You may have heard of TCM physicians describing organs using peculiar terms, and talking about bodily functions that differ from what we are familiar with mainstream science.
For example, in western medicine, the heart’s main function is to pump blood around the body. However, in TCM, the “heart” not only deals with circulation of blood, but is also involved in one’s emotions, thoughts and mental state, which in biology, are considered to be aspects of the brain instead. How is it that the two forms of medicine can describe a vital organ so differently?
In this article, we explain briefly how the organ system in TCM came about and why it is so different from our current understanding of organs in modern science.
Organs in modern science
Emphasis on both structure and function
We instinctively think about the human body and our health in terms of the physical anatomy of our body, and the function of any body part is often discussed in relation to its structure. For example, the small intestine’s efficiency in absorbing food is often attributed to the intestinal walls having folds or wrinkles to increase the surface area for better absorption.
Therefore, both the structure and function are important to our understanding of the human body in modern science.
Organs in TCM
More emphasis on function than structure
However, in TCM, the organs are defined in a very different manner. Instead of studying the physical structure of organs intricately, TCM places more emphasis on the function. Through extensive clinical observation, the early TCM physicians discovered that certain functions within the body were somehow related and could be grouped together under a single “organ”. By using herbs that targeted this organ, multiple ailments within that group could be treated.
Example 1: Heart
For example, the ancient TCM physicians discovered that those with heart palpitations (the feeling that your heart is racing or pounding strongly) often have the accompanying symptoms of insomnia, frustration and forgetfulness. By nourishing the “heart”, they not only could ease the heart palpitations, but could also improve one's emotional health, mental well-being and quality of sleep. Therefore, the "heart" in TCM was deemed to not only deal with the circulation of blood, but also with one's consciousness, thoughts, emotions, mental well-being etc. (all of which the ancient Chinese collectively named the "spirit (神)").
Example 2: Kidneys
It was also found that herbs that target the “kidneys” may be used to treat both urinary issues and reproductive issues. Hence the "kidneys" were deemed to have the function of "regulating water and fluids (肾主水)" and are also involved in reproduction. In other words, the “kidneys” in TCM may encompass some aspects of the reproductive system of western medicine as well.
Difference in perspective
Therefore, to better understand the human body from TCM’s point of view, it may be useful to think of organs in TCM as “groups of closely related bodily functions” instead, in order to avoid confusion with the organs of western medicine. Some of these groups have similarities with their organ counterparts in western medicine, while others may be entirely different. This perspective may make it easier for one to understand TCM’s unique approach to the human body. (Note that the study of the human anatomy and physical structure of organs also existed in the history of Chinese Medicine to some extent. However, the functions of the organs carry more significance in a clinical setting.)
Other organs in TCM
The major organs in TCM include the Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys. The minor organs include the Stomach, Small intestine, Large intestine, Gall bladder, Bladder and the Triple Burner. These organs will be introduced in future articles.