Yin Organs Overview

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

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

For more about traditional Chinese medicine, treatment, cures, beliefs, and other interesting topics, see: