Adam Miramon, M.O.M., Dipl.Ac., L.Ac., Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist

Understanding Your Acupuncturist: Organ Functions

Continuing the series “Understanding Your Acupuncturist,” we expand the foundation of the concepts behind the theory of acupuncture. Organs play an important role in the human body – both in western medicine and Chinese medicine. A commonly misunderstood concept for individuals not trained in Chinese medicine is that of the organs. As in western medicine, each organ has a specific function. However, these functions may or may not be related to the function of the organ in western medicine. If your acupuncturist mentions the term “Kidney yin deficiency,” this Chinese medical diagnosis does not necessarily indicate that your kidneys are damaged or dysfunctioning through the lens of your western medical physician.

There are twelve primary organs; each with an associated meridian. People with an understanding of human anatomy or some western medical knowledge may recognize the names of most of the organ and meridian pairs. However, there are two additional primary organs in Chinese medicine that may be unfamiliar – the Pericardium and the San Jiao. These two organs will be explained in greater detail later in the article.

Under Chinese medicine, the most common issues with organs and meridians stem from emotional stress and disharmony as well as external pathologies. Although some symptoms of pathology may be similar, the theory of medicine behind how each organ functions are quite different. For example, grief or sadness could indicate a deficiency in any of several organs. Since our bodies do not exist as isolated parts, pathologies in one area can have effects throughout the system. However, these commonalities of pathologies mean that only your acupuncturist can adequately diagnose any issues you may have.

The organs and meridians are categorized in Yin and Yang pairs – Yin being the receptive and Yang being the expressive. When we discuss organs in Chinese medicine, they are referred to as the Zang and the Fu. The term Zang correlates to the Yin organs, and the term Fu correlates to the Yang organs. A previously published chart of Yin and Yang organ/meridian pairs was incorrect. The correct chart of these pairs are as follows:

  • Zang/Yin Fu/Yang
  • Lungs Large Intestine
  • Spleen Stomach
  • Heart Small Intestine
  • Kidneys Bladder
  • Pericardium San Jiao
  • Liver Gall Bladder

Before we can discuss each organ in detail, we must first understand certain terms regarding organ function. While these the terms we are about to define have similar meanings in the English language, their concepts and meanings are slightly different from one another in terms of Chinese medicine. Our goal is to provide a simple understanding of these terms for the purposes of this article. These terms are govern, control, and regulate.

The term govern simply means to rule much in the way a king or queen might rule a country. Basically, an organ may have authority or responsibility over a certain aspect, substance, or function within the body. One could equate an organ that governs as being “in charge.” On the other hand, control means to exercise direction or disseminate commands. Control is a form of action and the organ is doing the actual work within the system. When an organ “controls,” it is the one sending out the orders. Regulate may be an easier concept to understand because it means to adjust to some requirement or standard. When an organ regulates, it is adjusting a substance, function, or aspect to a certain level of balance within the body.

Another concept that must be understood is the notion of Qi. Some literal English translations of Qi are terms air or breath, but Qi is actually an individual’s vitality and life force. Therefore, Qi could also be equated to prana, mana, and pneuma. Now that we have an understanding of Qi, Zang, Fu, govern, control, and regulate, we will have a closer look at each of the organs.

  • Lungs
  • Functions
  • Govern Qi and respiration
  • Control diffusing and descending of Qi, meridians, blood vessels, skin, hair, and nasal mucus
  • Regulate all physiological activities and water passages

There are a variety of symptoms that may arise when the Lung is malfunctioning. These include obvious symptoms like shortness of breath, weak voice, phlegm, or pale complexion. In addition to these obvious symptoms, other symptoms include skin problems, colds, or frequent illness. Malfunctioning of the Lung can happen because of diet, life habits, some external pathogen, or emotional stress due to excessive sadness, grief, or worry.

  • Large Intestine
  • Functions
  • Controls passage and conduction
  • Transforms stools
  • Reabsorbs fluids

Symptoms of malfunction in the Large Intestine include any kind of bowel problem, diarrhea, or constipation. The Large Intestine can malfunction due to diet or emotional stress, especially excess anger, worry, or sadness. In addition, an external pathogen can affect the functioning of the Large Intestine.

  • Spleen
  • Functions
  • Governs transformation and transportation of food and fluids
  • Controls the ascending/raising of Qi, blood, muscles, the four limbs, and saliva

When the Spleen malfunctions, symptoms include tiredness, digestive disorders, and abdominal distension. Patients may also have a tendency toward depression or obesity. Diet and emotional stress are two major causes of dysfunction for the Spleen. Worry and pensiveness (thinking too much) can negatively impact its functioning. The Spleen can also be attacked by an external pathogen.

  • Stomach
  • Functions
  • Controls receiving, rotting and ripening of food, descending of Qi, and transporting the essence of food
  • Origin of fluids

Like the Spleen, digestive complaints and tiredness are two clues that the Stomach may be malfunctioning. Another common symptom of malfunction is weakness in the limbs. The Stomach’s function can be impacted by emotional stress and external pathogens. However, the biggest cause of malfunction of the Stomach is diet. Diet in this context includes more than just the nature of food eaten. It also includes meal time regularity and the conditions in which one eats.

  • Heart
  • Functions
  • Governs blood
  • Controls blood vessels and sweat
  • Houses the mind (unlike western medicine which houses the mind in the brain)

When the Heart malfunctions, people can experience a variety of symptoms. These include insomnia, palpitations, mental/emotional instability, depression, and anxiety. The Heart is extremely susceptible to emotional stress. Therefore, an overabundance or inability to process joy, sadness, grief, anger, or worry could negatively impact Heart function. Other causes of Heart malfunction include diet, external pathogens, and overwork.

  • Small Intestine
  • Functions
  • Controls receiving and transforming of food by sorting the usable from the unusable
  • Separates fluids

Bowel problems and gurgling in the abdomen are two signs that the Small Intestine may not be functioning properly. Other symptoms that could point to issues with the Small Intestine are problems with mental clarity and discrimination. Like the Stomach and Spleen, diet plays an important role in the proper functioning of the Small Intestine. This organ is also affected by the emotional stress of sadness, worry, and anger.

  • Kidneys
  • Functions
  • Govern birth, growth, reproduction, and development
  • Control reception of Qi, bones, spittle, the urethra, and the anus
  • Produce marrow and nourishes the brain (unlike western medicine)

A key indication that the Kidney may be malfunctioning is back pain – especially low back pain. Other symptoms of dysfunction include exhaustion, sexual issues, long-term problems, and a tendency toward depression. A person with a genetic condition may have a hereditary weakness of the Kidney. Other causes that can impact the Kidneys are chronic illness, overwork, emotional strain, excessive sexual activity, and old age.

  • Bladder
  • Functions
  • Removes water from the body

The biggest indicator that there may be a malfunction with the Bladder is urinary problems – discomfort, pain, difficulty, frequency, control, and turbidity. A constant string of urinary tract infections or one that won’t heal also indicates that the Bladder may not be functioning properly. The Bladder is especially susceptible to external pathogens since it opens out to the environment. Emotional stress such as fear, jealousy, and suspicion may impact Bladder function as well as excess sexual activity and physical exercise.

  • Pericardium
  • Functions
  • Closely related to the Heart
  • Protects the Heart
  • Governs blood
  • Shares the housing of the mind with the Heart (unlike western medicine which houses the mind in the brain)

The chest symptoms associated with the Pericardium are stuffiness, distention, pressure in the chest, tightness, and pain. Dysfunction of the Pericardium is also noticeable in mental and emotional problems especially those related to relationships with others. In some cases, menstrual problems in woman can be a sign of issues with the Pericardium. Emotional stress has a big impact on the Pericardium’s ability to function properly. An excess or inability to process sadness, worry, grief, anger, frustration, or resentment may reduce Pericardium function. This organ can also be impacted by external pathogens and diet.

  • San Jiao
  • Functions
  • Controls the transportation and penetration of Qi throughout the body
  • Controls the excretion of fluids and the water passages

When the San Jiao malfunctions, symptoms of body regulation begin to appear. These include problems with body temperature regulation, water distribution throughout the body, and hormonal imbalances. The causes of malfunction could be physical trauma, an imbalance in one or more of the other organs, or an external pathogen.

  • Liver
  • Functions
  • Ensures the smooth flow of Qi
  • Stores blood
  • Control the sinews and tears

The Liver is an organ that is most sensitive to changes in the body. Symptoms of Liver pathology include pain, moodiness, irritability, distension in the upper abdomen, gynecological problems, rapid changes in the skin or eyes, severe fluctuations in energy level, or emotional instability. Like many other organs, the functions of the Liver can be affected by emotional stress – especially anger, worry, and sadness. Diet, blood loss, and external pathogens may also cause an imbalance in the Liver.

  • Gall Bladder
  • Functions
  • Ccontrols sinews and decisiveness
  • Stores and excretes bile

Symptoms of imbalances in the Gall Bladder are digestive problems and pain in the upper abdomen. In addition, a person with a Gall Bladder malfunctioning may struggle to make decisions. Diet and emotional stress are the biggest causes of an imbalance in the Gall Bladder, but this organ is also susceptible to external pathogens.

In Chinese medicine, we seek to create a balance within the body including channel (meridian) and organ systems. When these systems are in balance, the body is able to nourish itself more fully and begin the healing process. The important fact to remember here is that although western medicine and Chinese medicine may have different theoretic approaches, they are both useful in supporting patients in different and distinct ways.