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Understanding the Organs in Chinese Medicine

by Tony Reid

If you have been for a consultation with a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner, you would have heard him or her speak about your ‘Liver’, ‘Kidney’ or ‘Spleen’. After a few moments – even with the most basic knowledge of anatomy and physiology – you would have realised that Chinese medicine has a different view of these ‘organs’ from that of Western medicine. It is not a question of who is wrong and who is right – the Chinese simply look at the body and its component parts in a different way. The TCM concepts that relate to the internal organs are closely bound up with the theory of the ‘Five Elements’: Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood.

TCM Application

The major internal organs (the ‘zang’), i.e. Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lung and Kidney are regarded as the representatives of each of the five elements in the body.

In TCM all of the structures and functions of the human body are classified according to this system. The major internal organs (the ‘zang’), i.e. Liver, Heart, Spleen,This gives to each of the bodily organs a completely different significance in TCM compared to Western medicine. Lung and Kidney, are regarded as the representatives of each of the five elements in the body. The other items listed under each element are generally thought of as the attributes of that specific organ.

This gives to each of the bodily organs a completely different significance in TCM compared to Western medicine. This is one of the reasons why the name of the element (e.g. Wood) and the name of the corresponding organ (e.g. the Liver) may often be used interchangeably. They may also be used together, e.g. Liver-Wood, or Kidney-Water, in order to emphasize the broader concept behind the organ name

Five Elements Correspondences:

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The main functions of the five organ-systems are summarized below:

  • The Spleen (Earth) deals with the transformation of ingested nutrients into bodily substances.
  • The Liver (Wood) stores of the Blood when the body is at rest, and also ensures that the circulation of the Qi is smooth and even.
  • The Heart (Fire) houses the spirit (consciousness, mind, spirit) and is concerned with the production and circulation of the Blood. …the TCM approach is more philosophical and universal in its scope, taking a broad understanding of events in the natural world as the basis for understanding the processes that occur within the human body and mind.
  • The Lung (Metal) controls the final production and the circulation of the Qi and body Fluids that activate and nourish the body. One aspect of this is that it sends Qi and body Fluid to the Kidney.
  • The Kidney (Water) stores and produces the Essence, which is concerned with reproduction, growth, maturation etc. These functions are concerned with end results, i.e. producing the changes of body that lead to maturation, and also producing another human being. …we have a system that begins with simplicity and, being universal in scope, allows for increasing degrees of complexity.

As you can see from this brief introductory discussion, the TCM approach is more philosophical and universal in its scope, taking a broad understanding of events in the natural world as the basis for understanding the processes that occur within the human body and mind. This viewpoint underlies all of TCM physiology and pathology as well as diagnosis and treatment.

As with Yin-Yang, we have a system that begins with simplicity and, being universal in scope, allows for increasing degrees of complexity. Thus, although these concepts may be easily understood, it takes many years of study and experience to be able to apply them successfully in the clinic. Once again, we would like to caution against self-prescribing and recommend that you seek the services of a qualified and registered TCM practitioner for your healthcare needs. For more information about how TCM can help with specific health issues. For more TCM theory and concepts.