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How “Chinese” Organs Are Different

June 1, 2010 by  

How “Chinese” Organs Are Different

Back in the 1970s my father, who is a retired osteopathic physician, took acupuncture classes at Tai Sophia University—the oldest school of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the United States. It was books on acupuncture on his shelves that I saw as a child that inspired me to study this esoteric medicine.

When I asked him why he did not pursue studies in this field he told me that he couldn’t “reconcile the opposing theories of the body (when compared with allopathic medicine) that TCM espoused.” Indeed, the majority of people brought up in the West cannot, either.

To this day I find it interesting when I describe TCM and its patterns of disharmony to people. Most people give me blank stares or uncertain nods. My patients try to understand what I am describing to them, and often have to ask a series of questions until they are able to grasp the general concepts of health I am attempting to get across. Yet these theories are thousands of years old and are continually applied to billions of people in Asia. And the Asian culture is not suffering for it…

Several of my patients are physicians, psychologists or chemists and their doubting stares are plentiful. I know ahead of time that when we get to the lecture part of their consultation I will have to work hard at convincing them of TCM’s concepts of the body. And I do. In some of my articles I also get feedback from readers who cannot fathom what I am sharing, thinking I am ignorant of basic anatomy and physiology. Quite the opposite is true.

The issue is that TCM does not hold the exact same views of the organs and their functions as Western medicine does. This is where the confusion arises in those whose understanding of the body is grounded in Western ideas of biology, anatomy and physiology. Can there really be a different view of the organs even though science has proven them to be a certain way? Indeed there can, when a broader view of the body is taken.

You see, when TCM developed in ancient China, no autopsies were carried out for fear of disrespecting the deceased ancestors. So what is known about each organ was discovered through thousands of years of clinical observation. As a result, the functions of one specific organ in TCM may include the functions of several organs in terms of Western medicine. And the functions of one specific organ in Western medicine may be contained in the functions of several organs in TCM. It’s a matter of terminology, since names like “kidney” and “spleen” were not used when TCM was developed, yet are now imposed on its ideas to help people understand and reconcile TCM and allopathic theories of wellness.

In a nutshell, organs are not only viewed as individual units in TCM, but also as concepts of physiology and pathology. This can all be explained through the concepts of zang-fu organ pairing, the meridian complex, the diurnal flow of qi (energy) and the five element theory. Let’s look at each briefly.

Zang-Fu Organ Pairing
TCM divides the internal organs into zang (nurturing, yin) and fu (transporting, yang) groups. The five Zang organs include the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys. Preserving vital substances is their common characteristic.

The six fu organs consist of the gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and so-called ‘triple energizer’ (the combined thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities). Transmitting and digesting water and food is their shared characteristic.

The theory of zang-fu organs is concerned with both the physiological functions and the pathological changes of the organs, as well as the interrelationships between them. And these functions and relationships are rooted in the pairing of the zang-fu into the following yin/yang groups: lung and large intestines, stomach and spleen, heart and small intestines, urinary bladder and kidneys, pericardium and triple energizer and gallbladder and liver.

Thus, problems with one organ may affect its partner. A simplified example is when someone has fear or anxiety about public speaking and experiences shallow breathing. Soon they also experience intestinal cramps. In Western terms we say these two things are a result of stress. While stress may be the cause, the relationship between the lungs and large intestines is exemplified.

The Meridian Complex
The meridian energy channels are the pathways in human body through which qi (vital energy) and blood circulate. They form a specific network that communicates with the internal organs and the limbs and connects the upper body to the lower body and the exterior to the interior portions of the body.

Since the meridians are distributed over the entire body, they are what link the zang-fu organs, the orifices, the skin, the muscles and the bones. That is, they bring the body into an organic whole that allows it to carry on and coordinate its systematic activities.

Each organ has a specific meridian that stems from it and connects it with its paired organ and to various parts of the body. This explains why the heart is seen to not only pump blood but also to affect mental functions (the heart meridian goes into the brain).

The Diurnal Flow of Qi
Qi is the vital energy of the body and each organ produces Qi that affects certain activities in the body. This energy moves through the body via the meridian complex. And the energy in each organ meridian is said to be at “high tide” for a two-hour period in a 24 hour cycle, before moving into the meridian of its paired organ.

The lung meridian is most active from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. The large intestines (its paired organ) are most active from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., and so on. This explains why people with certain respiratory diseases tend to awaken and wheeze or cough between the hours of 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Most of my patients who wake up with headaches between those hours find that it is due to oxygen deprivation caused either by sinus congestion or from sleeping with their nose buried in their pillows. In other words the headaches are caused by oxygen deprivation when the lungs most need oxygen while at high tide.

The Five Element Theory
The theory of the five elements holds that the world is made up of five basic substances: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. All things and phenomena in nature—as well as in the organs, tissues, physiology and pathology of the human body—can be classified into one of the five elements.

Among the five elements exists the relations of promotion and restriction. The element that promotes is called the mother, while the element that is promoted is called the child.

Since earth produces metal it is called the mother of metal. Since earth is produced by fire it is also called the child of fire. Earth organs are the spleen and stomach, metal organs are the lungs and large intestines and fire organs are the heart and small intestines.

Restriction refers to bringing something under control or restraining it. For example, the element restricting earth is wood (fallen trees cover earth), and the element that is restricted by earth is water (earth absorbs water). This in part explains why excess anger, frustration or obsessions which affect the liver (wood) can cause digestive upset which, in TCM, is the domain of the spleen (earth).

Promotion and restriction are inter-dependant. Without promotion there would be no birth and development. Without restriction, excessive growth would result in harm and damage. When TCM views organs, not only are their pairs important, but so is their element designation and how they play on other organs.

There’s More Than Meets The Microscope
When understood and taken as a comprehensive system, the TCM concepts of the meridian complex, zang-fu organ pairing, diurnal cycle of qi flow, and the five element theory can explain why the organs as viewed in Chinese medicine hold more functions than can be “proven” by biomedicine, where their functions are reduced to individual micro units. I offer two examples.

In terms of TCM, the liver stores blood, regulates the flow of blood in the body, controls the tendons, connects to the nails and opens into the eyes. Thus, the Chinese concept of “liver” refers to an entire energetic system, not merely to the organ itself. And this is why excess, deficiency and stagnation associated with the liver can effect blood circulation, the brain and nervous system, the digestive system, the endocrine system, the muscles and the tendons.

The spleen is another good example of differences, since in the West it is not seen as having much use to the body. However, the Chinese concept of the spleen holds a seat of great importance to health. In TCM, the spleen is responsible for transformation of food energy into qi and blood, and the transportation and absorption of water and nutrients through the body. It also insures that blood is held in the vessels and that organs do not become prolapsed.

Thus, the spleen covers the entire digestive system, water metabolism, blood circulation, up-bearing of clear energy to the brain, as well as controlling the muscles and limbs.

In Summary
From the above concepts we can see how a problem with one organ can influence another or several others in ways not normally associated with the organs specifically. And this is why TCM doesn’t reduce signs and symptoms to specific diagnoses based on biological function. Terms like bi-polar disorder and migraine headache and cirrhosis of the liver are not used in TCM. Rather, we use concepts like “liver qi stagnation” or “heart blood deficiency” to describe and explain a syndrome or pattern of disharmony in the body that has many causes and effects… and therefore needs a broader view and approach to heal.

While wellness is viewed in more generalized and metaphoric terms in TCM, it is precisely these concepts that allow its practitioners to construct a holistic view of the body, its illnesses and to treat the whole as opposed to the part. Understanding a new concept of long-held beliefs is difficult, but can also be quite rewarding.

—Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley

is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. The Wiley Method provides a revolutionary way of providing recovery and prevention of chronic pain, illness and disease. Grab your FREE COPY of Dr. Mark Wiley's "The 3 Secrets to Optimal Health" HERE.

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  • Beth

    The absense of Chinese patients in our Doctor’s offices is all the proof one needs to see that we have a problem with our health care system. In the work place, a typical Chinese worker will out perform his American counterpart by about 30 to 1. Americans need to wake up before they get run over by these people.

    • AR Brown

      Dear Beth,

      I have worked with Chinese, both in America and Singapore. I agree there are some benefits, but your statements are wrong. I see lots of Chinese in Doctor’s offices, and I and my associates have outworked many Chinese in our field.

    • Mike Austin,TX

      I agree. You are wrong. Many of the Chinese I know and work with a not healthy. I attribute this more to poor environmental conditions like smog and pollutants in the water. I have traveled to many countries to work and Americans are as hard working or more hardworking than any other group of people.
      I do prefer some of the Chinese herbal medicines over chemical pills from Western medicine. With the exception of antibiotics when needed immediately. Sometimes the new western drugs can do more harm than good. Just listen to the speed reader disclaimer at the end of the commercial.

  • Elliot

    > treat the hole as opposed to the part.

    I think you mean “whole”.

  • Perry M. Dworkin

    I just got back from my second trip to China at 3AM this morning so this will be brief but hopefully a beginning of a dialouge. I am a semi retired Osteopathic physicain, a former radiation oncologist and most recently a diagnostician. I enjoyed several lectures on TCM and promised to try to find old Osteopathic documents regarding “Chapman’s Refexes”. You library may be helpful. In my early days of study and practise, my profession was trying to be a “me to” profession with tradional allopathic medicine and I suspect that that goal was accomplished. Much to my own sorrow and that of my daughtr who is a frequent medical witer. We both believe that had my profession stood by it’s beliefs, it would be a significant alternative system. Her name is Norine Dworkin-McDaniel and you may have spoken with her. I will forward this to her sometime today. One of my favorite quotes is ,” The abscence of proof is not the proof of abscence”

    If you have any coreletions that might be interesting, pleae send them along. I will be more awake in a few days. I apolologise for the grammar and spelling, my brain is not quite home


  • Save America Susie

    Beth, I wonder has an actual scientific study ever been done on how many Chinese people believe in western medicine? Or is that just an observation on your part? I see a lot of Asian M.D.s in western medicine. But perhaps they also hold some of these TCM theories too.

  • Judith

    I am currently receiving energy healing treatments from a Reiki master to cope with the debilitating stress I am feeling from the government’s growing totalitarianism. The results are astonishing. The benefits I have experienced as a subject are real.

    • Millicent

      Judith, I am having the same kind of anxiety as you. I have thought about seeing a psychiatrist over it. But i’m going to try Reiki, because you are having such good results. Thanks for the input, and God Bless America!

    • Arnie

      Do not under any circumstances or for any reason try Reiki. There are spiritual powers temporarily healing your body, that I promise you do not come from God, Christ, or anything in heaven. In the long term will cause you much more damage. I have been researching Reiki for years. This will damage your soul I guarantee you.

      • Daniel Lovejoy

        Reiki predates Christ. Religious fanaticism doesn’t encourage anything but disgust from those who read the ramblings.
        The religions based on the sons of Abraham are very close minded and intolerant. If you want your soul to be whole, look at a different religion.

        • http://personallibertynews diane ballou

          God is not a religion. If all you have is a religion you need to meet the PERSON, God. And check and make sure you are not being antisemetic. You have my prayers.

    • Mike Austin,TX

      I prefer the internal ingestion of various types of alcohol in moderate dosages.

  • deaf hoss

    As I understand it. ( Oriental) medicine is over 3000+ years old. They are a tenacious people who take great honor in their work, failure is a dishonor. They do not accept personal failure as easily as the west does. Western medicine treats the symptem rather than getting to the root of the cause and treating that. Western medicine wants a quick fix hence the side effects of medicines that we endure. I have not heard of any side effects of TCM treatments. So I see the benefits of TCM, but can’t afford it.

  • s c

    Western MDs would have much more credibility if business was not confused with ‘science.’ Not only is that flaw ignored, it is promoted in medical schools.
    Chinese doctors have been theorizing, exploring and experimenting for thousands of years. The AMA bunch is still new at their ‘trade,’ but they demand that we see their efforts as infallible ‘science.’
    A good way to compare these two methods is in the manner of a patient’s payment. In old China, IF a patient got better, the doctor got paid. Here, it makes no difference if a patient gets better or dies. The MD MUST be paid. Sadly, in Western medicine, failure is always ‘rewarded.’
    Consequently, it makes sense to have little or no faith in someone who relies on money, readily confuses business with science and insists that all protocols are infallible.
    Perhaps Western MDs should be given a degree in business when they start ‘practicing.’ If nothing else, they could increase their cash flow by not needing an accountant, and they could spend more time finding methods that actually work.

  • Pleasant Jaymz

    You know, I have learned to be suspicious of and disrespect alot of American Medicine. And I am a natural born citizen.

    I have adverse reactions to most pharmaceuticals and so while in my 20s I began investigating herbal and alternative medicine. All the things that work for me, most MDs continue to deride and say these same things don’t do what they say they do. Really? I am living proof that they do.

    I have no problem wrapping my mind around the ideas that are prevalent in TCM. The reason? If you do a little updating of colloquialisms from the translations, you find it makes perfect sense. In whose body are organs not attached on either side to other organs? I read somewhere in my meandering research on TCM that ancient physicians had a policy of treating an illness in “5 directions each way from the affected organ”. This makes sense. You must obviously consider what a treatment on one part of your body will have on all of the neighboring body parts, ask a mechanic how many times he/she can isolate just one part in a car without having to check neighboring parts. Pretty close to zero. I have been a service writer in the past. MDs are supposed to be biological mechanics and they are doing a shitty job in my opinion. They want everything to be in a bottle or pre-determined in the Merck manual or the PDR. It’s time western medicine acknowledges that it needs to catch up!

    • someone who thinks

      (this is more directed to the commentors)
      Ok I am getting tired of all this praise of chinese medicine over western medicine because of how ingnorant people are to how good they’re lives are because of it. Hey anyone here know anyone who died of the following: polio, small pox, dipthera, rubella,measuls. No? Well that is because western medicine developed vaccines(which improved human life span by 30 years and was so successful that we lead these diseases to extinction). Hey anyone have ganaria or syphillis how about bubonic plague or teberculosis? Well western medicine have a cure for that. And when you talk about how we detemine organ function there is more to it then just autopsies that is part of animal experimentation like if we remove the pancrease from a dog it gets diebeties and if we inject it with the secretion of it the symptums go away. Western medicine’s knowledge is so good with the organs you can actually live without some of them(like kidneys with something called dialisys). Western medicine actually has devices so you can temporarily live without lungs or a heart while your waiting for a transplant(something western medicine has devised too). Yes its different and there is some merit but western medicine has spent a long time to develope and test its knowledge that can’t be ignored. And I have looked into some of the eastern medicine and it has side effects too they just hide it(part of pride is hiding your mistakes and saying your right when your not), did anyone here know that ginsing causes vaginal bleeding and not the normal mensterating bleeding either. I feel so sorry for you that you have side effects Pleasant Jaymz but the fact that you lived to your 20′s tells me your not being fair to western medicine has done for you. Well I have more but I kinda have a life I hope some of you learned something.

      • Tony

        Actually long life is attributed to public health such as clean water

    • Christina

      I totally agree with you,I just wish Americans had this option in their health care plans.

  • Jeryl D

    Excellent article. I understand that over 50 percent of Western European doctors use considerable natural medicine (herbal and alternative) as well as western medical. Most western medicine is so tied to the pharmaceutical industry, which cares primarily about profit and not about the health of patients. There are many effective alternative medical treatments which treat the whole person rather than just treating the symptom.

  • TIME

    Doc Mark,
    Again a very interesting blog. I enjoy your blogs dude keep up the good work!

  • http://PersonalLibertyDigest Bruce D.

    I believe drugs work against the health of the body. Doctors are good at operating on the body but lack understanding of what it takes to be healthy. You might say drugs help in the maintenance of sickness.

  • Hugh

    TCM in combination with “Western Medicine” works. The two work well together. Chinese doctors trained in western medicine in China must spend at least one year training in TCM during their time in medical school.

    A TCM doctor must also know TCMs limitations. They do a basic physical exam with BP, etc. checked to make sure the patient doesn’t need to be referred to a Western Medicine doctor for surgery or some other procedure.

  • John

    I’m interested in learning more about TCM. Can you recommend any e-learning courses or books on the subject. Thanks! John

  • John S

    I travel to China at least once a year, and have been treated by doctor’s there. I always received a combination of prescription and herbal treatments.
    I find Chinese doctors to be well trained in general. TCM must be taken as a whole with their culture. People there take much more responsibility for their own health. It is not a glutonous culture like the west. We can learn much from the Chinese, as they can from us. They understand the human body in ways we do not even attempt to understand, whereas we develop technological breakthroughs in healthcare second to none in the world.

  • Loydelle McElyea

    I just wanted to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Pleasant Jaymz. If I just followed the advice of our MD’s, I wouldn’t be here. Instead I’ve subscribed to several alternative medical doctors and have gleaned some very good advice and suggestions for treating the whole body with specific supplements and foods. Even as late as 2008 the Medical schools only required 3 hours of nutrition. They still don’t get it.

  • Daniel Lovejoy

    Western medicine techniques are dictated by Pharmaceutical companies and Insurance companies. The AMA is one of the worst offenders.

    If “Western” medicine is so good, why do all the Physician’s still have a practice?
    There is an old joke that the medical field is the only field that tries to put itself out of business. Watching the way they over prescribe, I don’t think they are.

  • Stephen Russell

    I was on Princess Cruises & had accupuncture & given some Chinese meds for my digestive system & Ive felt better since cruise.
    Cruise runs the LOTUS SPA on all ships.
    I was told Chinese RX addresses the ROOT cause vs Western Meds the “symptons”.

    Im a believer of Chinese RX meds.

    Chinese have herbals for any ailment alone worldwide.

    Must study more in the US.

    My therapist can come Canada.

    Yes Asian but from Canada.

  • lighterknot

    Fascinating; dose anyone have any idea what % of A-Fib cases are cured by acupuncture I’ve heard it’s a good alternative and better than conventional AMA solutions. And an average price would be nice to know.

  • lighterknot

    A dead thread; no hate involved.

  • Kirby

    How utterly and hysterically absurd. Thank you for exposing the public to the sheer idiocy of TCM, based as it is on nothing provable and relying primarily on superstition and ignorance. I particularly liked the part about ‘fallen trees restrict the earth” Given that the Chinese deforested their own country a thousand years ago, and are now in thr process of deforesting the rest of the world,it does seem to make some kind of sense.

  • Shirley S.

    I am 55yo and have been in treatment for 8 months for Rheumatoid Arthritis with a TCM practitioner. The results are astonishing. I had refused to go on Methyltrexate with the rheumatologist and have learned so much about TCM. Not only is the athritis almost gone, the swelling in my hands and feet are gone, my allergies are healed, I have dropped 60 lbs. and I feel energetic again. I love Chinese medicine because the focus is on treating the entire body, not just a symptom or two. There are no “side effects”. It is REAL!

  • Peter Neufeld

    America is presently going through the “winepress” of the of the “wrath of God.” America is in big trouble as they are turning against God’s chosen people, the Jews. America will go bankrupt in a few short years. See 2Chronicles 7:14 – God says, “If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.”


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