Mental Health and Physical Health in the Chinese Medicine Model

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), emotions and physical health are intimately connected. This integrated mind-body approach to health and healing operates in a dynamic loop where emotions impact the health of the body and vice versa.

For example, according to TCM theory, excessive irritability and anger can affect the liver and result in multiple ailments, including menstrual pain, headache, redness of the face and eyes, dizziness, and dry mouth. Alternatively, imbalance in the liver can result in stormy moods. Even if you aren’t experiencing a specific health issue, however, you will likely display personality traits that fall within these five organ systems.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been practiced for over 2,000 years and its use in the United States as part of complementary healthcare has grown dramatically over the last three decades.

TCM is based on the principle that mental and physical well-being are intricately entwined. In turn, practitioners believe that optimal health is governed by balancing a person’s qi (vital life force) and the five elements of fire, earth, metal, water, wood. These correspond to the five organ systems and five emotions that are associated with those organ systems.

In TCM, it is believed that emotional imbalances can act as both symptoms and causes for physical issues. Additionally, mental health conditions are linked to specific physical ailments of key organs.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are narrowed down to five basic feelings that are each associated with a corresponding element or phase and a related organ in the body.

Below are the emotions that can cause imbalance in the major yin organs. In addition to emotions, TCM philosophy believes that other elements, such as dietary, environmental, lifestyle, and hereditary factors, also contribute to the development of imbalances and the body’s ability to heal itself.

Understanding the interplay of each of the five organ-emotion pairings is key to unlocking the healing potential of TCM. Below, we summarize traditional Chinese medicine’s beliefs on how the connections and imbalances between these organs and emotions contribute to basic mental and physical health concerns.

Fire: Heart – Joy vs. agitation or depression

Fire Organ: Summer Season

The heart pumps blood throughout the body. In TCM, this organ is linked with joy but the imbalance of joy is expressed as either too much (agitation or restlessness) or too little (depression). Below, are the mental and physical ailments linked with the heart:

  • Emotions: Lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, and despair
  • Heart function: Regulates the blood circulation and blood vessels; responsible for even and regular pulse and influences vitality and spirit; connected with the tongue, complexion, and arteries.
  • Symptoms of heart imbalance: Insomnia, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, excessive dreaming, poor long-term memory, and psychological disorders

Fire Emotion: Joy

According to TCM theory, joy is related to the Heart and the fire element. The Heart houses the Shen, which is our emotional and spiritual being. The Shen embodies consciousness, emotions, mental function and vitality. The blood of the Heart nourishes the Shen and provides a resting place for it at night. The Heart is truly our emotional center and is said to rule over all the other emotions.

Joy nourishes the Heart, and healthy expressions of joy reflect a healthy emotional state. When there’s an imbalance of joy in our lives, it can be expressed as too much (agitation and mania), or too little (depression). Because the Shen needs rest, sleep disorders are one of the most common symptoms of imbalance in the Heart system. It’s not always easy to find joy in life. The other emotions of grief, fear, worry and anger must all filter through our Heart, and when we experience any of them in excess, it often leaves little room for joy. Remember that our spiritual being, our Shen, needs rest to thrive. Sleep. Take a break from the news. Meditate. Get acupuncture. Rest helps your Heart filter and process your emotions, leaving more room for joy.

Food Associations: Heart – Fire Taste is Bitter – Balances Energy and Circulation
Parsley, dandelion and mustard greens, kale, burdock root, coffee
Too much coffee is drying to the tissues and fluids, however.

Earth: Spleen -Worry or too much empathy

Earth Organ: Spleen Late Summer Season

The spleen plays an important part in the body’s immune system and acts as a blood filter, removing old blood cells, bacteria, and impurities from the body. In TCM, the spleen is linked to the following emotions and ailments:

  • Emotions: Excessive mental work such as worry, dwelling, or focusing too much on a particular topic
    Spleen function: Food digestion and nutrient absorption, helping in the formation of blood and energy and keeping blood in the blood vessels; connected with the muscles, mouth, and lips; also involved in thinking, studying, and memory.
  • Symptoms of spleen imbalance: Tiredness, loss of appetite, mucus discharge, poor digestion, abdominal distension, loose stools, diarrhea, weak muscles, pale lips, bruising, excess menstrual blood flow, and other bleeding disorders
  • Spleen conditions: Spleen qi deficiency, spleen qi descending, spleen yang deficiency

Earth Emotion: Worry/Overthinking

According to TCM theory, worry is related to the Spleen and the earth element. The Spleen is responsible for transforming food into vital nutrients and transporting those nutrients to the rest of the body. In other words, the Spleen ensures proper digestive function. Excessive worry and overthinking tax the Spleen so it can’t do its primary job of digesting food. Prolonged deficiency of the Spleen leads to an accumulation of fluids and dampness, weighing you down physically, mentally and emotionally. This further weakens the Spleen system, impairing our capacity to think clearly and focus, and leaving us susceptible to even more worry.

Mindfulness is one of the best practices to benefit the Spleen. Like most of us, the Spleen isn’t great at multitasking, and unfortunately for our Spleens we’re living in a time of endless distraction. Many of us try to do multiple things at once because we worry, we’ll forget something, but we’re further burdening our Spleen, leaving to even greater worry. Give your Spleen the space to do one thing at a time. Whether you’re eating, reading, or working, try doing just that one thing and nothing else. You’ll have improved digestion and less worry as a result.

Food Associations: Spleen – Earth Sweet Builds blood and prevents prolapse.
Rice, chicken whole grains, sweet potatoes, onions, squash, corn, fruits, Goji Berries – build blood, Spleen loves eating at regular times, too much Sweet is damaging, no raw or cold foods.
The best time to eat a bigger meal is 9-11 AM for digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Metal: Lung – Grief or Sadness and detachment

Metal Organ: Lung Fall/Autumn Season

The lungs bring oxygen into the body and remove carbon dioxide. In TCM, this organ is believed to be connected to grief and the following conditions:
Lung function: Respiration brings energy from the air and helps to distribute it throughout the body; they work with the kidney to regulate water metabolism; they are important in the immune system and for resistance to viruses and bacteria; they regulate sweat glands and body hair and provide moisture to the skin.

  • Symptoms of lung imbalance: Shortness of breath and shallow breathing, sweating, fatigue, cough, frequent cold and flu, allergies, asthma, and other lung conditions, dry skin, depression and excessive crying
  • Lung conditions: Lung qi deficiency, lung yin deficiency, and cold damp obstructing the lungs.
  • Metal Emotion: Grief, sadness, detachment

According to TCM theory, grief is related to the lungs and the metal element. The lungs are our first line of defense against external pathogens, and their primary function is to disperse and disseminate Qi throughout the rest of the body. Prolonged, unprocessed grief impairs the lungs’ function and consumes the Qi, leading to exhaustion, lassitude and shortness of breath.

We’re going through a time of immense grief. We’ve lost 100,000 lives in this country to a pandemic. As well as social decline, wars and rumors of wars, dramatic weather changes and inflation and coming food shortages. But grief has something to offer us. It contracts by nature, encouraging us to look within and identify sources of sadness that we’ve been holding on to. And our lungs give us the power to feel and express our grief.

In the five-element world, the lungs are connected to the element of metal. Metal is rigid, unbending, set in its structure. Someone who is a lung-type would take comfort in rules, reason and rationality. This person is someone who likes to maintain a sense of control over himself and his environment. To a lung personality, it is important that their world is in order, and that it makes sense. The lung also controls the emotion of grief, and the idea of letting go. Someone with a lung imbalance might have an aura of sadness or loss or have difficulty letting go of past suffering.

From a physical standpoint, the lungs have a connection to constipation. If the body can’t let go, this is the result. If the mind can’t let go, you might feel stuck, and unwilling to change. Or you may simmer over past grievances, unable to move on. You might also become frozen by your desire for perfection. Since the lung is all about correct, fair behavior, it may be hard for a lung type to think outside the box, or to come up with creative solutions.
Food Associations: Lung – Metal Skin, elimination, breath and moving qi – Spicy/Pungent Flavor
Scallions, daikon, radish, ginger, cinnamon

Water: Kidney – Fear

Water Organ: Kidney Winter Season

The kidneys remove waste and excess fluid to make urine. In TCM, the kidney is related to fear, which can manifest as chronic fear or anxiety when qi out of balance, as well as result in:

  • Kidney function: Key organs for sustaining life; responsible for reproduction, growth and development, and maturation; involved with the lungs in water metabolism and respiration; connected with bones, teeth, ears, and head hair.
  • Symptoms of kidney imbalance: Frequent urination, urinary incontinence, night sweats, dry mouth, poor short-term memory, low back pain, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, other ear conditions, premature gray hair, hair loss, and osteoporosis
  • Kidney conditions: Kidney yin deficiency, kidney yang deficiency

Kidney Rules bones, teeth and hair and the mental emotional component it fear. Can lead to worry and anxieties. Linked to will power, a balanced kidney type would have optimistic realistic long term life goals and feel life has a purpose when in balance, out of balance, they might feel directionless or lacking in follow through.

Water Emotion: Fear

According to TCM theory, fear is related to the Kidneys and the water element. The Kidneys are the root of our constitutional strength and are responsible for the natural unfolding of the life cycle. They’re the storehouse of Jing, which is often translated as Pre-Heaven Essence and is basically our genetic material; it’s what we come into the world with, passed down from our ancestors. Jing is precious stuff that can’t be replaced, so the energy for our everyday activities should come from food and air. If we don’t nourish ourselves properly, the body’s reserve of Jing gets depleted, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

So what does this have to do with fear? Prolonged fear, or sudden fright or shock, will damage the Kidney system and deplete the Jing. Conversely, excessive fearfulness or a tendency to frighten easily are symptomatic of weakness in the Kidney system. We can’t banish fear from our lives, but we can pay attention to it. Because the Kidneys store our ancestral inheritance of Jing, in this way they also contain the seed of our destiny. And entwined with that seed of destiny is fear. Fear can warn you of danger, but it can also point you in the right direction. If we listen, if we spend some time with it and try to learn from it, fear can point us toward our highest purpose.

Food Associations: Kidney – Water Salty Joints, Back, hair, bones, teeth, hearing
Seaweeds, miso, sea salt, tamari, pickles, ocean fish, shellfish

Wood: Liver – Anger

Wood Organ: Liver Spring Season

In TCM, the liver is associated with anger, depression, and the below physical symptoms:

  • Emotions: Anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, and “flying off the handle”
    Liver function: Involved in the smooth flow of energy and blood throughout the body; regulates bile secretion and stores blood; relates to the tendons, nails, and eyes.
  • Symptoms of liver imbalance: Breast distension, menstrual pain, headache, irritability, inappropriate anger, dizziness, dry, red eyes, and other eye conditions, and tendonitis
  • Liver conditions: Liver qi stagnation, liver fire

Wood Emotion: Anger

According to TCM theory, anger is related to the Liver and the wood element. The wood element is all about growth and expansive movement, and the Liver directs this internally, both physically and emotionally. Anger is the natural response to any interruption in a liver’s mission to move and grow. At the same time, an excess of anger or repressed anger inhibits the Liver’s function, leading to further emotional imbalance and feelings of frustration, resentment, aggression and depression. Imbalance in the Liver system manifests physically with headaches, waking up between 1-3AM, and tension in the neck and shoulders.

Anger can injure the body when it’s either vented excessively or repressed. But the value of anger is that it gets our attention when things are out of balance in our body and in our world. Protesting, speaking out against injustice, and demanding action are all signs of the Liver doing its job in response to anger. Anger drives us forward and compels us to change and grow, as individuals and as a collective.
Liver – Sour – eyes, tendons and ligaments
Pomegranate, vinegar, lemon, limes, fermented foods
Too much sour injures the tendons and ligaments.

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