Welcome to this month’s edition of The Meridian Series where we explore the unique properties of each acupuncture channel in East Asian Medicine; plus the roles they play in our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you are new to this series, or have not heard about the meridians before, here is a little background before we dive into our next featured channel: The Heart Meridian.
What Are The Meridians?
In East Asian Medicine, there are twelve main Meridians (also known as Jing-Luo “channels”) that carry vital substances such as energy (aka Qi pronounced “chee”), Body Fluids (Jin-Ye), Essence (Jing) and Shen (Spirit), and Blood (Xue) to provide nourishment throughout the body.
In a healthy person, these vital substances freely move in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Yet when their flow becomes blocked in one or more of these channels from emotional stress, an injury, or illness—pain and other symptoms of disharmony manifest in the body.
Each meridian is associated with an organ system as well as a host of other natural phenomena since the foundations of East Asian Medicine were created on the basis of observing the human body as a microcosm of nature—from the elements (Metal, Air, Water, Fire, Earth), climate, seasonal shifts, and more. After all, we are just as dynamic as these cosmic changes: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always seeking a return to harmony.
Every meridian’s unique function also conveys the inseparable connection between the mind, body, and spirit. In East Asian Medicine, these facets of existence represent the spectrum of Qi’s manifestations from its most dense, material forms such as the organs while the psyche and spirit are more ethereal extensions of being. As you will find, every meridian is influenced by more than just the physiology of the organ it’s named after. Beyond the surface, they are reservoirs that are the sources of distinct emotions and expressions in someone’s disposition.
Through reading the Meridian Series, my hope is for you to harness a deeper understanding of the capacity for comprehensive, holistic healing contained in each of these ancient vessels.
More Than An Organ
In East Asian Medicine, “Zang Fu” is the concept that describes how organ systems create, store, and regulate the body’s vital substances described above. Rather than Western Medicine’s emphasis on the mechanisms of an organ’s anatomy, each system is regarded for its effects on the entire body—how they communicate with other systems to ensure one’s health.
Organs are categorized into pairs that are either relatively solid hollow (Fu) or (Zang).
Fu Organs Yang in nature: they influence the body’s exterior. As hollow structures, they are responsible for allowing the vital substances to move through them. Fu organs are entrusted with transporting and disposing of impure substances (food/waste) created by the Zang organs. The Stomach, Small and Large Intestines, Gallbladder, and Bladder makeup the six Fu organs.
Zang Organs are Yin in nature: they govern the body’s interior (from its physical, mental, and emotional regulation). Since they are mostly solid structures, they are in charge of storage and transformation of pure substances—acting as reservoirs for the qi, blood, essence, and body’s fluids. The Lungs, Spleen, Kidney, Liver, and Heart comprise the five Zang Organs.
Of all the systems, the Heart is considered the most important. Let’s begin illuminating the reasons for this. Namely, the Heart’s designation as “The Monarch” portrays its role as the keeper of life.
This meridian consists of 9 points which originate in the axilla (armpit) and traces down the most medial aspect of the upper arm and crosses over the medial crease of the elbow. It continues down the ulnar side of the lower arm and wrist before terminating at the tip of the pinky finger.
By relentlessly maintaining the flow of blood through our bodies from our first to last beat, its rhythm is what coordinates the activities of all other organ systems. Meanwhile, the Heart houses our Spirit, the Shen: the spark of life that infuses each person with their unique way (Tao), consciousness, and capacity for authentic self-expression. While epitomizing the most vital functions, it is no wonder why, even spatially in the body, the Heart is dubbed the Emperor: it is the most interior and protected of the Yin organs wrapped safely behind the walls of the Pericardium.
Knowing this, we can start to explore its coveted functions in the body.
The Heart’s Physical Functions
The Heart Governs the Blood
In East Asian Medicine, although the Spleen is the “origin” of blood where earlier stages of its production begins and the Liver is in charge of storing it, the Heart commands blood by dictating the pace, rhythm, and reach of its propulsion.
The strength of the Heart therefore determines the capacity for blood to exert its fullest potential of nourishing and moistening the body. When the Heart’s Qi is weak and its blood is deficient, arrhythmias, cold hands, and pain patterns associated with poor circulation can occur.
The Heart Controls the Blood Vessels
Likewise, the blood vessels are also controlled by the Heart and reflect its health. Their integrity matters just as much in ensuring that blood flows where it needs to reach which is why (radial) pulse diagnosis is an important part of the intake process in East Asian Medicine; it guides Licensed Acupuncturists to discern not just the state of the heart, but all other organs impacted by its governance, i.e., the ability to circulate blood (or not).
For example, when the Heart Qi is strong, the pulse will feel full with a regular beat; when the Heart Qi is deficient, the pulse will feel weak and irregular; when Heart blood is abundant, the pulse will feel smooth vs. choppy. Arteriosclerosis exemplifies the effects of “clogged” vessels due to Blood Stasis, a severe form of stagnation.
The Heart Controls Sweat
As a substrate of blood, the Heart also influences sweating. Conditions like night sweating, excessive sweating or even spontaneous sweating (such as when nervous or without exertion) all indicate disharmonies in the Heart. This connection is mirrored in the Heart Meridian’s origin quite literally in the center of the axilla (armpits).
The Heart Manifests in the Complexion
When you consider the Heart’s rule over the vessels and blood circulation, it makes sense why its vitality would reveal itself in the facial complexion. A rosiness in the cheeks and overall luster and suppleness in the skin indicate that there is an abundance of Heart Blood. Conversely, paleness signals a blood deficiency and a dark mauve or purplish hue indicates the presence of blood stasis.
Meanwhile a bright-white complexion akin to a “ghost” shows a grave depletion of Yang Qi which warms the body and promotes movement of Qi and Blood. The Heart is part of the Fire Element, so when its Yang Qi burns out due to an injury, shock (think hypothermia), a stroke, or a heart attack, blood will not be able to reach the face at all leading to a more stark white appearance.
The Heart Is the Root of the Tongue & Influences Speech
The tongue is an extension of the Heart whose overall shape and color reflect the state of Heart Blood which, when healthy, will be “full” (not too thin, thick, short, or long — its proportional to the person) with a thin white coat and pink to light red in color; it should also be free of teeth marks, stains, cracks, and red dots. Pathologies of the heart specifically will show up on the tongue in a couple of ways:
- Color that is pale (blood deficiency), dusky purple (blood stasis), or red (heat)
- A bright red color at the tip compared to the rest of the tongue (Heart Fire)
- A shallow midline crack (Heart Crack) that extends from the tip towards the back shows a tendency towards emotional issues that scar or “eat away” at you
Energetically, this relationship to the tongue can be seen in the figure of speech: “speak your heart’s truth” where clear, courageous expression comes from having a strong sense of self and a harmonious Heart center.
With a Heart disharmony, speech can be impacted in the form of delays, stuttering or even aphasias (the inability to speak). Vice versa, incessant talking or even sudden, misplaced laughter (the sound of the Heart in East Asian Medicine) correlates. Even structural nuances that impair communication such as a tongue tie can benefit from considering the Heart as part of a holistic approach to treatment.
As you will find, the Heart’s physical state shapes its emotional, mental, and spiritual expressions, hopefully bringing these somatic associations into perspective.
The Sentient Heart
If you have been following along with this Meridian Series or read my article on The Physical Effects of Emotions, you know that in East Asian Medicine, each organ system is affected by the harboring or prolonged expression of specific emotions.
However, it is important to emphasize that the Heart is the only organ that truly feels any emotion. In fact, all emotions are first perceived by the Heart. Once it registers what you are experiencing, like a true Monarch it delegates that emotion to its respective organ system to be stored/processed.
As for the Heart’s primary emotions, it rules joy when balanced. Joy relaxes the Qi and blood vessels so the pulse slows in pace. When Joy veers into an imbalanced expression of over-excitement, the Heart Qi runs the risk of dispersing (as seen in shock – even a positive type) leading to palpitations, chest pain, sleep disturbances, and mental restlessness.
Excess Joy can also consume the Heart Yin or generate Heart Fire leading to manic, erratic behavior and mental confusion. When the Heart is affected by an excess of joy or the effects of emotional turmoil, this is also where inappropriate laughter and speech disorders can also be implicated.
A Mind Of Its Own: The Shen
The Heart is the “origin of mental life” and houses the Shen – our consciousness.
For this reason, the Shen is interchangeably referred to as The Mind. Similar to the concept of the psyche in Western Psychology, rather than being stored in the brain, in the paradigm of my work, the Mind is contained within the walls of our Heart.
The Shen is in charge of all mental activity, emotions, memory, and sleep. When the Heart is healthy there will be clear thoughts, good memory, a balanced emotional state and sleep that is restful without disturbing dreams – the Shen will be anchored. In order for this to happen, there needs to be enough Heart blood for the Mind to be calm. In other words, blood roots the Mind.
During the day, the Shen is supposed to be alert and is said to be the most visible of the Spirits associated with the Yin organs. Its health reveals itself through the sparkle of life in someone’s eyes, their ability to maintain eye contact during conversation, to empathize, and—bringing back the connection to the tongue— use clear/logical speech. As you can see, the Shen plays a major role in assessing appropriate behavior to connect with others (like a Heart to Heart).
At night, the Shen is supposed to retreat back within the Heart while the Heart Blood acts like a soothing weighted duvet comforter that keeps it tucked in—anchored. Yet when a Blood deficiency is present, that blanket is absent and the Mind is left to toss and turn creating insomnia due to anxiety and racing thoughts.
On a broader scale as the seat of consciousness, the Shen is what gives us our sentience: our capacity to feel, self-reflect, and assess the world around us. It shapes our identity and sense of reality in relation to it. It influences the ways you perceive and express yourself, your tolerance for vulnerability, as well as your capacity to form meaningful relationships.
When the Shen is harmonized, we can truly know ourselves, follow our Heart’s desires, and share our authenticity with the world. We can live in alignment with our true nature and relish in the process of self-discovery that illuminates our unique life path – our Tao. When it makes itself known, a strong Heart and healthy Shen gives one a sense of purpose and the courage to walk it — to pursue our potential.
With such critical roles, the Heat’s reputation as the Monarch and reasons behind its need for protection are apparent.
A Heart Disturbance
When the Shen is imbalanced, disturbances in the mind and disposition will make itself known through anxiety, panic, foggy thinking, poor memory, depression, insomnia, and nightmares. Rather than having a fluid emotional reality with space for processing and interacting experiences, a Shen disturbance can manifest in fixating on one emotional state or an aspect of one’s identity that can breed arrogance or lead to an altered perception of reality.
There can be difficulty with self-awareness, socializing, apathy, and emotional intelligence. Visually, a dullness will possess the gaze (as apathetic) or there will be little-to-no eye contact during conversation.
When the Heart is affected by despair and traumatic situations, it can harden as a means of protection with tissue adaptations seen in pericardial inflammation, arteriosclerosis, and resulting issues with blood pressure. A chronic hypervigilance, standoffishness, and fear of connecting can develop for some while others might vie for connection further yet struggle with a deterioration in boundaries leading to feelings of self-betrayal, inauthentic expression for the sake of people-pleasing, or even “wearing your heart on your sleeve” as seen in oversharing.
Conversely, a lack of integrity in life dealings and relationships can ensue — a sign of veering from one’s center, out of sync from their inner compass and Tao.
Ultimately, when the Shen is negatively impacted, a person can be disconnected from their true self. They often feel a lack of purpose, joy, and meaning.
Tips For A Vigorous Heart
1. Listen to Your Heart’s Callings:
The Heart is a paradox that epitomizes the merging of opposites: it is considered a Yin organ but is Yang in the ways it propels matter through the meridians and inspires the Shen spirit into action. Your ability to listen to your heart and live in alignment similarly depends on your ability to take your own counsel, trust your Heart’s Mind (your intuition) and discern what expression feels right for the situation at hand.
Can you trust when it is time to be more Yin: choose stillness, wait, and allow yourself to receive? Can you identify when channeling your Yang expressions would be wisest and lean into your ability to seize, initiate, produce, and provide?
When we do not balance these expressions and override our Heart’s yearnings for more or less (to do or not do), we run the risk of burnout (extinguishing our Heart Fire) or feeling paralyzed by inaction (not stoking our Yang Fire).
2. Enjoy Bitter Flavored Foods in Moderation:
Bitter is the flavor associated with the Heart and Fire element. It has a cooling and drying effect that is ideal for clearing heat from the body. Bitter foods will stimulate digestion (and elimination) so those with a tendency to feel cold and exhausted should avoid them since they can be too depleting. Bitter foods include: alfalfa, romaine lettuce, rye, radishes, dandelion, parsley, collard greens, endive, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, arugula, kale, celery, burdock root, sesame seeds, and coffee.
3. Balance Exertions
Just like how some cardiovascular exercise is beneficial for the heart, too much can “consume” the blood and exhaust the Qi. When there is a tendency towards dizziness, palpitations, insomnia, and other symptoms related to a Heart Blood Deficiency, do not exhaust the body fluids further by inducing sweat. If you don’t believe you have this tendency, a little sauna or hot yoga won’t hurt.
4. Weigh Authenticity with Vulnerability
Reflect on the ways you are expressing yourself in your life and relationships. Are they authentic? Do they foster the joy and connection you seek? If not, consider how you can cultivate these. Perhaps it’s time to explore other avenues of creativity and/or reconsider the ways you share yourself. Maybe an important truth needs to be spoken or a new boundary set — and sometimes that can be with yourself as much as other people.
5. Acupressure Heart-8 Lesser Palace
Located on the palm, Heart-8 is in the tender depression between the 4th and 5th metacarpal bones. Tip: make a fist and notice where your pinky finger naturally meets when curled up — that is the Heart-8 point.
This point is the Fire point on the Fire channel and is therefore ideal for clearing heat from the Heart, calming the Shen, regulating the Heart Qi, and alleviating pain along the channel. I like using this point when the Heart’s Fire essentially “cooks” the body fluids leading to phlegm-like sensations in the throat (Plumpit Qi), for healing feelings of bitterness from deep emotional scars, as well as alleviating symptoms like palpitations, insomnia, or manic-depression especially when someone has a more “Fiery” disposition. This point can be pressed to elicit tenderness and paired intentionally with the breath until a sense of coolness or emotional release is sensed.
Dr. Lauren Favreau is the Founder of Rune Acupuncture in New Gloucester, Maine where her approach to care can best be described as a merging of medicine and mysticism. Dr. Favreau addresses her client’s needs with a holistic and integrative approach. Her specialty lies in offering Acupuncture for emotional health and pain management, guiding patients towards a state where the body and mind are re-integrated, allowing one to reclaim the essence of who they are, as well as a more harmonized state of health. Book a session with Dr. Lauren through Rune Acupuncture or follow her on the ’gram for daily inspiration and wisdom.