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The Many Dimensions of the Heart

The heart is an energetic system we often treat in Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to Chinese Medicine theory, there are many systems of energy within the body. Each of these systems corresponds to certain physiological and psychological functions. So when we talk about the heart, the lungs, the liver. However, when we are speaking about Chinese Medicine organs, we are not talking about the physical organ sitting in your body, but rather the energetic manifestations of a particular system in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual realms.

The heart is an incredibly important energy system in Chinese medicine, often said to be the emperor of all the other energy systems. It is related to the fire element, which is the universal energy of summer.

On a physical level, the heart is responsible for pumping blood through our body, just as it is in allopathic medicine. It controls the health and vitality of the blood vessels, and also controls sweating, the tongue and speech. But perhaps the most important role of the heart in Chinese medicine is that it houses the Shen, or spirit.

The Shen in Chinese Medicine is referred to as one of the three treasures of the body, and it encompasses consciousness, the emotions, mental acuity and thought, as well as the ability to process incoming sensory information. Each organ system in Chinese medicine is related to one aspect of the spirit (such as intellect, willpower or instinct) – but the Shen is the most important, as it governs all the other aspects. Prolonged emotional upheaval, mental illness, personality disorders, emotional imbalance, processing disorders and sensory disorders all are manifestations of a disturbed, ungrounded or weakened Shen.

The emotion associated with the heart is joy. This means that joy nourishes the heart, but excessive joy (ie, mania) is a symptom of an imbalance in this system.

The heart is all about the very act of being alive – from the physical heart beating in our chest, to the flow of blood through our veins, to our mental ability to stay present and focused, and our emotional selves being whole and complete. It is the energy of summertime – abundant, hot and lively.

Nourish the Heart through Food

The color associated with the heart is red, and the heart is nourished through red foods, such as cherries, strawberries and kidney beans. Being closely associated with the blood, it is also nourished by blood-tonifying foods such as organ meats, lean red meat and dark leafy greens. The heart is closely tied to appreciation of beauty and aesthetics, so the heart system is also nourished by food for which care has been given to present artfully, with beauty and grace, and a wide array of colors on one plate. Again, the heart is associated with summertime, so think of the abundance of fruits and vegetables available that time of year, and try to reflect that energy in your food choices.

Nourish the Heart through your habits The heart is nourished through activities that bring you cheer and joy. Nourishing the heart is about celebrating that which you love in the world – people, places and ideals. As the heart governs our relationships with other human beings, it is nurtured by feeling connected to those that we love. Reach out to friends and family, forge new bridges and strengthen lasting bonds. The heart is also nourished through beauty – take time to appreciate the beauty of your natural surroundings, as well as music, poetry, art and dance. Lastly, the heart is nurtured by ritual. This can be a long-standing religious or cultural ritual, or one that you create for yourself. Some examples of heart-healthy rituals include writing down five things you are grateful for each night, incorporating some sort of gentle exercise during each morning, practicing 10 minutes of sitting meditation each day, or grab a coloring book and start coloring!

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Traditional Chinese Medicine And Fall

As the seasons shift from summer to fall, so does the Qi (or energy) in the universe as well as within our bodies. Autumn is represented by the metal element, which includes the lung and large intestine meridians. The emotion often associated with the lung meridian is sadness and grief. This is the time of year to let go, to finish projects which you have not yet completed and embrace the coming of a new season.

One easy way to benefit the lung organ is breathing exercises. Practice breathing in through your nose and focus on filling your lungs deep with your breath, down into your abdomen. Hold that breath for a count of five and slowly exhale out of your mouth trying to get all of your breath exhaled from the very bottom of the lungs. You can repeat this several times as well as a few times throughout the day. Not only will this help build your lung Qi, it will also relax and center you. This is important in the midsts of our busy lives. Good sleep habits are also essential for health, wellbeing as well as the lung’s Qi. Early to bed and early to rise will help invigorate you and set each day off full steam ahead.

In summertime many people indulge in lots of raw and fresh fruits and vegetables. For our bodies, digesting these raw foods can use up a lot of our Qi, but in the summer the heat of the summer can balance some of this as the raw foods have a more cooling aspect to them. As we transition to autumn, it is also a time to transition our diet and move towards more warming foods. Soups, stews, warm beverages, cooked fruits and vegetables. Fall can be abundant with amazing fresh produce that is seasonally appropriate– pears, garlic, leeks, beans, apples, onions, ginger and leafy greens.

The lungs are also integral for our Wei Qi, which is our protective Qi, akin to the immune system. As the lungs are connected to the nose and the mouth, it is important to be mindful of this. Using a neti pot can help rinse out the nasal and sinus passages. Using a warm salt water mixture will help reduce your chances of colds and allergies. As the temperature shifts, so should our attire. Keep your body warm and appropriately covered, including a scarf around the neck as needed. It is a great time of year to go for long walks and hikes in nature, but keep yourself well prepared to keep your body strong.

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The Metal Element

Traditional Chinese Medicine dates back thousands of years and has helped people all over the world remain and regain health and well-being. Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, most likely predates written history. But the first writings of this medical system appear in China during the Shang Dynasty in 1766 B.C. The theory behind TCM however, is not just Chinese in origin and is heavily rooted in traditional Eastern philosophy. The concept of the five elements that are now used in TCM probably began with the ancient Chinese calendar where five types of energies were assigned to different days, months and years. These five elements were associated with the solstices and equinoxes in an effort to help farmers plan ahead. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Metal is the element associated with the season of fall. The metal element is thought to be about connection and purity. During the autumn months, things are winding down and life is preparing for hibernation. Autumn is the time of year when we tend to let go of the things that no longer serve us. Just as the leaves fall from the trees in the autumn months, so too should we let go of the things, physical or mental, that bog us down. Fall is a good time to detox the body or clean out the closets of unwanted items.

Each element in TCM is also closely affiliated with two organs and their energetic meridians. Metal is the element of the lungs and the large intestine. The large intestine functions to “let go” of toxins and waste products our bodies no longer need to function. The lungs enable us to take in the crisp pure air of the autumn months, which helps to nourish and enrich our blood. The lungs and the large intestine work as a team to keep the body healthy. One gets rid of waste, while the other brings in nourishment.

When the metal element is out of balance, we may experience allergies, asthma, wheezing, colds, coughing, grief, sadness, skin rashes, eczema, diarrhea or constipation. All of these can be due to either excesses or deficiencies within the lung and large intestine meridians. One way to counter a breakdown in the system is by eating foods color specific to the two energetic meridians. Things like onions, turnips, cauliflower, egg whites, apples, potatoes and pears are all good examples of white foods that can help boost or tonify the energy of the lung and large intestine meridians.

Deep breathing is also something that can be done daily to help keep the metal element balanced. This practice can help strengthen the lungs and boost immunity in the body. Deep breathing can be somewhat meditative, which can help calm the mind too. When practicing deep breathing, the focus should be on the abdomen. The abdomen should expand when inhaling and it should deflate when exhaling. This is somewhat opposite of what most people do when they breathe. But when watching an infant breathe, it is easy to see this pattern. Deep breathing can be done almost anywhere and it can help tremendously when there is added stress.

Lastly, consider getting acupuncture to balance out the metal element. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective at treating many lung and large intestinal issues. Acupuncture works with the body to balance energy, remove blockages and get things flowing properly throughout the whole system. A few treatments can bring relief from a lifetime of discomfort.

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