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

Thursday 17 May 2012

The organs in Chinese Medicine: The Heart and Pericardium

This is the fifth and final post on the series of the main TCM organs: the Liver, Kidneys, Spleen, and Lungs have been covered in previous posts. The Heart (Xin) and Pericardium or Heart protector (Xin-Bao) are the organs of the Fire element and are clinically treated as a unit although in theory they are two separate organs. I will be sharing some ideas about the two Fire organs, symptoms of imbalance and how to maintain their health. I have already discussed the Heart to some extent in a previous post on the meaning of the Heart in TCM.

According to TCM, the Heart is the Emperor amongst the organs and, as such, it needs to be protected from being directly attacked by pathogenic factors. The Pericardium or Heart protector is in charge of performing this task, and is regarded as an organ in itself which possesses its own energy channel. However, in clinical practice there are no functional distinctions between the Pericardium and the Heart and because of that they will be discussed as one in this article.

Just as its Western counterpart, the TCM Heart is in charge of pumping Blood through the Blood vessels and maintaining a steady pulse, as well as flexible, free-flowing Blood vessels. 

Through the Heart we see beauty and connect with the world
Perhaps more important for clinical practice is the fact that the Heart is considered to be the seat of our consciousness, which influences our mental acuity, short-term memory, and our sleep. The Heart can be regarded as the centre of our human experience representing the fusion of the mind, body and spirit which makes us regard it as our true self, prompting us to "follow our Heart". All this happens through the Mind-Spirit (Shen) - the spirit of the Heart - which is responsible for the harmony and integration of all the other spirits that correspond to each of the main organs: the Corporeal and Ethereal souls, the Will, and the Intellect. Through the Shen, the Heart is also in charge of our ability to feel and to appropriately communicate and connect with the world outside, including our experiences and relationships.

The paired organ of the Heart is the Small Intestine which is in charge of filtering out impurities from our food, thoughts, and emotions, and to retain the purest nourishment to be used by the Heart and other organs.

The TCM functions of the Heart are:

  • Governs Blood and controls the Blood vessels 
  • Opens into the tongue 
  • Manifests in the complexion 
  • Houses the Mind and Spirit

Apart from being in charge of circulating the Blood through the Blood vessels, the Heart plays a role in the actual making of the Blood. An adequate supply of “Heart Blood” is necessary to nourish and soothe the mind and emotions so that we are sharp in our thinking, emotionally balanced, and able to relax and attain restorative sleep at night.

The health of the Heart is reflected in a healthy complexion and in the integrity of the tongue muscle. This includes not only the general appearance of the tongue, but also its responsiveness and ability to form the words properly.

Possible symptoms of Heart imbalance:

Heart Function
Possible symptoms of imbalance
Governs Blood and controls the Blood vessels
Weak, irregular, intermittent pulse
Chest pain/tightness
Broken blood vessels
Palpitations, or irregular heart beat
Cold hands
Depression, anxiety, insomnia
Opens into the tongue
Tongue ulcers
Inflammation/pain in tongue muscle
Speech impediments
Inability to articulate thoughts into words
Manifests in the complexion
Pale/red/purple complexion
Lack of lustre on the complexion
Houses the Mind and Spirit
Memory loss (particularly short-term memory)
Lack of mental acuity
Personality disturbances
Insomnia/Dream-disturbed sleep/Nightmares
Inappropriate or tactless behaviour/speech (e.g. Laughing or crying for no reason)
Awkwardness or anxiety around people
Inability to look others in the eye
Inability to feel/appreciate experiences- feeling “numb”

Treating the Heart with Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine:

In clinical practice, Acupuncture points on the Heart and the Pericardium channels are often used to treat physical symptoms located in the chest and diaphragm and for disturbances in sleep, as well as lack of emotional and mental stability.  Acupuncture also combines well with conventional medicine for the treatment of heart disease as it can improve circulation and relieve pain. 

When symptoms are due to insufficient Heart Blood, a combination of diet and Chinese herbal remedies are more likely to provide the deep changes necessary to relief symptoms completely. Chinese herbal formulae that combine ingredients that nourish the Blood and calm the Heart such as Tian Wang Bu Xin Wan (Emperor of Heaven’s pills to tonify the Heart), are often used to treat Heart imbalances resulting in insomnia, anxiety, forgetfulness, and palpitations. It needs to be noted that these symptoms may be caused by imbalances in other organs so correct diagnosis and accessing prescribed remedies from an approved supplier through a qualified TCM herbalist are essential.

How to look after your Heart energy:

- Nourish your Blood: Maintaining a healthy Blood will in turn nourish the Heart, as they have a reciprocal relationship. In TCM this means a steady supply of protein and of naturally dark and rich foods. The adequate supply of protein is determined by your metabolism and by the amount of activity that you perform. The more energy you burn (particularly in the form of sweat), the more Blood you are using and the more protein you will need. Extra-nourishment is needed if you are a breast-feeding mother, experience any kind of bleeding including heavy periods, have a chronic illness, or are recovering from an acute disease.

Conversely, too much cardio exercise and exposing yourself to excessive heat will have a detrimental effect both on the quality of the Blood and the health of your Heart. If you have ever spent a summer holiday somewhere really hot, you may have noticed feeling “wobbly” or irrationally short-fused after lying in the sun for too long. This is the direct effect of over-heating your Fire organ. Excessively spicy and pungent foods also heat up the Heart and make the Blood “evaporate”, so avoiding an excess of spices is also important here. For general views on a healthy TCM diet click here.

Foods that particularly benefit the Heart and the Blood include:
  • Protein: Small amounts of good-quality chicken, beef or lamb can supply enough nutrition to the Heart Blood. Eggs are also good sources of nourishment. If you are a vegetarian or vegan you need to consume some form of protein with every meal. Nuts, seeds, beans and pulses and natural soya products (not processed ones such as soya mince) can all provide good nourishment for the Blood. 
  • Naturally dark foods: Dark green leafy vegetables such as curly kale, spinach, dark cabbages, black soya beans, kidney beans, aduki beans, watercress and nettles are all considered in TCM to be specially nourishing to the Blood, and are "coincidentally" rich in iron. 
  • Naturally sweet and dark foods Beetroot, grapes, molasses, dates, figs, and unsulfured apricots are also iron rich and excellent Blood nourishers. Note that consuming excessive amounts of sweet foods can have a detrimental effect on the digestive energy of the Spleen!

Laughing with your whole being opens the Heart
- Enjoy yourself: Joy is the emotion that is closest to the Heart. Lack of joy –or an excess of it like the one experienced through euphoria-inducing drugs – can have a detrimental effect on the Heart. As the Heart is the centre of our emotions, nourishing ourselves emotionally is just as important as nutrition to maintain a healthy Heart. The Heart needs to be joyful and vibrant without excess. Regularly laughing, singing and/or dancing in such a way that you feel care-free and light, is likely to open your Heart and allow you to experience the joy of life.

Healthy relationships, not just romantic ones but with family and friends, also nourish the Heart. Spending time with friends and family, feeling close to them and sharing unique moments over food or activities, are all necessary to maintain our mental and emotional balance. In the UK, many of us spend too much of our lives fretting about often un-important things and sacrificing the quality of our relationships to our work. We may even end up resenting those people who place demands on our time outside work and, in the case of our family, dutifully agree to spend time in their presence – but not WITH them -once or twice per year. This lack of connection and joy in relationships is becoming endemic in the West and has a definite impact on the rates of Heart disease in societies where people have become more isolated. For more on this click here.

- Find love in unexpected places: More than just the romantic love we tend to associate with the Heart, this is the emotion that makes us feel elated and part of something beautiful and wholesome. Seeing the beauty of the world, either through those we hold dear, or through the beauty found in nature, art, or the perfection of a baby not only opens our Heart but nourishes us at many levels making us feel joy and gratitude. Find out what triggers this feeling in you, visit it often and allow your inner light to shine and lit up every aspect of your life.

Kindness benefits both the giver and the receiver
Compassion is an extension of the love we feel for others, which enables us to share the pain experienced by other living beings, and makes us want to take it away. Becoming aware of the needs of others and performing any acts of kindness that are within our power- whether a smile, a kind word, or more practical help- , will not only nurture our Heart energy but that of the recipients of our compassionate love.

- Re-connect and realise that you are never alone: In order to connect with others we first need to deepen the relationship with ourselves. This can only be done by spending time alone in meditation or reflection, learning to be in the moment and experiencing life through our Hearts. 

Once we learn to open our Hearts we will be able to feel continuously connected with everything in the world, and we will never feel alone again.
At a deeper level, our Heart is nourished by our connection to the divine –whatever you may call it- through prayer, rituals, communal meditation, and healing.


  1. This is such a helpful article. Thankyou. X

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment Cassandra, I'm really glad you found it helpful!!