Chinese Medicine Is In The Life: Exploring the relationship between Heart and Stomach


Note: the organ system names below are capitalized when referring to the Chinese medicine organ concept, which encompasses more than just the biomedical anatomical organ. We also tend to capitalize the five phase elements when we are referring to them by name.

Thank you for joining me for my last installment of the treatment of digestive disorders in Chinese medicine. Last week, I talked about the stomach and some of the ways stomach pathology can manifest in the body. I’ll build on some of what you learned in that article in this one – so go ahead and re-read that one using the link above, if you like.

Organ clock with heaven / earth / human being divisions (inexpertly drawn by Eric Grey, LAc)

As practitioners of Classical Chinese medicine, one of the foundational ways we learn to orient ourselves toward treating disease is through the organ clock. The organ clock is a specific part of Classical theory that holds diagnostic information in the form of archetypes and patterns.

Throughout this article I will use the organ clock to help you more deeply understand the Chinese medicine organ systems, including how each acts individually and how they work in relationship. Examining these relationships can give you many insights into yourself and the way you orient towards life. Seems grandiose, yes, but often true!

First, a little detail on the theory. The organ clock can be divided and examined in many different ways. One of these ways is to divide the organs into three sections, heaven, earth, and humanity. When we divide the 12 by 3, we find 4 organs in each section. Relevant to our discussion today, the lung, large intestine, stomach and spleen are categorized in the earth division. The heart, small intestine, bladder, and kidney are categorized in the heaven division.

Today we are going to focus on two organs from each of those sections, the stomach and the heart.

The relationship between the fire phase element and the earth phase element is of paramount importance.  In the generation cycle fire begets or engenders earth, therefore, fire is said to be “the mother of earth.” Metal (recall lung, large intestine, stomach) is controlled by fire. This means we can use fire to treat the metal aspect of something, and that fire helps us create earth.

Stay with me, this will make sense soon. These relationships are important and hugely significant in Classical Chinese medical pattern differentiation, diagnosis, and treatment.

Chinese thought portrays the relationship of human beings to be “in between heaven and earth.” The human being is said to be the intersection between the two realms, the earthly and the heavenly. This is no small feat! We human beings seem to inhabit two different realms. We are charged through our very existence (whether we like it or not) to learn about both.

A practical example of this is a common thought many people have, “Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These could be categorized as spirit or heart based questions, that come from trying to understand this earthly realm.

It just so happens that in Chinese thought the heart is, arguably, the most important organ.

If you were too look, you would find phrases like “All Disease Comes from the Heart (Fruehauf)”, “The Heart is the ruler of the five organ networks (Huainanzi)”, “All of the twelve channel networks obey the orders of the Heart. Therefore the Heart is the ruler of the organ networks (Shen Shi Zunsheng Shu).”

It’s logical then to think that since the heart is such an important organ it must be in relationship to all organs, including the stomach. The heart-stomach connection actually goes deeper than that. Each Organ network has an associated hexagram, which provides further elaboration on the organ itself. The hexagrams associated with the stomach and heart are 43 and 44 respectively.

Herein lies one of the most fascinating and relevant parts of our journey today.

Think back to last week, and what we talked about regarding the stomach, and hunger, desire, taking a “bite” out of life (if you will). The hexagram 43, entitled Biting Apart (Fruehauf) associated with the stomach emulates this theme. The hexagram itself has one broken line at the top and the rest solid; it looks like a container, something that is designed to contain material things. The stomach being one of the organs that creates the material world through the body – transforming food matter into energy, and back into matter matches this process as well! The heart’s, you will find, is the exact opposite.

Hexagram 44

Hexagram 44, entitled Union (Fruehauf) has a few other translations, “Coming to Meet, Coupling, Meeting” as well. This hexagram shows the exact opposite, it is all solid lines, and one broken line at the bottom. Exactly what the hexagram associated with the Stomach would look like if it was turned upside down. As if the hexagram associated with the stomach were emptying its the contents and thereby a container that does not hold anything.

We can see here (again) this idea that the heart is associated with emptiness and the stomach is associated with being full.

As you can imagine, these energies being so similar, and yet so different – can cause some confusion in practice. If our hearts somehow become “flipped” we might see desires run a bit rampant. The “flipped” heart has the desire to be full. A flipped heart forgets its physiological need for emptiness! As you can imagine, here is where we run into problems.

The stomach which likes to be full, cannot in fact, be too full.

We know what happens then – the stomach U-Turn we referred to last week, ensues. We can encounter these “flipped” hearts and stomachs in our culture today. All around us we can see the desire to want more, to be filled, and paradoxically, we are never able to come into contact with the sense of enoughness, because the heart itself, needs to be empty.

Pretty remarkable, right?

If you’re still feeling iffy about this correspondence, may I present the common phrase Heartburn! When does this happen? When we have eaten too much, or when the Stomach’s physiology has gone wrong. The phrase brings me a lot of happiness because it’s almost as if we knew something about Chinese medicine just by virtue of knowing ourselves!

In treatment of stomach or digestive disorders we commonly employ the use of fire channels.

We use fire to control metal! We also use the fire aspect of many organs to help engender, or create a solid earth. If there are problems in digestion, we will look to warmth (using the principle of fire) to treat! Remember how we talked about that these ideas at beginning of the article?

If it interests you at all, reflect or observe your response when something happens to you. This “something” can be either good, or bad – how does it affect your appetite? Is it affected by sadness with a desire or repulsion of food?

When you are terribly busy and scattered, do you forget to eat? More and more correspondences! As my Teacher’s Teacher’s, Teacher (yes, that is three teachers) Dr. John F. Shen would say, “Chinese Medicine is in the life.” Dr. Shen would then explain that as practitioners it is more important to understand, to examine life, than to understand disease. He would say, “because disease comes from life.” Here we see that the relationship between the Heart and Stomach is no exception.

Interested in seeing how all of these symbols and correspondences result in excellent treatment for your digestive concerns? Jump on my schedule and we can get started.

Written by Melinda Wheeler, LAc

My care is personalized and tailored to each individual. Through my studies and training, I have developed many techniques and tools to treat anyone, no matter their ailment or injury. Whether you have identified symptoms of physical pain, emotional instability, or you aren’t quite able to put your finger on any form of dis-ease, but you want to try acupuncture and/or Chinese medicine, come and see what we can accomplish together for the betterment and evolution of your well being!