Mental/Emotional Aspects of The Heart
The major responsibility of the heart in Traditional Chinese Medicine is housing the mind and controlling the shen. “Shen” can be seen as the overall healthiness of the mind. When you look at a healthy person in good spirits, you know how you can see that in their eyes? There is a certain bright clarity and sense of health that shines from within. We acupuncturists would say that this person has good shen.
Have you ever looked into a person’s eyes and noticed they seemed, well, not all together? Maybe their eyes were shifting from side to side, or maybe they just seemed cloudy and dull, as if they were not really in the present moment. Perhaps they seemed dazed or confused. This is poor shen. Sometimes mild depression or distraction can cause this shen disturbance; if very severe, it can manifest as mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
One of my professors once described the heart’s job as maintaining appropriate timing in life. He used an example of a person wearing a bathing suit. If this person wore the suit out to the pool in the summer, his heart was doing its job. But if he put the bathing suit on for a business meeting, it meant the heart was not allowing him to make the right choice for the circumstances. In short, the Heart is all about maintaining the correct behavior for specific situations. Think about behavior patterns you might see in the case of mental illness: inappropriate speech or tone of voice, making unsafe decisions, misjudging situations and social cues.
The heart is not about moderation; it is an organ of extremes, from wild joy to crushing lows. Extreme joy may seem like a positive thing, but this is the type of joy unsustainable and it burns out quickly. Think of manic-depression: manic highs, followed by deep depression. Both depression and anxiety are linked to the heart. ADHD is also considered to be a result of heart imbalance; the hyperactivity is a result of the heart not properly controlling the mind.
Physical Aspects of The Heart
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the heart is the organ most closely linked to emotion. Think about all the terms we use every day to describe our state of mind: “heartsick,” “heartbroken,” “heartache” The heart is not the director of subtlety; the emotions it encompasses seem to always be on the far end of the spectrum, either extreme sadness or extreme joy.
The physical job of the heart in TCM is very close to what we know it to be in Western medicine. It controls the blood vessels, and also controls the sweat. If the heart is healthy, the heartbeat will be strong and regular, without palpitations. The blood pressure will be normal, the blood will circulate well, and the heart will settle back into its regular rhythm shortly after exertion. You may notice people with heart issues tend to sweat more than the average person. Excess sweating is a sign the heart needs to be tonified (built up and supported). Heat signs in general, such as facial flushing, might be a sign that the heart energy is out of balance. On the other end of the spectrum, if the energy is deficient, a person may present with a complexion that is pale or chalky.
The heart energy also controls the tongue. When this organ is working effectively, your tongue will work to help you taste your food, and to assist normal, clear speech. Stuttering, loss of words and other speech difficulties can result from a deficiency of the Heart. If someone talks incessantly, this can also point to an imbalance of the heart. If there is excess heat in the heart, it may show up as sores on the tongue, and the tip may be red or painful.
When the heart is balanced and healthy, it results in an easy transition into sleep. When we acupuncturists learn you have insomnia, we often treat the heart. Difficulty falling asleep, nightmares and sleep terrors can result when this organ is unhappy. If you are the type of person who lies in bed forever, unable to fall asleep because your mind is racing, acupuncture can help to settle the heart energy and give you a great night’s sleep.