What is the Role of the Heart in TCM?
What are Organ Systems (Zang Fu)?
Before we dive into the intricacies of the Heart system, it’s important to understand the place of the organ systems in TCM. There are five sets of organ systems made up of two sides, zang and fu, hence the Chinese name for these organ systems is zang fu. The zang organ is said to have yin energy while the fu partner has yang energy. When both organ partners are working together in harmony, they help to maintain a balance of yin and yang in the body.
But of the many organs in the body, how were the 10 organs in the zang fu deemed most important? The organs selected represent those with vital functions or ones that produce other needed substances. In addition to having a partnered organ system, each pair is said to exhibit properties of one of the five elements. This is simply another way that TCM practitioners are able to understand the nature of the organs and how they work. This better helps pinpoint diagnoses.
In TCM, the five organ systems consist of the following:
- Spleen and Stomach (earth)
- Lung and Large intestine (metal)
- Kidney and Bladder (water)
- Liver and Gall bladder (wood)
- Heart and Small intestine (fire)
When the body is in balance, all is well. However, an imbalance can spark illness and disease within an organ system. If left untreated, these symptoms can spread to affect other organs in the system. The links between the five zang fu systems, yin and yang, and the elements are used by TCM practitioners when determining diagnoses in patients.
The Role of the Heart System in TCM
In TCM, the Heart is viewed as the organ in charge of all other organs, or the “ruler of the zang fu”. This is because the Heart plays special foundational roles in the day-to-day upkeep and functioning of the body. As noted above, the Heart is the regulator of blood. In Chinese medicine, however, this stems beyond just ensuring that the blood gets to each organ without interruption. Regulation of the blood also involves the quality of the blood. In TCM, the blood must be well-nourished, and flow strong and steady. This nourishment is needed by the many organs the blood flows through and helps maintain overall wellness.
As the ruler of the body, the Heart is also responsible for much of our mental functioning. How we think, our perspective, and our choices and attitude can all be influenced by the Heart. Circulation, blood quality, heart rate, and the intuitive nature of the heart can all play a part in how well our thought processes flow. In TCM, it’s often said that if a person is not acting like themselves, or experiencing random bursts of anxiety, it may be due to a Heart issue. Alongside rest and nutrition, taking care of your Heart should be a high priority if you need to keep your brain in tip-top shape.
Ever hear people say something along the lines of, “they truly have a heart for giving”? We all understand in that scenario that it’s not actually the person’s physical organ doing the generous deed, but rather the comment is being made about their thoughtful and kind spirit. In many ways, this is a prime example of how the Heart is viewed in TCM. Instead of just an organ that pumps away doing its job all day, the Heart is viewed as an entity that is able to sense, think, and feel. The Heart uses the information gathered from these abilities to direct the tone for the body that all the other organs will follow. These intuitive qualities of the Heart are said to be caused by Shen.
What is Shen?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shen is one of the most important, and complicated foundational concepts. The word “Shen” is most consistently translated as “spirit”. It can represent a few different qualities in a person. The traditional sense of a person’s spirit is essentially the makeup of who they are; their personality, thoughts, feelings, and energy. While we all have a sense of spirit, they all differ, making us into the unique individuals we are.
Shen can also be used to describe the idea of change and transformation. This can be something as small as a shift of facial expressions like a raise of an eyebrow or new twinkle in the eyes. It can also mean a greater, internal change of personal growth or understanding of one’s purpose and calling in life. Many TCM practitioners break the idea of Shen down into three functional parts.
The first is our consciousness. It’s believed that our ideas, intentions, intelligence, strategic planning, and motivation to take action actually begin their manifestation thanks to Shen. Only then can the Shen generated from the Heart move its way up the body to the mind, which is the controller of thought.
The second is the seven emotions and visual expressions associated with them. It’s said that joy, sadness, fright, grief, anger, worry, and apprehension all originate from Shen. Whether your reaction is to cry, scream, breathe heavily, shut your eyes, or furrow your eyebrows, these responses are also triggered by the same Shen that inspired the emotion.
The third responsibility of Shen is to work with the five organ systems to regulate sensory intakes and subconscious judgments. In TCM, it’s believed that each of the primary organs in the five systems is in charge of a different Shen partnership. Our reactive instincts, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove, is connected to the lung. The quality of memory, how well yours works and what is brought to mind, is connected to the kidney. General thoughts and remembering the day’s schedule is due to the work of the spleen. Our ability to practice self-control and awareness of others is considered the partnership of the liver. Finally, the Heart is connected to our ability to sort through all our sensory information to make intuitive insights.
Heart Qi Deficiency
With one of its primary functions being to circulate blood throughout the body, a qi deficiency can throw a significant wrench into not only the Heart system, but all other organ systems as well. The qi is important because it represents the essence and innate energy of the person. Therefore, the strength of the qi determines the quality and amount of energy able to be devoted to the action of actually pumping the blood. So a deficiency in qi can cause a ripple effect, creating deficiencies and imbalances within the other systems.
A person with healthy Heart qi will likely feel energetic and full of life. They’ll have a strong and consistent pulse, and their skin will probably be flush and bright-looking. If you are experiencing a deficiency of Heart qi, you may find that you begin to look pale or almost blue or purple, your pulse will become weaker, and you may feel slightly faint. According to TCM, shortness of breath, mental and physical exhaustion, and breaking out in sweats are also common symptoms.
As the ruler of all other organ systems, concerns regarding the Heart should not be taken lightly. If you are expressing these symptoms and are worried about your Heart system, it is highly recommended to contact your medical professional team.
Other Important Functions of the Heart System
Speech and Facial Expressions and the Heart
As mentioned above, our physical reactions to the emotions we feel is all thanks to the Shen generating from our Heart system. The Heart registers what is happening within us before our mind does, so these emotions and subsequent visual reflections of them might occur before we have time to process why. While some of these reactions are quite obvious, like tears pouring from our eyes, others are a bit more subtle, like a change in complexion.
It’s believed that our extended, or smaller body parts and orifices are linked to the larger organ systems. In the case of the Heart, it’s believed that the tongue is its direct link and can reveal information about the state of the Heart. The color, texture, shape, coating, and quality of taste buds can all provide answers and clues as to the larger picture of the body’s health. A change in your speech patterns or ease of speaking could also point to a Heart concern. A TCM practitioner is likely to examine your tongue in depth if they are concerned with a potential Heart issue.
There’s a good reason why so many beauty treatments these days surround improving circulation. A person’s skin complexion can reveal secrets about the Heart’s health, along with the quality of the qi and blood. If all is well and a person is healthy and thriving, they’re likely to have a warm, rosy look, with clear skin and an innate glow. Pale or red skin, lack of luster, hint at a greater issue within the Heart system.
Blood Vessels and the Heart
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the body’s blood vessels are seen as the “tissue” associated with the Heart. They are the branches of the metaphorical tree that stretches out from the Heart into the outer extremities, providing nutrients required for life. This is why the face and tongue are strong cues to the state of a person’s heart health. There are many blood vessels located in both these regions, so they provide a direct map back to the Heart.
The strength of the blood vessels, along with the quality of the blood, are what create the pulse. In fact, without blood vessels, there wouldn’t be a pulse to check! The pulse is one of the key metrics TCM practitioners use when examining patients to determine a diagnosis. Blood vessels don’t do the work alone, however. It’s also believed that the qi is what regulates the flow and pathways of the blood through the vessels. Because of this, balanced qi and blood are both required to ensure that all functions run according to design. An imbalance in any one of these players can cause serious issues for the Heart system.
The Connection Between the Small Intestine and Heart
Within the zang fu system, the Heart’s partner organ is the Small Intestine. While these two might seem like an unlikely pairing at first glance, they derive from the same fetal tissues. Their functionality and symptoms when an imbalance occurs add up in more ways than you might think. When there’s a problem with the small intestine, issues like stomach pain, over or undereating, and digestion troubles might occur. Now imagine a time that you were experiencing emotional pain or stress, did you lose your appetite? Or maybe stress ate your secret stash of candy? You might have even felt nauseous. This is an example of the partnership between the Heart and Small Intestine in action.
The small intestine also plays a part in the Heart’s influence over mental functioning. While the Heart is said to spark thoughts, feelings, and decisions, the small intestine is known for providing our power of discernment. In TCM, it’s believed that the small intestine can sort out what is good and pure against what might be toxic. Essentially, it acts as an additional filter through which the thoughts can be processed. While the Heart may be slightly impulsive, the Small Intestine takes a moment to “think things through”.
How to Keep Your Heart Healthy
The typical prescription of nutritious foods, consistent exercise, and good sleep are also the foundation of a healthy heart system in TCM. However, there are a few additional specific ways you can be mindful of the wellness of your Heart. These include keeping a positive mindset, taking certain herbal teas, and minimizing stress.
Because the mind is linked directly to the Heart, what goes on up in your brain can play a part in the health of your Heart. Many TCM practitioners have found that maintaining a positive mindset can greatly impact the health of the heart system (and your overall wellness, too!). Common suggestions for mental wellness to ease the pressure on the Heart include regular meditation, repeating positive affirmations, and taking a step away to recenter during stressful situations. It’s also important to hold yourself to a standard of compassion and gratitude. Actively seeking to fill your life with positive influences; from the people you spend time with to the books you read and movies you watch can also help you stay on track.
Herbs for Heart Health
In TCM, red is the color associated with the heart system, so it’s no coincidence that many of the herbs prescribed for Heart health happen to be red as well. A few herbs that have been noted to promote Heart wellness include Chinese red date, ginseng, goji berries, astragalus, cinnamon twig, and red sage root. Ginseng, also called ren shen or Panax ginseng, has been said to promote blood circulation and the regeneration of red blood cells. Red sage root, also referred to as dan shen, is said to help blood flow by widening coronary arteries. It’s also used as a general aid for better blood circulation.
Many of these teas can be purchased pre-prepared, or you can grind up some herbs and brew your own tea at home. It is suggested that you consult with your TCM practitioner with any questions or concerns. In TCM, many herbs are prescribed in a mixed tea, tincture, or supplement. A licensed herbalist will be able to prescribe an herbal treatment that’s right for you.
Take it Easy
Are you letting stress take over your life? Intense or prolonged emotional stressors can take a toll on the health of your heart system. TCM practitioners suggest making self-care a priority. If you find that your emotions are getting the best of you, consider meeting with a therapist or psychologist. You can also make adjustments to your lifestyle and diet. Try to cut out or minimize activities or people that cause unnecessary stress. Make time for activities you know help you release stress and feel your best like exercising, spending time with friends, or taking a trip to the spa.
Limiting caffeine and alcohol has also been shown to help minimize anxiety in many people. But don’t worry, you can just replace your morning coffee with one of the Heart-oriented herbal teas listed in the section above. Are you getting enough sleep? Sleep is the primary time of day the body heals and processes energy. Starting the day without adequate sleep can worsen existing issues and amplify feelings of stress, anxiety or overwhelm. Finding a long-term schedule that minimizes stress is a key way to help your heart system do its best work.