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The Heart and Small Intestine in Chinese Medicine

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), all of the major organs can be arranged into pairs. These pairs are made up of one yin and one yang organ which are both governed by the same element. In this article we will look at the Heart and Small Intestine which are governed by the fire element.

The pairing between the Heart and Small Intestine may not make much sense at first glance. These organs are not physically close to one another, and their functions are extremely different. However, the relationship becomes clearer when we look at the mental aspect of these two organs.

The Heart is considered the most important organ in TCM as it is in control of our mental function and emotions. It is sometimes seen as the emperor or the body because of its strong relationship to the mind.

The Small Intestine is associated with digestion on a physical level, but it has an important role in emotional regulation too. This is one reason why these two very different organs are paired together in TCM. 

Let’s take a closer look at the functions of the Heart and Small Intestine, and see what happens when these organs fall out of balance.

Functions of the Heart in Chinese Medicine

The physical functions of the Heart in TCM are not too different from this organ’s role in western medicine. It plays an important part in controlling blood and circulation, ensuring that the whole body is well nourished and healthy. However, in TCM, the Heart has an additional role and that is regulating the emotions.

The major functions of the Heart are as follows:

  1. Governing Blood

Much like its western function, the Heart is responsible for governing blood in TCM. In the Heart, food qi (extracted by the Spleen) is transformed into blood and given its familiar red color.

The Heart is also responsible for circulation. When the Heart is healthy, the whole body from head to toe will receive all the blood it needs. When the Heart is weak, the blood may struggle to reach some areas resulting in symptoms such as cold hands or pale skin.

The health of the blood and the Heart also has an impact on the health of your entire body. If your blood is deficient, you may find that you often feel tired or are prone to frequent illnesses.

  1. Controls Blood Vessels

This is related to the previous function of the Heart; governing blood. As well as ensuring healthy blood and good circulation, the Heart controls the blood vessels and the pulse. When the Heart is healthy, the pulse will feel regular and have ‘spirit,’ feeling not too weak and not too strong. When the Heart is imbalanced, the pulse may become ragged, irregular, or weak.

  1. Manifesting in the Complexion

When your Heart is healthy, your skin will look lustrous and rosy, a sign that your blood is flowing as it should. If your blood is deficient, you may suffer from pale, dry, or dull skin. If your blood is not flowing freely, your skin may take on a purplish or even a blue tinge.

  1. Housing the Mind

In TCM, all of the organs are associated with a particular emotion. The Spleen is associated with worry, the Lungs with grief, the Kidneys with fear, and the Liver with anger. The Heart is associated with joy, but when it is imbalanced, this can also can also become sadness.

More importantly, the Heart is said to house the mind, or shen in Chinese. This means that the Heart is responsible for our entire consciousness including our emotions, relationships, and ability to think clearly. It also plays a vital role in sleep.

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In TCM, many different mental health issues are associated with Heart imbalances. Some of the most common are anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

  1. Opening into the Tongue

In TCM, each organ is associated with a sense organ and in the Heart’s case, this is the tongue. However, the sense of taste is usually associated with the Spleen and Stomach, the major digestive organs.

The relationship of the Heart to the tongue is more to do with speech and communication. This is linked to the mental aspect of the Heart and its role in forming relationships.

  1. Controlling Sweating

Sweating is often associated with the Lungs as they have a close relationship with the pores of the skin. However, the Heart also has an important role to play here.

Blood and body fluids are closely related, and when one becomes deficient, the other often follows. People with Heart deficiencies may suffer from spontaneous sweating or night sweats as a result.

Heart Symptoms in Chinese Medicine

Many of the symptoms of Heart imbalances in TCM are related to its function of housing the mind. Some of the most common problems include:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Poor memory
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Functions of the Small Intestine in Chinese Medicine

The TCM functions of the Small Intestine are also somewhat similar to the organ’s role in western medicine. On a physical level, it is responsible for separating food essences into what are known as their ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ parts.

The pure parts are absorbed into the body and transported to where they are needed with the help of the Spleen. The impure parts travel to the Large Intestine and Bladder to be excreted.

However, in TCM, the Small Intestine has an additional role and that is its relationship to the emotions. Just as it separates the pure and impure essences from food, the Small Intestine is seen as separating and sifting through thoughts and ideas.

The Heart is seen as the emperor of the body with a crucial role in mental function. Like all good rulers, the Heart needs advisors, and the Small Intestine’s role can be seen something like a secretary. It helps to decide which matters are important enough for the Heart to worry about and which should just be dismissed.

The Small Intestine is also involved in our morals and judgement as it helps us to separate right from wrong.

People with imbalanced Small Intestines may find that they are mentally scattered. They might be easily distracted or find it difficult to complete tasks. They might also enter into unhealthy relationships or make bad decisions due to a lack of judgement.

People with Small Intestine issues may suffer from mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD.

Small Intestine Symptoms in Chinese Medicine

Some of the most obvious symptoms of Small Intestine imbalances are emotional issues as mentioned above.

However, the Small Intestine can also be susceptible to pathogenic invasions, especially from eating contaminated food. Some more common Small Intestine symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Noisy digestion
  • Excess gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Taking Care of Your Heart and Small Intestine

Emotional balance is key to keeping your Heart and Small Intestine healthy. Of course, this is easier said than done, but relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and therapies such as counselling or CBT can really help.

It is also important to experience joy on a regular basis. Make time to socialize or do something you enjoy as often as you can. Watch a movie that makes you laugh or treat yourself to a massage. Whatever makes your Heart feel happy!

Another great way to keep your emotions balanced is with acupuncture. This relaxing therapy is fantastic for relieving stress and calming an overly busy mind. Even the act of taking time out to do something for yourself can sometimes be enough if you find yourself stuck in an emotional rut.

Diet is another key way to help maintain the health of your Heart and Small Intestine. From a TCM viewpoint, having healthy blood relies on eating a healthy diet, and healthy blood means a healthy mind.

Some of the best foods for nourishing blood include red meat, leafy greens, beets, beans, and eggs. Try incorporating more of these into your diet to ensure that your body and mind have all the nourishment they need. 

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