Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The meaning of the Heart in Chinese Medicine

This month is National Heart Month and it is a good opportunity to talk about what causes heart disease, the meaning of the Heart in Chinese medicine and how to look after it following TCM principles.
Have you heard of the “French paradox”? It is actually a “scientific term” that relates to the fact that despite our French neighbours’ high consumption of alcohol and diet rich in saturated fats, in France there are only a quarter of the number of heart disease sufferers than we see in the UK. Scientists have been scratching their heads over this “paradox” for decades but have found no definite answer. Is it the red wine? But hold on a minute, doesn’t alcohol raise blood pressure and affect the heart? .... and so on. The answer may well be that although the fats and the wine make a difference to heart health, they are of less importance than other aspects of our life-style.

French-style quality time with friends-good for the heart?
So what is it that the French and other Mediterranean cultures are rich in that seems to be lacking in Anglo-Saxon cultures? My personal theory is that it is connection and closeness to others. French people seem to spend more time with each other, and have more frequent and effusive demonstrations of affection than it is considered normal in more northern cultures. Taking time to relate to family and friends in a way that goes beyond the conventional dutiful visits or sharing of hobbies is a common denominator across the Mediterranean, perhaps even more so than the use of olive oil or the consumption of red wine. Connecting and sharing with others is a very important part of these cultures, but what does this have to do with heart disease? Chinese medicine may provide an answer to this.

The Heart in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

 Chinese medicine texts state that Heart (Xin):
  • Rules the blood and the blood vessels.
  • Opens into the tongue and manifests in the complexion.
  • Stores the Shen (the mind and spirit)

As well as performing the functions of circulating the blood through the blood vessels and keeping the pulse full and steady, in TCM the Heart (Xin) is the organ that rules the way we relate and connect with ourselves and others. It is the “emperor” amongst the organs, where our spirit and our mind are housed and nourished. The spirit here relates to our consciousness, our self- awareness and our connection with the divine, while the concept of mind includes our thought processes, mental acuity, and the ability to express ourselves. This is further reinforced by the Heart’s opening into the tongue and ruling of our speech.  

The emotions most closely related to the Heart are joy and sadness. An excess of either joy or sadness will be detrimental to the Heart energy. It is easy to imagine how excessive sadness like the one caused by the loss of a loved one can affect our Heart energy, but perhaps not so easy to understand how too much joy could ever be bad for you.  If we think of drugs that artificially induce a sense of elation and how they culminate in a come down that leaves people feeling depressed and exhausted, we can see how this can happen too. This is because both our physical and mental health depend on a certain amount balance and anything excessive is capable of making us feel uneasy and even unwell.  The emotional aspect of the Heart is also seen in certain patterns where heat gets lodged in the Heart to produce extreme emotions such as incessant and inappropriate laughter or crying.

When the Heart is strong and harmonious we feel appropriate emotions, and we can connect with others, with our environment and our experiences. A healthy Heart also enables us to think clearly, feel focused, and express well our ideas.  On the other hand, a Heart which is out of balance will make us feel troubled, out of touch, and unable to connect with others to the point of having difficulty holding a conversation or looking people in the eye. We may also develop symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, depression, dream-disturbed sleep, palpitations, agitation, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, chest pain, and even confusion; all of which are typical symptoms of Heart imbalance.

According to TCM, the best ways of maintaining a healthy Heart are:
  • A balanced diet rich in foods that nourish the Blood: the Blood is the substance of the Heart and is best nourished by a varied diet containing protein-rich foods such as red meat (in small amounts), eggs, tofu, all beans and pulses, foods that are naturally sweet such as wholemeal grains, and naturally dark foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, beetroot, dark fruits, molasses, etc.  Sugar, saturated fats, and stimulants like alcohol and caffeine are best avoided as they promote acidity that harms the Blood and also have a detrimental effect on the Heart.
  • Balancing our activity and excitement with enough rest and moments of calm: deep, restful sleep is strengthening to the Heart, and meditation is perhaps the best way of achieving real peacefulness of mind. If you’re reluctant to practise prescribed forms of meditation try venturing into nature by yourself as often as possible. Communion with nature can provide deep meditative connection.
  • Connecting with ourselves and with others: whenever possible, preferably every day, we should spend time alone either in meditation or reflection, becoming aware of who we are. In addition, spending time with our loved ones not just because we have to but trying to really “BE” there, can be a great source of joy. From time to time, we may need to remind ourselves of the importance these relationships have in our life as a motivation to deepen and enrich each of them. 
Deeper relationships nourish the Heart
The Heart needs to be open in order to receive nourishment from our relationships, and in turn we need to feel connected to our Heart energy so that we establish healthy relationships and avoid loneliness and isolation. At a deeper level, our Heart is nourished by a connection and relationship to the divine, in whatever form we relate to it.

Imbalances of the Heart can be treated with Acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Often a combination of Acupuncture and Reiki is enough to improve sleep, relieve anxiety, calm palpitations, lift the spirits, relieve tightness in the chest, and generally feel more relaxed. When these symptoms are more severe or there is also forgetfulness, deep depression, lack of concentration, or confusion Chinese herbs either alone or combined with Acupuncture may be more effective.

So, is love all we need?

 It may well be so! Love is indeed a healer for it brings us joy and when we experience joy our hearts are open, we feel no pain, our symptoms disappear, and everything around us seems to be lit up by our own inner light. I am talking about love in the wider sense, this is the emotion that fills us with warmth at the sight of a baby, or a pet, or when having a magical experience in nature or within ourselves. It is also the sense of connectedness that we feel for those that are close to us, those we care for; and the source of compassion when we witness the suffering of others.

Of course our diet and life-style will influence our health and that of our hearts, but it must be recognised that feeling inspired to look after ourselves and eating foods that we know both rationally and instinctively to be healthier, are expressions of self-love. It is possible that we will need to start fostering real love and care for ourselves- by this I don’t mean self-indulgence or lack of self-control!- before we can offer the same to others. So it may be ripe time to start looking within, feel our Heart and ask ourselves what we can do for it to feel healthier and more connected, and how we can bring more love into our life and relationships so that we can experience a more joyful and fuller life.

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