Yin Organs Overview

The yin organs produce, transform, and store qi, or energy flow.

The yin organs, in traditional Chinese medicine, produce, transform, and store qi, blood, bodily fluids, and essence. The five yin organs are the lungs, spleen, heart, liver, and kidneys. The pericardium is sometimes considered a sixth yin organ.

Traditional Eastern organ theory was developed during Confucian times (559-479 b.c.), when it was considered a violation of the sanctity of life to perform dissections.


Instead of using surgical approaches, the Taoists developed their understanding of human physiology based on careful observations of how the body functions.

For this reason, Chinese medical theory tends to focus more on the relationship of one organ to another. The lungs, for instance, "open to" the nose: when the lungs are healthy, the sense of smell is acute, and the nasal passages remain open. While this approach has some analogues to the Western understanding of internal organs, it is important to view the Eastern tradition on its own terms.

Find out more about the role of the lungs in traditional Chinese medicine on the next page.

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The Role of Lungs (Fei) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are considered the "tender organ."

The lungs are considered the "tender organ" in traditional Chinese medicine because they open directly to the external environment and are usually the first internal organ attacked by external pathogens (disease-causing organisms) such as bacteria or viruses.

Symptoms of imbalance in the lungs include cough, asthma, phlegm, chest pain, bloating, loss of voice, and nosebleeds.


The Functions of the Lungs in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The lungs control breathing. This important function closely parallels the Western understanding of the organ. In addition to controlling inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide, the lungs -- along with the spleen -- are seen as the source of postnatal qi, the actual vitality of a person. (The kidneys are considered the source of prenatal qi, the constitution.)

The concept of postnatal qi is important because people with a weak constitution don't have to be consigned to a lifetime of fatigue or illness. Through breathing exercises such as qi gong, a person can enhance his or her vitality through the qi of the lungs. The lungs control the qi of the entire body.

Since the lungs transform inhaled air into qi, they have an important influence on the functional activities of the entire body. When lung qi is strong, breathing is normal and the body has sufficient energy. Weak lung qi, on the other hand, deprives the other organs and body tissues of energy, leading to shortness of breath, weak voice, and general fatigue.

The lungs control body fluids in the lower part of the body. An organ of the upper body, the lungs assist in moving qi and body fluids to the lower portion of the body. When this descending action of the lungs is impaired and normal qi flow is disrupted, cough and shortness of breath may occur. Also, fluids can collect in the upper body, resulting in edema (severe water retention) and difficulty in urination.

If this concept is difficult to understand from a Western anatomic perspective, think of it from an energetic perspective. For example, when you dip a drinking straw into water, the straw fills with water. The water then flows out of the straw when you lift the straw out of the water. However, if you place a finger over the end of the straw before you lift it out of the water, the water remains in the straw until you lift your finger. This action is similar to the blockage of downward water movement that results from impairment in lung function.

The lungs govern body hair and skin. This principle refers to the lungs' function of dispersing moisture to the skin, maintaining its suppleness and elasticity. The body hair and pores are also considered an integral part of the lungs' defensive system: They act as the boundary between the outer environment and the interior of the body, protecting the body from the external environment.

The qi that flows just under the skin is called wei qi and is considered the body's immune system. When the wei qi is strong, the body is able to fight off external pathogens.

Clinically, the relationship between the lungs and the pores is seen in persons who frequently catch colds: they often complain that they have an aversion to wind, and they break into a sweat when they aren't feeling warm. These symptoms are due to an impairment of the lungs' control of the pores, resulting in the easy access to the body's interior by external pathogens.

The lungs open to the nose and control the voice. When lung qi is healthy, the sense of smell is acute, the nasal passages remain open, and the voice is strong. When lung qi experiences dysfunction, the person may experience symptoms of nasal congestion, excessive mucus, an impaired sense of smell, and a weak or hoarse voice. As most of us have experienced, a breakdown in energy throughout the body often follows these symptoms.

Go to the next page to learn about the role of the spleen in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Role of the Spleen (Pi) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese physiology, the spleen takes a lead role in the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength.

The spleen (pi), of all the organs in traditional Chinese medicine, bears the least resemblance to its Western counterpart. The latter deals primarily with production and destruction of red blood cells and storage of blood.

In traditional Chinese physiology, the spleen plays a central part in the health and vitality of the body, taking a lead role in the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength. It turns digested food from the stomach into usable nutrients and qi. Entire schools of medicine were formed around this organ; the premise was that all aspects of vitality depend on the entire body receiving proper nutrition from the healthy functioning of this essential organ.


Symptoms of imbalance in the spleen include a lack of appetite, muscular atrophy (wasting), indigestion, abdominal fullness, bloating, jaundice, and inappropriate bleeding or bruising.

The Traditional Attributes Possessed by the Spleen

The spleen governs transformation and transportation. Once the stomach breaks down and digests food, the spleen transforms it into usable nutrition and qi, then transports this food essence to the other organs. The spleen plays an essential role in the production of blood as well.

For this reason, fatigue (qi deficiency) and anemia (blood deficiency) are often attributed to a breakdown in the spleen's ability to transform food into qi and blood.

In addition to its role in nutrition and blood production, the spleen is also responsible for the "transformation of fluids": It assists in water metabolism, helping the body rid itself of excess fluid and moistening the areas that need it, such as the joints. If this function is disrupted, fluid disorders such as edema (severe water retention) or excessive phlegm can develop.

The spleen governs the blood. Considered the "foundation of postnatal existence," the spleen is the most important organ involved in the production of sufficient blood to maintain health. A highly nutritious diet appropriate to the individual's needs enhances the qi of the spleen, thus improving the person's energy level.

These improvements are seen readily in clinical practice, where a sickly person can become quite strong through tonifying herbs, dietary changes, and breathing exercises. Spleen qi is also specifically responsible for keeping blood within the vessels. A weakness in this function can lead to chronic bleeding, such as a tendency to bruise easily, or breakthrough bleeding in the middle of the menstrual cycle.

The spleen dominates the muscles and four limbs. Since the spleen is responsible for transforming food into qi and blood and transporting them throughout the body, proper functioning of the organ is essential to maintain muscle mass and strong limbs. A person with deficient spleen qi often experiences weakness and fatigue in the limbs. Exercise and a healthy diet benefit the body only if the spleen is able to transmit this nutrition and energy to the muscles.

The spleen opens into the mouth and lips. As the gateway to the digestive system, the mouth can indicate whether the spleen is functioning normally. If qi is normal, appetite is good, the lips are red and supple, and the sense of taste is sufficiently sensitive.

Spleen qi moves in an upward direction. All organs have a normal direction for their flow of qi. The flow of spleen qi keeps other organs in their proper place. If spleen qi is weak, then prolapse, or sagging, of the transverse colon, uterus, rectum, or stomach can result.

The spleen likes warmth and dislikes cold. Since the digestive enzymes require warmth to break down food properly, excessive consumption of cold foods and drinks can impair spleen function. Foods that are warming and easy to digest, such as soups with grated ginger, benefit spleen function.

On the next page, learn about the role of the heart in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Role of the Heart (Xin) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In the Eastern tradition, the heart is intimately involved with mental and emotional processes.

The role of the heart (xin), known in traditional Chinese physiology as the ruler of the other organs, has exceptional importance. Its function in traditional Chinese medicine parallels its Western anatomic function of pumping blood throughout the body to maintain life, but in the Eastern tradition it is also intimately involved with mental and emotional processes.

Considered the residence of the mind and spirit, the heart is the organ most often involved in psychological imbalances. Properly nourished and balanced, the heart maintains our innate wisdom, contentment, and emotional balance. Symptoms of heart imbalance include palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating easily, mental restlessness, insomnia, forgetfulness, chest pain, tongue pain, and burning urine.


The Traditional Functions of the Heart

The heart controls the blood and blood vessels. When the heart is healthy, it pumps blood vigorously through the vessels to all parts of the body, nourishing the organs and maintaining vitality. A deficiency in this function can appear as pale complexion, cold hands and feet, palpitations, insomnia, and emotional disturbances.

The heart manifests on the face. When the heart is strong and possesses sufficient blood, the complexion is rosy, and the individual looks robust and healthy. When the heart blood is deficient, on the other hand, the person looks pale and unhealthy. If heart yang or qi is deficient, the complexion may appear bluish, especially in the lips.

The heart houses the shen (spirit) and mind. This function encompasses the full range of human consciousness, including emotional health, mental function, memory, and spirituality. When the yin of the heart is deficient, a person can experience symptoms such as palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness.

When the heart blood is deficient, poor memory, depression, and a tendency to be "spaced out" or "in the clouds" can result. The heart opens onto the tongue. In Chinese physiology, when an internal organ opens onto a sensory organ, it means the two organs are linked through structure, function, or physiology.

By examining the sensory organ, a practitioner can determine much about the health of the internal organ linked to it. The tongue (the organ of taste) can indicate health or imbalance in all the organs. A pale tongue can indicate heart blood deficiency, while a red tongue with no coating may indicate heart yin deficiency.

On another level, "the heart controls speech." Heart deficiency syndromes can lead to a withdrawn, quiet demeanor, for example. One patient who sought acupuncture treatment had experienced a complete loss of voice after a traumatic experience. While receiving strong acupuncture stimulation in a heart channel point on the wrist, the patient got angry and shouted, "Do you realize how much that hurts?"

After apologizing to the patient for the unexpected discomfort, the practitioner reminded him that he had just spoken for the first time in a week! This sort of dramatic release of emotional trauma is quite common in acupuncture therapy, and it usually leads to a feeling of well-being afterward, as it did in this case.

The next page explores the role of the liver in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Role of the Liver (Gan) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The liver plays an important role in traditional Chinese physiology. Since it is in charge of the smooth flow of qi throughout the body, any disruption in its functions usually affects another organ.

Stagnation of the flow of liver qi frequently disrupts emotional flow, producing feelings of frustration or anger. Conversely, these same emotions can lead to a dysfunction in the liver, resulting in an endless loop of cause and effect.


Associated with the storage of blood, the liver is also the primary organ involved in a woman's menstrual cycle. When the liver is out of balance, the following symptoms can occur: emotional problems, rib pain or fullness, dizziness, headache, cramping, tendon problems, menstrual problems, jaundice, weak or blurry vision, and digestive disorders.

The Functions of the Liver

The liver stores the blood. The liver is considered a storage area for blood when blood is not being used for physical activity. These periods of rest contribute to the body's restorative processes. During exercise, the blood is released to nourish the tendons and muscles.

This function is also intimately associated with the menstrual cycle; the liver maintains an adequate blood supply and regulates the timing and comfort of menstruation. Any dysfunctions in the menstrual cycle are almost always treated through the regulation of liver blood, qi, or yin.

When liver qi is stagnant (a very common condition), a person experiences irritability, tightness in the chest, and, in a woman, symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. When liver blood is deficient, symptoms such as dry eyes and skin, pallor, and lack of menstruation can occur.

The liver ensures the smooth flow of qi. The Nei Jing refers to the liver as a general in the army, coordinating the movement of the troops. When the liver functions smoothly, physical and emotional activity throughout the body also runs smoothly.

When the liver's ability to spread qi smoothly throughout the body is disrupted due to stress or lifestyle choices, however, the liver qi can become either stagnant or hyperactive, causing havoc in other organs, such as the lungs, stomach, and spleen. Often, stress-related problems such as irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion can be successfully treated by working through the "smoothing of liver qi."

The liver controls the tendons. As discussed previously, the liver stores blood during periods of rest and then releases it to the muscles and tendons in times of activity. When liver blood is deficient, tightness and inflexibility in the muscles and tendons can result. If liver qi is stagnant, muscles can go into spasm. Such muscle spasms often occur when a person drinks strong coffee. Coffee, even the decaffeinated variety, is one of the most disruptive substances in relation to the smooth flow of liver qi.

Many people experience a tightness in the shoulder muscles and neck muscles after ingesting this powerful herbal stimulant. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to resolve liver imbalances in people who drink coffee regularly.

The liver opens into the eyes. Although all the organs have some connection to the health of the eyes, the liver is connected to proper eye function. Chronic eye problems can usually be traced to a deficiency of liver yin or blood, for example. It is quite common to resolve eye disorders successfully by treating the liver.

The liver shows on the nails. When liver blood is plentiful, it spreads to the farthest areas of the body, including the fingernails and toenails. When liver blood is deficient, on the other hand, the nails can appear pale, weak, and brittle.

Go to the next page to learn about the role of the kidneys and the pericardium in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Role of the Kidneys (Shen) and Pericardium (Xin Bao) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the health and strength of the kidneys is the major determining factor in a person's long-term vitality and longevity.

The kidneys' function of regulating water metabolism in traditional Chinese medicine practice closely parallels their function in Western medicine, but their influence is much more far-reaching. They are the storage place for vital essence (jing), a subtle substance responsible for growth, development, reproduction, and fertility.

The kidneys are also considered the source of yin and yang for all the other organs, so a chronic disruption in their function can potentially affect any other part of the body.


The kidneys are the source of prenatal qi, which is inherited from the parents and interpreted as a person's innate constitution. Ultimately, the health and strength of the kidneys is the major determining factor in a person's long-term vitality and longevity. Symptoms of imbalance in the kidneys include low back pain, infertility, impotence or excessive sexual desire, urinary problems, tinnitus or deafness, edema, or asthma.

The Traditional Functions of the Kidneys

The kidneys store essence (jing). Jing, or essence, is a subtle substance that underlies all organic life processes. While it includes reproductive fluids, its scope goes far beyond this one area. There are two main types of essence: prenatal and postnatal.

Prenatal essence is derived from the genetic material of the parents as well as the vitality of their lifestyle, habits, and nutrition. It is essentially a person's inherited constitution at birth.

Postnatal essence, on the other hand, is within a person's control because it is derived from food and air. It is possible for a person who has a weak prenatal essence to lead a vital and healthy life through the maintenance of a strong postnatal essence.

A healthy diet and lifestyle, along with exercise and breathing practices, such as qi gong, are the means to achieving strong postnatal essence. In fact, a person with a weak constitution and a healthy lifestyle is better off than a person with a strong constitution and an unhealthy lifestyle.

The latter often goes for years without any illness and then suddenly succumbs to cancer or heart disease. The person with weaker prenatal essence, on the other hand, is unable to get away with an unhealthy lifestyle because he or she gets immediate feedback in the form of illness or fatigue.

The kidneys control water metabolism. The balance of yin and yang in the kidneys determines the efficiency of water metabolism in the body. When kidney yang or kidney qi are deficient, excessive urination or edema (swelling due to severe fluid retention) may occur. The kidneys grasp the qi.

While the lungs are the body's major organ of respiration, the kidneys provide the "grasping" force that is necessary for full inhalation. When kidney yang or kidney qi is deficient, therefore, a person may suffer a difficulty in inhalation, as is experienced by people with asthma.

The kidneys control the bones. According to Chinese physiology, the kidneys are also responsible for the development of strong bones. When the kidneys are deficient, a person may have brittle bones and, subsequently, repeated injuries and poor dental health.

The kidneys produce marrow and are connected to the brain. Marrow has a much broader function in traditional Chinese medicine than it has in Western medicine. In the latter, it is involved primarily in bone and blood-cell growth. In Chinese physiology, marrow is derived directly from essence, and it is the source of the substance that makes up the brain. Deficiencies in essence or marrow can appear in cases of mental retardation.

The kidneys open into the ear. This function has great clinical significance: Hearing difficulties can often be treated by nourishing the kidneys. Babies are considered to have undeveloped hearing capacity due to the lack of maturation of kidney energy; elderly people tend to have ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or impaired hearing due to a depletion of their kidney qi over time.

The Pericardium (Xin Bao)

The pericardium provides a shield around the heart to protect it against external pathogenic factors. Sometimes considered a sixth yin organ, it has no separate functions of its own.

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Bill Schoenbart has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since 1991, when he earned a Masters degree in TCM. He teaches TCM medical theory and herbalism at an acupuncture school in California, and also maintains a clinical practice.

Ellen Shefi is a licensed massage technician, licensed acupuncturist, and registered dietitian. She operates a private acupuncture practice, has assisted in developing acupuncture protocol, and has contributed to a national research project funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. She is a member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the American Herb Association, and the Oregon Acupuncture Association.