season is over. Treatment may or may not need to be repeated the following year. And the only side effects from this treatment are that you may get relief from other health issues at the same time.

Obliteride! Accelerating Cures for Cancers

A couple weeks ago, I rode in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s “Obliteride,” a bike ride to raise money for research to accelerate cures for cancers. Among the many reasons I participated in this ride was the knowledge that Fred Hutch is developing treatments that aren’t as risky and debilitating as the ones most commonly in use today.

My own mom, Marilyn Levin, died in her 40s of colon cancer after suffering through a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I have personally experienced the devastation and heartbreak that cancer can create, and I’ve seen it and gone through it with other families many more times through my work. But now my wife, Lesley, works at Fred Hutch. Since she started working there, and coming home from work with stories of what they are doing at “The Hutch,” I see so much reason to believe that cures really are on the horizon. Better treatment options may be just around the corner, finally within reach. Fred Hutch scientists are at the forefront of cancer research, and it’s an exciting, hopeful time in this field. For many years now, the best hope for the most serious kinds of cancer has been chemotherapy and radiation treatments that are so debilitating that many patients eventually elect, literally, to die rather than to continue treatment My hope – and I now believe it’s a reasonable one – is that we may soon see the day when the way we currently think of cancer treatment will become only a painful memory.

Unfortunately, that time is not quite here yet. Fortunately, as an acupuncturist, I’ve been able to help many cancer patients minimize the side effects that chemotherapy and radiation often cause. Acupuncture is extremely helpful for this, and anyone undergoing these treatments should be encouraged to incorporate acupuncture into their treatment regimen. It’s an invaluable support.

There is also plenty of reason to believe that acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy are likely to keep a cancer patient alive longer and increase the likelihood of many cancers going into remission. My personal experience has been very encouraging. More often than not, cancer patients that I’ve treated have lived longer, and done better than their doctors expected them too. And the work of Jeffrey Yuen and Li Pei Wen and many other acupuncturists specializing in oncology strongly suggests this is no fluke.

But other benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients are indisputable. First on the list, it’s well established that acupuncture relieves the nausea and other digestive disturbances brought on by chemotherapy. This benefit is so well established that almost all health insurance companies will now pay for acupuncture if it’s used for this purpose.

Secondly, acupuncture’s effectiveness for pain relief is well-known. As pain can be among the worst features of many cancers, acupuncture can be a valuable aid. Similarly, anxiety and depression often accompany cancer, not because the disease or the treatment cause these things directly, but because having this very serious illness is among the most stressful experiences one is likely to have in life. Acupuncture, and in some cases, herbs, can be an immeasurable aid for relieving stress and anxiety. The result of this calming effect can be not only a lessening of discomfort, but may be improved outcomes from treatment as well.

The unfortunate truth about chemotherapy and radiation is that they damage a lot of healthy tissue as well as the cancer cells they are targeting. This is preferable to allowing cancer to spread unchecked, but it causes a lot of unpleasant, unintended results, too. Consequently, in addition to the nausea and digestive disturbances, there may be profound fatigue, weakness, mental fog, aching muscles, neuropathy, and a host of other side effects. Acupuncture can relieve all of these. These therapies save lives, but they are toxic. Acupuncture is a great adjunct to cancer treatment, because it is not only able to relieve many of the symptoms of toxicity, but also aids in the rebuilding of the damaged tissue.

It is probably not likely that acupuncture, or even Chinese herbal medicine, will ever be the gold standard of cancer treatment. The best hope for cancer cures is probably Western Medicine’s research, and institutions like Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. At this point, however, Western and Chinese Medicine work together well – Western Medicine attacking the cancer, and Chinese Medicine helping the patient survive the onslaught more comfortably, without the added complications and side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Someday, I hope there won’t be the need for so much assistance in these ways from acupuncturists like me.

In the last six years, Fred Hutch’s “Obliteride” has raised over $14 million to fund research and development of new cancer treatments. It was the most fun I’ve had doing something really, really important with my time in the last few years, and you can bet I’ll be riding again next year. To learn more about it, go to You can also make a donation at that site, or at

Reflections on Gaia’s Yin Deficiency

I remember a teacher I had in acupuncture school saying that the Earth, being an organism, was of course subject to all the same principles as any other organism in nature. And as we’ve all sort of known for a long time, our planet is not exactly in perfect health. “It suffers from Yin deficiency,” my teacher said. “Its resources are being used up. Humans are taking far more from it than they are putting back in.”

Yin deficiency. Resources being used up. More being taken out than is being put in. That’s how it works. Yin is like fuel, like potential energy; yang is kinetic energy, energy in use. The energy in the entire universe may be infinite, or close to it, but individual organisms need to collect as much energy-producing fuel as they use up, or eventually their energy will run out. And when organisms start getting close to running out, there will be signs of trouble. There will be illness.

Yin is cool and calm by nature, so one of the most clear signs of advanced or advancing Yin deficiency is heat. My teacher made this comment about the Earth about 20 years ago. In the years since, we’ve seen glaciers melting and records breaking for high temperatures year after year. A few days ago, San Francisco broke its record for the highest temperature EVER recorded there, and in my home this week, we’ve been told to stay indoors if possible to avoid inhaling the smoke from some of the roughly 1,000 wildfires currently burning in the western U.S. The temperature of the sea is rising, and we’re watching the most catastrophic hurricane season in American history.

Chinese Medicine also has the term “Yang excess.” This basically means too much energy in use, too much happening at once. That causes heat too. So if you have both an excess of Yang, and a deficiency of Yin at the same time, you end up with a dangerous amount of heat.

These are simple lessons to learn, but important ones: You’ve got to feed your body (or your garden or your planet) good food if you want it to keep giving. And if, at the same time, you put a lot of hot, toxic materials into your body or your environment, you’re going to eventually go up in flames in some form or another. Fortunately, imbalances can almost always be corrected and re-balanced, though when you wait too long to address them, successful treatment becomes a lot more difficult.

Chinese Medicine, Emotions, and Mental Health

One of the most wonderful and invaluable things about Chinese Medicine, in my opinion, is its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all aspects of a person. Unlike Western Medicine, with its extensive specialization and compartmentalization of different aspects of health, Chinese Medicine focuses all treatment on the whole person. A good practitioner of this medicine sees all aspects of the patient as interrelated. In fact, one of an acupuncturist’s primary objectives is to see how a patient’s seemingly unrelated symptoms do relate to one another. Symptoms of mental or emotional disharmony are no exception.

Broadly speaking, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the relative health or pathology of 12 organ systems. Five of these are of particular importance. Imbalances or problems in any of these organs – the Heart, the Liver, the Kidneys, the Spleen, or the Lungs – are responsible for most illnesses, including most mental or emotional disorders. This applies to both chronic and acute illness, and includes anything from mild depression to severe mental illness. There are infinite variations, but most mental/emotional disharmony can be traced back to an underlying imbalance which can be described as a deficiency or an excess in one or more of these five organs. Deficiency basically means that the organ’s functioning has been weakened somehow, and excess can be thought of as a situation where an organ is being overstimulated (for example, by an excess of heat in the system), or is, for various reasons, “working overtime.” When these five organ systems are balanced and working properly, peace of mind and stable mental health are the expected result.

Curiously enough, TCM places very little emphasis on the functions of the brain. Instead, it assigns the various aspects of what we think of as mental functions to these five organs. Of these, the most important is the Heart. The Heart is said to be the “Residence of the Shen.” Shen is sometimes translated as “Spirit,” but just as often it is translated as “Mind.” The state of health of the Shen is the single most important factor in an individual’s mental health, so a lot of mental and emotional difficulties are treated with therapies aimed at correcting pathologies of the Heart. This does not imply, in any way, that if a cardiologist were to examine a person who was depressed, or schizophrenic, that they would be likely to find physical disease in the heart. The organs referred to in Chinese Medicine are always better thought of as systems of which the physical organs are but one part. These systems encompass a broad range of functions, some of which are quite subtle and impossible to observe using laboratory equipment.

The proper functioning of the Liver, which is the “Residence of the Hun,” (or “ethereal soul”) is nearly as important as that of the Heart for emotional well being. Primarily, this is because of one function of the Liver: that of maintaining the smooth and even flow of Qi throughout the body. Any time this smooth flow is disrupted, “stagnant Qi” may cause discomfort, irritability, pain, or any number of unpleasant or difficult feelings. Anger and frustration are common manifestations of a Liver that needs attending to.

The Kidneys also play a significant role in our mental health. They are the “Residence of the Zhi,” which roughly translates to the will. Fear, in particular, is detrimental to the health of the Kidneys. And conversely, if the Kidney system is not functioning at full strength, the individual will tend to feel timid and fearful, lacking in self-confidence and will power.

The role of the Spleen in emotional health is probably the most purely “mental” in nature. The Spleen is the “Residence of the Yi,” which is the element of the soul most closely associated with thinking. This doesn’t mean that all thinking takes place in the Spleen, but it does mean that a healthy Spleen is required for a person to have the capacity to adequately concentrate, to commit thoughts to memory, and to think analytically. The Spleen’s energy is damaged by too much of this kind of intense mental activity. As the Spleen is considered the primary organ of digestion in TCM, it’s no wonder there is such a prevalence of digestive troubles in our culture, where we spend so many hours each day engaged in analytical problem solving, or other kinds of work that engage only our thinking, while our bodies are barely involved in the work at all.

The Lungs, of course, control the breath, and the effect of proper breathing on our mental and emotional health has become widely recognized. In TCM terms, the Lungs are the “Residence of the Po,” which could be described as the most physical part of our soul or our awareness. It is through the functioning of the Po that we experience physical sensations. The emotion said to most specifically affect the Lungs is grief. This can easily be observed in the way that a deeply saddened or grieving person will alternately close down and take in very little breath, and then engage in very forceful respiration through sobbing or crying.

This is, of course, just a very brief introduction to the theories and understanding of emotional health in Chinese Medicine. There are many good books available where you can learn more, and I’ll be delving into this topic more in other blog posts, particularly in the “TCM Series” posts.

TCM Series #4: Keeping Qi Moving

venice skate parkContinuing downstream from one meridian to the next, we proceed from the Lung meridian to the Large Intestine meridian. These two meridians are connected by a short “connecting channel” in the region of the thumb and wrist. As I mentioned at the end of the last post, the major organs in Traditional Chinese Medicine are often thought of in pairs, each “Yin organ” paired with a “Yang organ.” The Lungs’ (a Yin organ) paired Yang organ is the Large Intestine.

Some of the organ pairings are more obvious and intuitive than others. For example, the Kidneys are paired with the Bladder, the Liver paired with the Gall Bladder. Connections between the Lungs and Large Intestine are not quite so obvious. (Although if you try having a bowel movement sometime without breathing, you begin to see the connection.) However, I find that just having the knowledge that there is a connection between the health of the lungs and the functioning of the large intestine can be a helpful awareness to have, for both doctor and patient. And conversely, an unhappy, unhealthy Large Intestine can be a contributor to problems in the respiratory system.

Generally speaking, Chinese Medicine considers the Yin organs to be far more important than the Yang organs. Consequently, there is not quite as much written about them. However, problems involving the Large Intestine (for example, constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and many others) are among the most common complaints patients bring to my practice. So while the Large Intestine perhaps isn’t as intriguing or fascinating to discuss as, say, the Heart, it’s certainly an important organ for an acupuncturist to understand, as so very many people can have happier, more peaceful lives after resolving its imbalances. Acupuncture (and herbs, in some cases), can do this well.

In the big picture, the quality and state of the entire digestive system is dependent on the state of health of what acupuncturists refer to as “the Spleen.” Again, the spleen is an actual organ, but “Spleen” in Chinese Medicine means something larger than that: it is the energy that governs the entire digestive system. Consequently, Large Intestine problems such as constipation are almost always going to be treated by an acupuncturist as a Spleen problem to some extent, as well as – more specifically – a Large Intestine problem. It’s almost as if Large Intestine Qi is a subset of Spleen Qi.

As I stated in the previous post, the Yang organs are primarily responsible for moving along that which we take in to our bodies: Food and liquids are processed and separated by the Yang organs into usable energy sources (Qi, Blood, Body Fluids, and Essence) and waste material to be excreted. Chinese Medicine often refers to the general function of the Yang organs being that of “transportation and transformation.”

There is not a great deal of difference between Chinese Medicine’s understanding of the Large Intestine’s functions and that of Western Medicine. Simply stated, the Large Intestine is responsible for the final stages of fluid reabsorption, and the removal of waste material. Like all the Yang organs, the biggest problems for the Large Intestine involve its energy being obstructed. This can be seen quite obviously in the case of constipation, but loose stools and diarrhea are also a manifestation of the Qi of the Large Intestine being obstructed. When the Qi is not flowing smoothly through the Yang organs, their proper functioning becomes impaired, and the smooth flow of your digestion, which ideally you don’t even notice, becomes an irritation at least, if not a cause of greater problems.

Like the Lungs, the Large Intestine is vulnerable to the effects of excessive heat or cold, either of which can disturb its functioning. Broadly speaking, constipation is generally a sign of an imbalance toward too much heat, and loose stools a sign of an imbalance toward cold, although there are definitely some exceptions to this rule. Lack of adequate hydration (a “yin deficiency,” which by definition tends to indicate heat) can also be a problem. And, like the Lungs, prolonged grief, sadness, or worry effects the Large Intestine’s proper functioning.

To differentiate patterns of disorders involving the Large Intestine, an acupuncturist will often ask questions not only about a patient’s bowel movements, but also about symptoms the patient might be experiencing such as abdominal pain, dry mouth, sores in the mouth, feelings of being hot or cold, fatigue, and other symptoms that may not seem obviously related to you, the patient,  to large intestine functioning. But these things offer clues to the acupuncturist which allow them to zero in on the specific treatment that will be most effective. In addition, an acupuncturist will probably ask questions about your diet, and your emotions. This inP1000982formation is helpful too.  There is very little information about one’s health that isn’t relevant to a practitioner of Chinese Medicine. If there’s a problem in your body anywhere, it’s going to be related, at least somewhat, to your health in other parts of your
body. It’s all connected!

TCM Series #3: Keep Breathing!

photodune-3550240-breathe-mLife, as we know it, begins and ends with the breath. Anyone who has ever found themselves afraid of drowning because they have swum too far from shore will know very well just how true this is. Anyone who practices meditation eventually notices that it is the body’s continuous breathing, independent of any willful action, which means that we are still alive, here in this physical body. And as the health of the physical body is – at least primarily – the reason for the practice of medicine, it is appropriate that the Lungs are the organ where a discussion of the organs in Chinese medical theory usually begins.

Returning to our discussion of Yin and Yang, there are very few places where we can see a perfect balance of Yin and Yang illustrated more clearly than in the breath. The air, and the Qi which the air contains, must consistently be both drawn into the body and released outward in equal amounts. Any imbalance here will obviously become a problem very quickly. Asthma is often a clear illustration of a severe Yin/Yang imbalance: Commonly, during an asthma attack, the individual is quite capable of drawing enough air in, but unable to fully exhale the air back out, and therefore the lungs can never fully relax and remain tense, almost like a stretched, inflated balloon.

The importance of a proper Yin/Yang balance within the Lungs can also be seen quite clearly in the way the Lungs’ health is so easily affected by temperature variations. When the body is too hot, as in the case of illness with a fever such as the flu, lung function is almost always compromised. Sometimes you can even feel a “burning” sensation with each cough. Or consider the example of asthma above: In this case, there is most likely a deficiency of the “Lung Yang,” which is why it is common for many asthmatics to have asthma attacks triggered by exposure to very cold air. Also worth considering: While they are not synonymous, “Yang deficiency” is definitely a close cousin of “Yin excess.” Asthma often also involves an accumulation of phlegm – a very Yin substance – in the Lungs. Not surprisingly, strengthening the Lung Yang will help to get rid of this accumulated, excessive Yin!

In Chinese medical theory, the primary roles of the Lungs are to take in Qi from the environment (we also do this photodune-11905155-joy-mthrough our digestive organs), and to disperse the Qi throughout the body. They also assist the Heart in the circulation of the blood. Any pattern of disharmony in the body that involves either an apparent shortage of energy or stamina, or a sluggishness of the circulation, may be a reason to suspect a Lung problem as part of the cause. In addition, the Lungs are the organ which controls and regulates the “Wei Qi”: a specific form of Qi which is responsible for fighting off illness and infections. For simplicity, it can be thought of as the Chinese equivalent of the immune system, although they are not exactly synonymous.

All organs have varying degrees of vulnerability to particular pathogenic influences. Being the organ that has the most direct contact with the environment outside of the body, the Lungs are often the first organ affected by environmental factors. They are particularly sensitive to exposure to severe cold and wind, which can quickly interfere with their proper functioning. Conversely, because heat rises, the Lungs can also be susceptible, over time, to problems caused by too much heat in the abdominal organs. And what the Chinese call “pathogenic wind-heat” and “pathogenic wind-cold” can also easily invade the Lungs via contagious viral or bacterial infections.

From an emotional standpoint, the Lungs are profoundly affected by severe sadness, and especially by grief. This can be observed in the shallow breathing and quietness that comes over an extremely sad or grieving individual, or conversely, by the intense crying or even wailing that may accompany grief when it is most acute. (The Lungs are, of course, the main organ behind the power and volume of the voice.) Grief is sometimes even described as a “suffocating” feeling. Unrelenting feelings of sadness or unresolved grief can lead to chronic Lung health problems over time, or unresolved feelings of this sort in childhood may predispose one to Lung problems in adulthood. More often, though, they are observed to cause temporary flare-ups of problems, such as the asthmatic person who may have a more difficult year than usual after the loss of a close loved one.

In terms of self-care and maintenance of healthy Lungs, one can begin to see what the Lungs prefer by considering the opposites of the factors described above. Avoidance of exposure to severe weather and temperature changes, and particularly when there is wind involved, is a good way to protect your Lungs. The back of the neck and just below it in particular should be protected in severe or windy weather, as this area contains what Chinese Medicine literally refers to as the “Wind Gate,” where pathogenic factors are said to frequently enter the body. While it is difficult to avoid grief and sadness, as they are at times necessary parts of life, one can still be aware that if such states are allowed to persist for an unusually long and inappropriate length of time, the Lungs may start to suffer as a result. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why regular aerobic exercise, and even “remembering to breathe” are known to be effective tools in the treatment of depression.

In the Five Element System, which I will discuss in more detail later, the Lungs correspond to the Metal Element. The other Elements are Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth. Each Element has two organs which specifically correspond to it, one considered a Yin organ, and one considered a Yang organ. Yin organs are those which produce, store and/or “govern” what are known as the vital substances (Qi, Blood, Body Fluids, and “Essence”). The Lungs are said to govern Qi, and play a major role in the production of Qi that is usable by our bodies. Yang organs process these vital substances and move them along, but they do not produce or store them. In the case of Metal, the associated Yin organ is the Lungs, and the Yang organ is the Large Intestine. We’ll discuss the Large Intestine next.

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.