This exploration of the heart system is the third in a series demystifying Chinese Medicine Theory for Patients and the General Public. As we learned previously in the Liver and Kidney system articles, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) provides us with unique and illustrative ways of looking at our health and the relationships between ourselves, others, and our environment. In this third article we will discuss the “heart” system in Chinese Medicine and the relationships it has to our ability to experience and express joy, handle the summer heat, and help us live more full lives. I hope you walk away from these articles with a new appreciation for how amazing our bodies and our world is and also some ways to bring more awareness into your life with these inter-relationships in mind.
As our hearts are an extremely vital organ and heart disease is a major health problem with serious consequences, people may be a little uncomfortable when told by their practitioner that they have a “heart” issue. As pointed out in previous articles, however, Chinese Medicine diagnoses are referencing the heart system of which only a small part is the actual physical heart. In other words, you can have “heart” issues without a physical heart problem or even known co-factors such as hypertension or high cholesterol.
A problem with the “heart” system is simply part of the organ pattern diagnoses that Chinese Medicine uses to describe processes and relationships within the body. The heart system involves the heart, certain aspects of our emotional and intellectual mind, the small intestine functions, and circulation generally. The system also includes the heart and small intestine acupuncture meridians along with a host of imbalances from a Chinese Medicine perspective and western conditions such as depression, anxiety, add/adhd, hypertension, heart disease, poor memory, insomnia, night sweats, and more.
About The Heart:
While vital to human life the physical heart is basically just a pump. Just slightly larger than the size of your fist, our hearts will beat over 2 billion times in an average lifetime. Working with our lungs, our heart delivers oxygenated blood and nutrients to our organs, tissues and cells. When we have circulatory problems this function can be diminished causing problems elsewhere in the body and ultimately even with the heart itself.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, the heart system has a broad range of functions that span from the physical to the psychological. Some of these functions are related to the physical functions of the heart itself, but others are related to connections made by the heart meridian and other relationships.
The “heart” in Chinese Medicine performs the following functions:
“Dominates” the blood and vessels and “manifests” in the face:
This function illustrates the crucial importance of the physical pumping function of the heart. While the heart obviously requires the circulatory system to deliver blood effectively, without the pumping function nothing works at all. When the circulatory function is strong in the body, the vessels will be full of blood and the body and mind will be properly nourished. This will be evident in techniques such as pulse diagnosis and through simple observations of ones complexion. Manifesting in the face means that due to the large number of blood vessels in the area, weaknesses in the system overall will be observable in the face. A common sign of Heart Yang Deficiency, for example, is a pale face. Imbalances in this function would include a broad range of circulatory disorders.
“Houses” the mind:
In Chinese Medicine our psychologial and intellectual selves are “housed” or controlled by various organ systems. The following chart illustrates these psychological connections (also known as the “five shen”):
- Shen – Emotional Thought | Controlled/Housed by the Heart
- Yi – Intellectual Thought | Controlled/Housed by the Spleen
- Zhi – Willpower | Controlled/Housed by the Kidneys
- Hun – Our “Soul”/Courage/Dreams/Goals | Controlled/Housed by the Liver
- Po – Another aspect of our “soul” but more strongly tied to our physical body/Instincts | Controlled/Housed by the Lungs
The heart, then, technically houses the shen. Shen is loosely translated as our spirit or consciousness and proper shen will result in the ability to think and feel clearly, a strong memory, and the ability to relax and sleep. Imbalances in this function can result in insomnia, memory problems, depression, schizophrenia and the entire range of psychological issues.
“Opens” into the tongue:
The organs in Chinese Medicine are known as the “Zang-Fu”. Zang organs such as the Heart, Kidneys, Spleen, etc. are “solid” and “yin” in nature. Each meridan/organ system has a yin/yang pairing – so each zang/yin organ has a paired fu/yang organ. The “zang” counterparts, also known as the “fu” organs such as the Small Intestine, Urinary Bladder, and Stomach respectively, are “hollow” and “yang” in nature. All of the zang organs have a sensory organ connected to them. In the case of the heart it is the tongue. This relationship is important for proper speech, taste, and a healthy tongue overall (as indicated by tongue diagnosis). An imbalance in this connection may result in the loss of taste, speech disorders, pale tongue, and more.
What symptoms may arise?
From a Chinese Medicine perspective imbalances in the heart system will lead to many circulatory and psychological related problems such as: anxiety, insomnia, menopausal syndrome, add/adhd, poor memory, fuzzy thinking, stuttering, manic depression, palpitations, cold limbs, fatigue, coma, and many others.
As you can see from this brief foray into the heart system there is much more that is meant by the “heart” than just the physical pumping function. The heart system provides nourishment to much of our body and mind and allows us to move, think, and feel clearly.
Heart System Patterns and Their Meanings:
As discussed previously, Chinese Medicine treats “patterns” not “conditions.” By examing the patient, observing their face and body, their entire range of signs and symptoms, palpating points, looking at their tongue and their pulse, practitioners of Chinese Medicine will arrive at a pattern diagnosis. By choosing the appropriate pattern you can treat western conditions as well as offset any variety of more vague symptoms before they turn into full pledged “conditions.” This pattern diagnosis is also what gives Chinese Medicine the flexibility to treat many poorly understood conditions and/or those that do not respond well to western and/or other methods of medical intervention.
In the case of the heart system, patterns generally fall into two categories: Yang deficiency (heat, movement, force) and Yin deficiency (coolness, relaxation, clarity). Physical heart problems may be diagnosed as “Heart Blood Stagnation” whereas the emotional aspects may be diagnosed as “Heart Yin Deficiency.” Within the heart system, there are also some unique diagnoses such as one pattern known as “phlegm misting the mind” which is discussed below.
Heart Yang Deficiency – is a further development of heart qi deficiency which often moves from symptoms such as palpitations on exertion, fatique and spontaneous sweating to those symptoms plus cold limbs, a sensation of cold and a bright pale face. This diagnosis may indicate physical heart problems such as heart disease, coronary blockage, etc.
Heart Yin Deficiency – anxiety and restlessness, palpitations, insomnia, dream disturbed sleep, easily startled, poor memory, fidgeting, mallor flush, night sweats, heat in the 5 palms (hands, feet and face) and/or dry mouth. This pattern may indicate any number of western psychological conditions.
Phlegm Misting The Mind – this rather unique diagnosis has to do with the hearts circulation to the brain/mind and may be diagnosed in conditions where people lose consciousness and/or an ability to know who or where they are. Traditional signs are mental confusion, unconsciousness, a rattling sound in the throat, asphasia and/or vomiting.
It sure is warm, you also said something about summertime and heat!?
As we learned above each of the organ systems has various relationships to sensory organs, aspects of ourselves and more. These relationships come from “five element theory” and are discussed in more detail in my general five element theory section. For our purposes, however, we are going to limit the discussion to the emotional and seasonal relationships of each meridian system. The chart belows shows these basic relationships:
* Organ * Season * Emotion
Heart Summer Joy
Spleen Late Summer Worry/Pensiveness
Lungs Autumn Grief/Sadness
Kidneys Winter Fear
Liver Spring Anger
As you can see from the chart above, the heart system is related to the season of summer and to the emotion of joy. This means that the heart system is strongest and aided by the summer season (warmth helps circulation) and that a healthy “heart” will lead to the ability to feel and express joy. As with any relationship, however, there is a counterpoint. Extreme heat will harm the heart (too much heat makes us agitated and can lead to heat stroke, for example). On the emotional side too much joy can cause issues and a complete lack of joy in our lives can also lead to problems, perhaps even transferring to physical problems (palpitations under extreme anxiety, depression after a failed relationship, etc.).
To help aid our hearts and put some direct self-help advice into this article (for those of you in the northern hemisphere anyhow), I am going to offer some advice on cooling your body and helping with heat. Summer is the time for adding more of the cooling foods into our diets – fruits, salads, water, etc. Watermelon in particular is an excellent remedy for summer heat. In Chinese Medicine watermelon is used to clear summer heat, aid a sore throat, and relieve mouth sores. A glass of fresh watermelon juice is a good remedy to relieve the vomiting and dizziness which may accompany heat stroke.
Acupressure is also useful to both clear anxiety and to help with overheating of the body and even to help restore consciousness if someone were to faint from the heat (medical attention is of course strongly recommended). Two of the strongest points to help relieve anxiety, palpitations, etc. are PC 7 and HT 7. Both of these points can be used when you feel restless, anxious, and/or are having difficulty falling asleep. SP 10 and LI 11 are good points for clearing heat from the body generally and can make you feel more comfortable when the heat starts to get to you. Finally, GV 26 is a good point to learn to help anyone who has fainted or appears to be slipping from consciousness. You can click on any of the points listed to find their locations and usages. GV 26 in particular must be held fairly firmly, often with the thumb.
What Else Can I Do?
As with the kidney system and our discussion of kidney yin deficiency, heart yin deficiency issues (insomnia, anxiety, etc.) are often related to the general pace and pressures of our culture. Western culture generally and american culture particularly can be very stressful and somewhat lacking in joy and connection. Even for people who are not clinically depressed our culture is somewhat isolating and individualistic as is the american spirit that helped to build it. Compared to many other parts of the world where people generally live with extended families and have towns and villages where their very design fosters more communication and interaction amongst neighbors and other people in town, americans generally have less daily interaction with family, friends, and other people near them. In addition to the setup of our society, our long working hours, the pace of life that has been sped up with cell phones and the computer, and other distractions such as TV can take a toll on our emotional, psychological and physical selves.
While not everyone wants to live with 12 people in their house or live in dense city centers it is important for us to be aware that every economic, social, and spatial decision we make individually and collectively will have an impact on our lives and on our health. We know that people who are too isolated have physiological changes that can lead to conditions such as depression, addictions, and other issues such as alzheimers. We know that having towns too spread out causes people to drive everywhere lowering their time in the sun (vitamin D deficiency) and leads to increased rates of obesity and other cardiovascular issues. As with all things, it’s all about finding the proper balance and being aware enough to look around at our situations and look for conditions that we can change instead of masking our issues or expecting magical fixes from medications.
Can Chinese Herbal Medicine Help?
There are a variety of herbal formulas that are helpful for heart system imbalances – both yang and yin. Within this article I am going to mention some of the more helpful formulas that relate to Heart Yin Deficiency. This is in part because they are an important aspect of treatment in many cases. The yin of the body can be difficult to rebuild from the accumulations of stress and anxiety that contributes to these issues and relatively short-term usage of herbal medicine can be very useful.
The “Emperor’s Tonic” or “Tian Wan Bu Xin Wan” works to replenish the yin and blood of the heart system. This formula is commonly used for insomnia, anxiety, and related conditions.
“Licorice, Triticum & Jujube Pills” or “Gan Mai Da Zao Wan” works to nourish the heart and calm the mind. This formula is used for insomnia, nightsweats, depression, and related conditions.
Finally, Chinese Herbal Medicine has a very long history of trial and error which gives us many formulas that are many hundreds of years old with long tract records of success. One aspect of herbal medicine to aid in calming and focusing the mind is the use of shells in Chinese Medicine. These may be oyster shells, clam shells, etc. and they are incorporated in with appropriate herbs to calm the mind in a non-narcotic way. This allows people to feel calm but mentally more focused instead of sleepy and hazy like many medications. Two formulas that are worth mentioning are listed below. One is fairly strong and used for more chronic/clinical psychological issues and the other is safely used with children, particularly with add/adhd.
For Children with add/adhd, behavioral issues, and/or anxiety, our Pearl Kuding Tea Lozenges is a safe and helpful formula. This formula is one of the few times in Chinese Medicine where you use a single herb (in this case pearl powder). Pearl powder is a safe way of helping to calm and focus the mind without side effects of any kind.
“Bupleuri, Dragon Bone & Oyster Combo Pills” or “Chai Hu Long Gu Mu Li Wan” strongly calms the mind, again using shells. This formula is used for more severe cases of anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other psychological conditions.
So, what to do?
Well for one respect the relationships that each organ system has with each season. Summer is a time for outward energy, being active, expressing ourselves and experiencing joy. Summer is a great time to increase activity levels. It is also a great time to decrease the amount of food we eat, as the summer heat provides us with warmth and nourishment we can focus on lighter dishes and more fruits specifically. With even minor increases in activity and lighter dishes we can eliminate some of the weight which naturally builds up over the winter and go into the fall in much better shape.
So enjoy the summer, use the extended daylight hours to be outside more, and use the happiness which everyone feels to at least some degree when it is sunny and warm to engage more with others and your community. Your heart will thank you on all of the levels that we discussed above and more…