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Asian Medical Theory - Zang-Fu Organs
Origins and Approach   |   Yin and Yang   |   Five Elements  |   Vital Substances   |   Zang-Fu Organs

"By observing myself, I learn about others, and their diseases become apparent to me. By observing the external, I gather knowledge about the internal. One should watch for things out of the ordinary. One should observe minute and trifling things and treat them as if they were big and important. When they are treated the danger they pose will be dissipated." - Huang Di Nei Jing

Zang-Fu Organs

yin yang Of the many principles of traditional Asian medical theory, a few fundamental ones will be discussed. These are:
  • Yin and Yang Theory
  • Five Elements Theory
  • Vital Substances Theory
  • Zang-Fu Organ Theory
  • External Causes of Disease
  • Internal Causes of Disease

  • The theory of the Internal Organs is considered to be the core of traditional Asian medical theory. As such, it is the most important basis for clinical practice. One of the reasons for its importance is that, of all the other theories applicable to the medicine, Internal Organs theory is the most comprehensive and multifaceted. It is comprehensive in its application of the Mind-Body-Spirit aspects. It is multifaceted in its interrelationships between the organs, Yin and Yang, the Vital Substances, Five Elements, physiology and pathology.

    'Zang' means Yin. 'Fu' means Yang. Together, the words Zang-Fu describe the theory of Yin and Yang Internal Organs system.

    Yin-Yang Organ Pairs

    In traditional Asian medicine there are six Yin organs paired with their related six Yang organs. They are:

    Yin Organs Yang Organs
    Liver paired with Gall Bladder
    Heart paired with Small Intestines
    Pericardium paired with San Jiao
    Spleen paired with Stomach
    Lungs paired with Large Intestines
    Kidneys paired with Bladder

    The relationship between a Yin organ and its paired Yang organ is mostly based on function and energetics. For example, the Liver produces bile and is in charge of the free flow of Qi. Its paired organ, the Gall Bladder, stores and excretes the bile and also helps the Liver's function of facilitating Qi flow. If the Liver is in disharmony, the Gall Bladder is often also affected - either in its organ function, channel function or in some area of shared responsibility such as the tissues, sense organs, emotions, Vital Substances, etc.

    Yin Organs
    Yin organs are defined by structure and storage of pure, refined substances. They store the Vital Substances (Qi, Blood, Essence and Body Fluids) received from the Yang organs. Yin organs do not have a direct opening to the exterior of the body. Due to the lack of direct access to the exterior of the body, the Yin organs are considered the 'Interior' organ in their pair-up with their respective Yang Organ counterpart.

    Yang Organs
    Yang organs are defined by function and excretion of waste products. They are hollow organs and do not store but are constantly filled and emptied. They transform food and drink in order to extract pure essences which are passed on to the Yin organs for storage. Yang organs have a direct opening to the exterior of the body. Due to this direct access to the exterior of the body, the Yang organs are considered the 'Exterior' organ in their pair-up with their respective Yin Organ counterpart.

    Six Extraordinary Yang Organs
    There are six other 'organs' in traditional Asian medicine categorized under a special section called the Six Extraordinary Yang Organs. They are extraordinary because, they function like Yin organs by storing some refined essence such as Blood, Bile, or Marrow. But they are shaped like the hollow Yang organs. Together, they complete and integrate the topography and physiology of the Internal Organs.

    The Six Extraordinary Yang organs are:
    • Uterus
    • Brain
    • Marrow
    • Bones
    • Blood Vessels
    • Gall Bladder

    Organ Correspondences

    The Internal Organs are functionally related to various aspects of the body in the following ways:
    • Spirit: Each Organ is said to house a spirit aspect of the Mind-Body-Spirit complex. For example, the Liver houses the Ethereal Soul (Hun) which is the metaphysical aspect of the spirit that survives and leaves the body upon death. The Ethereal Soul is anchored by the Liver-Blood. In Liver disharmonies, the Ethereal Soul may float at night rather than being anchored by the Liver-Blood, thus leading to insomnia and/or excessive dreaming. 
    Each organ is also associated with a character aspect of the spirit. For example, the Liver is a resolute organ in charge of planning one's direction in life. If the Liver is deficient, one's long-term planning capacities may be affected.
    • Emotions: Each Organ is associated with a particular emotion or category of emotions. This relationship is mutual so that a disharmony in an Organ can affect the emotion to which it is related, and an emotional disturbance can affect the Organ function. For example, the Liver is associated with Anger. A Liver disharmony can manifest through the various traits of Anger including irritability, frustration, moodiness, depression, etc. In the reverse, acute or prolonged state of Anger can disturb the Liver function of Qi flow to produce physical symptoms.  
      • It should be noted that although each Organ is associated with a particular group of emotions, all disharmonies resulting from Mental-Emotional stress have an effect on the Heart.  
      • While a particular emotion may find expression within the sphere of influence and through the traits dominated by its associated organ, it is the Heart that feels it and enables the expression of it.  
    • Vital Substances: The Organs ensure the production, maintenance, storage, replenishment, transformation and transportation of the Vital Substances. Each Vital Substance is primarily governed by a particular organ, secondarily controlled by another organ, and widely supported by the other organs. For example, Blood is Governed by the Heart as it is the Heart which infuses life (Qi) into the Blood to make it move within the blood vessels. However, Blood is Controlled by the Spleen which has a part in making Blood out of Food-Qi, and in holding the Blood in the blood vessels. The other organs supporting the creation, maintenance and function of it are the Lungs which provide the Qi to make Blood, the Liver which stores Blood, and the Kidneys which help make Blood by providing Kidney Essence.
    • Tissues: There is a functional relationship between the Internal Organs and the tissues of the body. This relationship can be diagnostically useful so that the state of the Organ can be deduced by the state of the tissue to which it is related. For example, the Liver controls the Sinews. In Liver disharmonies, there can be symptoms related to the sinews and tendons such as spasms and contractions or weakness.
    • Sense Organs: The health and vitality of a particular sense organ relies on the nourishment by a particular Internal Organ. For example, the Liver controls Eyes and sight. If Liver is deficient in Blood or Yin, the eyes may experience pathologies such as dryness and poor vision. Alternatively, if the Liver is suffering from an Excess pathogen such as Heat, the eyes may be red, swollen and painful.

    Organ Interrelationships

    No organ is an isolated entity but exists and functions within an integrated system. The understanding of how one organ interrelates with another is one of the most important aspects of traditional Asian medicine. The idea of balance and harmony particularly applies to the proper functioning of each Internal Organ within the team-work setting of the body's physiology. Any over-function or under-function of an Organ can disrupt the balance of power and skew the energetic harmony. Such a disruption will produce a cascading effect throughout the entire body-system.

    The various interrelationships between the organs are much too complex to be adequately explained in summary. For example, it is not difficult to explain that the Heart and Kidneys have a relationship by virtue of Fire (Heart) and Water (Kidneys). Heart Fire must descend to warm Kidney Water. Kidney Water must ascend to nourish and cool Heart Fire. They must be in balance as Fire and Water represent the two fundamental poles of Yin and Yang. In an imbalance scenario, Fire may either be excessive and dry up the Water, or Fire may be deficient and become doused by Water.

    What is difficult to enumerate, outside of the many volumes of Asian medical literature dedicated to this topic, are the numerous cascading effects on all their related tissues, sense organs, Vital Substances and other Internal Organs. For example, if Heart Fire is excessive, it may dry up the Kidney Water, create Heat in the Blood which it governs, cause Blood to 'move recklessly' out of the Blood Vessels which it controls, dry up the Body Fluids which depend on the Blood and Kidney Water, disturb the Mind and sleep which are rooted in Blood, affect the Spleen and Liver through their relationships with Blood, and cause further cascading down the Kidney, Spleen and Liver areas of pathology. The possibilities are limitless.

    It is the comprehensiveness of the Interrelationships that endows the Medicine with the holism to heal the Mind, Body and Spirit. It is this far-reaching philosophy of the art and science of healing that presents the practitioner with no uncertain challenges. Such is the dilemma of the Healer. Such is the power of the Medicine.

    For lack of a better way to present a few rudimentary concepts and Organ correspondences, presented here is a table listing those few.

    Zang-Fu Organ Correspondences

      Zang (Yin) Organ Fu (Yang) Organ
    Organ Pairs Liver Gall Bladder
    Element Wood
    Season Spring
    Climate Wind
    Functions -Stores Blood
    -Ensures smooth flow of Qi
    -Controls Sinews
    -Controls Basal and Reflex Tears
    -Stores and excretes Bile
    -Controls Decisiveness
    -Controls Sinews
    Spirit housed -Ethereal Soul (Hun: metaphysical soul which survives the body at death and ascends to the heavens)
    -Long-term planning
    -Courage to make decisions
    Emotions Related to Anger
    Vital Substances Liver stores Blood
    Tissues Sinews and Tendons
    Sense Organs Opens to the Eyes
    Body Fluids Tears
    Manifestation Manifests in the Nails
    Tastes Sour
    Odors Rancid
    Sounds Shouting
    Color Green
    Circadian Time 1am-3am 11pm-1am
    Organ Pairs Heart / Pericardium Small Intestines / San Jiao
    Element Fire
    Season Summer
    Climate Heat
    Functions -Governs Blood
    -Houses the Mind (Shen)
    -Controls Sweat
    Small Intestines:
    -Controls receiving &
    transforming foods and fluids
    -Separates fluids
    San Jiao:
    -Influences Yuan Qi
    -Controls transportation of Qi
    -Controls water passages &
    excretion of fluids
    Spirit housed -Mind (Shen: the complex of mental-emotional-spiritual aspects)
    -Long term memory
    Mental Clarity
    Emotions Related to Joy
    Vital Substances Heart governs Blood
    Tissues Controls Blood Vessels
    Sense Organs Opens to the Tongue
    Body Fluids Sweat
    Manifestation Manifests on Facial Complexion
    Tastes Bitter
    Odors Scorched, Burnt
    Sounds Laughing
    Color Red
    Time Heart: 11am-1pm / PC: 7pm-9pm S I: 1pm-3pm / San Jiao: 9pm-11pm
    Organ Pairs Spleen (and Pancreas) Stomach
    Element Earth
    Season Late Summer
    Climate Dampness
    Functions -Governs transformation and transportation
    -Controls ascending of Qi
    -Controls making & holding of Blood
    -Controls Muscles and Four Limbs
    -Controls receiving food & drinks
    -Controls rotting and ripening of food
    -Controls transportation of food Essence
    -Controls descending of Qi
    Is the origin of fluids
    Spirit housed -Intellect (Yi)
    -Thinking, concentrating, short-term memory
    Manic behavior, hyperactivity
    Emotions Related to Pensiveness (Overthinking)
    Vital Substances Spleen governs Food-Qi; holds Blood
    Tissues Muscles
    Sense Organs Opens to the Mouth
    Body Fluids Saliva
    Manifestation Manifests on Lips
    Tastes Sweet
    Odors Fragrant, Sweetish
    Sounds Singing
    Color Yellow
    Time 9am-11am 7am-9am
    Organ Pairs Lungs Large Intestines
    Element Metal
    Season Autumn
    Climate Dryness
    Functions -Governs Qi and respiration
    -Control Channels & Blood Vessels
    -Regulate water passages
    -Control Skin and
    spaces between Skin and Muscles
    -Controls passage and conduction
    -Transforms stools and reabsorbs fluids
    Spirit housed Corporeal Soul (Po: the somatic expression of the mind-spirit complex giving the capacity of sensation, feeling, hearing and sight.) "Letting go" of the past
    Emotions Related to Worry
    Vital Substances Lungs govern Qi and influence Body Fluids
    Tissues Skin
    Sense Organs Opens to the Nose
    Body Fluids Nasal Mucus
    Manifestation Manifests in Body Hair
    Tastes Pungent
    Odors Rotten, Rank
    Sounds Crying
    Color White
    Time 3am-5am 5am-7am
    Organ Pairs Kidneys Bladder
    Element Water
    Season Winter
    Climate Cold
    Functions -Stores Essence
    -Governs Birth, Growth, Reproduction &
    -Produces Marrow, fills Brain &
    controls Bones
    -Governs Water
    -Controls receiving of Qi
    -Controls Gate of Life (Ming Men)
    Excretion of Water
    Spirit housed Will-power (Zhi) Jealousy, suspicion, grudges
    Emotions Related to Fear
    Vital Substances Kidneys store Essence and
    influence Body Fluids
    Tissues Bones
    Sense Organs Opens to the Ears
    Body Fluids Spittle
    Manifestation Manifests in Head Hair
    Tastes Salty
    Odors Putrid
    Sounds Groaning
    Color Black, Dark
    Time 5pm-7pm 3pm-5pm

    Origins and Approach   |   Yin and Yang   |   Five Elements  |   Vital Substances   |   Zang-Fu Organs

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