Since the Chinese emphasis the functional relationships rather than the physical anatomy of the vital organs, the means by which they influence each other is of prime importance. That the circulatory, lymphatic, and nervous systems carry blood, fluids, and messages through the body is agreed upon by both Chinese and Western medicine. However, the Chinese distinguish an additional connecting system called jing luo or meridians. Of all the connectors in the body, the Chinese view the meridians as the most important because they circulate and transmit the body’s most vital sub- stance — qi, the essential energy of life.
There has been much speculation in Western medical circles regarding the mechanics of the meridian complex. The most common Western view is that meridians are actually fibers of the autonomous nervous system, and that qi is actually the electrical phenomenon aroused by the stimulation of the nervous system. The Chinese deny this, pointing out that qi also travels where there are no nerve fibers and that meridians, like qi itself, only manifest themselves functionally, not physically. Meridians can also be felt when vital points along them are stimulated with acupuncture. In this presentation we take the Chinese view.
There are a total of fifty-nine meridians in the body, of which twelve —the “main” meridians —dominate the others. Each of the main meridians represents a biological energy system centered around one of the twelve vital organs, including the triple-warmer and pericardium. Qi flows from one meridian to another in a certain order until the entire network is covered, delivering vital energy to every part of the body. Adepts of Taoist breathing techniques are able to sense and direct the flow of qialong the meridian complex.
Coupled yin-yang organs are directly connected by the main meridians which meet in the fingers, toes, and head. In addition, there are eight “extra”, twelve “muscle” and fifteen “connecting” meridians. All are branches of the twelve main meridians and serve to distribute qi to those areas not covered by them. The entire complex forms a fine, intricate grid. Stimulating one of the main meridians with acupuncture or herbs has a specific effect on the connected organ as well as a general effect on the entire system. As can be seen from the below figure, there are countless combinations of connections by which organs and the energy systems they represent can influence one another. The task of the clinical physician is to determine the most likely and most frequent patterns of interplay among the vital energies which emanate from the organs.
How Chinese Herbal Medicine Works
Chinese herbal medicine imparts its healing benefits to the body as much through the meridian complex as through the bloodstream. When an herbal prescription is ingested, its vital essence is extracted by the stomach and distributed to the blood by the spleen. After mixing with air- qi in the lungs to form usable human-qi, the herbal essence travels to the organ for which it has a natural affinity and for which it has therefore been prescribed. There it has a direct biochemical effect on the organ, in turn affecting the quality and quantity of vital energy flowing along the organ’s meridian. Through the meridian complex, the energy emanating from the treated organ influences other organs and parts of the body. An herbal liver tonic, for example, will improve the biochemical functions of a weak or diseased liver, tone up its damaged tissues and fortify the blood which the liver nourishes. By correcting the liver’s dysfunction, the herbal tonic also corrects the imbalance of energies in the liver and tonifies liver-qi. Tonified liver-qi benefits the gall bladder through the yin-yang connection, stimulates the heart through the mother-son relationship of Wood to Fire, improves vision, muscle tone and other Wood attributes, and promotes general vitality through the minor meridian connections.
Important as the direct, immediate biochemical effects of herbal drugs are, the indirect, long-term benefits which they impart to the organ-based energy system are even more significant for health and longevity. While Western medical science acknowledges the biochemical therapeutic effects of some of the crude, knarled, ungainly items of the Chinese pharmacopoeia, it still has trouble dealing with such concepts as qi, pure vital essence, meridians, cosmic forces and other factors which cannot be physically dissected and measured.
Main Vital Connections
One of the most important connections is between the heart and kidneys. They influence each other through the victor-vanquished relationship of Water to Fire. It is common knowledge in Western medical pathology that heart failure is generally accompanied by renal complications, and that kidney problems usually induce heart palpitations and other Fire symptoms. If, for example, the kidneys are empty of yin-energy, they become weak and thus Water loses its subjugation control over Fire. Heart-fire flares up, inducing symptoms of restlessness, insomnia, talkativeness, and excess laughter. In this case, the kidneys should be tonified to strengthen their yin-energy, which in turn will quell the fire in the heart and restore the proper Fire-Water equilibrium.
The liver and heart interact through the mother-son relationship of Wood to Fire. The heart controls circulation of blood while the liver regulates its quality and quantity through metabolism. If the heart-qi is weak, the heart cannot provide sufficient circulatory power to handle the enriched blood sent up by the liver, and liver function is thus impaired. In the more colorful Chinese terminology, the Fire of the heart is insufficient to burn the Wood provided by the liver; thus, Wood piles up unburned and liver-qi accumulates in excess. Dizziness, spasms, pains in the joints, and anger are common symptoms of such liver-qi excess. The Wood-Fire equilibrium may be restored by notifying the heart.
The interplay of energies between two organs can also occur through a third intermediary organ. The lungs and liver, for example, interact through the victory-vanquished relationship of Metal to Wood. Normally, Metal subjugates Wood, and thereby the lungs keep the liver in check. If lung-qi becomes deficient, Metal loses control over Wood, and the liver becomes inflamed with excess qi. Excess liver-qi (Wood) feeds the Fire of the heart through the mother-son relationship of Wood to Fire. When heart-qi (Fire) is in excess, it damages the lungs (Metal) through the victory-vanquished relationship of Fire to Metal. Thus, the lung (Metal), which normally subjugate the liver (Wood), can also be subjugated and damaged by the liver through the intermediary of the heart (Fire). This case should be treated by tonifying the lungs to control the liver, sedating the liver to cool down the heart, sedating the heart to take the heat off the lungs, or some combination of these.
According to the Chinese, “everything under heaven” is animated and influenced by the same universal cosmic forces. The human body is viewed as a living microcosm of the divine pattern. Just as too much water in the atmosphere causes rain, too much water in the body causes sweating and urination. Too much heat parches and cracks the earth, just as too much heat in the body parches the throat and cracks the lips. Health and vitality depend upon the harmonious balance among these forces, and all disease begins with or causes some sort of energy imbalance. Lasting, effective cures can only be achieved by sedating excess, tonifying deficiency, cooling excess heat, warming excess cold, and otherwise redressing energy imbalance to restore the original condition of our primordial energies. This is the meaning of bu yuan qi.