Observed as American Heart Month and bisected by Valentine’s Day, February is a time to honor the heart and all it represents. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other cultural contexts, the heart is viewed as the nexus of the mind, body, and spirit, a portal through which we experience the divine in ourselves and in others. Though romantic love is often celebrated this time of year, the heart is a vessel for love in many precious forms, connecting us to friends, family, and the world around us.
For centuries, people have employed heart-nurturing practices, herbs, and herbal formulas to encourage physical and emotional balance and resilience. In a remarkable number of cases, robust scientific research has affirmed these customs and remedies, corroborating their capacities to restore, nourish, and sustain cardiovascular vitality.
In honor of this entity that keeps us alive while embodying that for which we live, let’s explore the traditional views and remedies associated with the Heart in TCM and beyond.
The Heart in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine associates the Heart with emotion. A healthy Heart is correlated with joy and summertime (a season when many of us find easy access to joy by moving our bodies in nature). The mental/emotional aspect of the Heart, known as shen, encompasses consciousness, emotional experience, memory, thought, and spiritual insight. Shen may also be used as an overarching term to describe the intersection of all the body’s energetic aspects and their corresponding organs: shen (Heart), hun (Liver), po (Lungs), yi (Spleen), and zhi (Kidneys).
As in Western medicine, in TCM, the physical Heart is associated with the circulation and regulation of Blood. Physically, disorders of the Heart can manifest as abnormalities of the Blood and Vessels, including blockages, coldness of the extremities, insufficient nourishment of tissues, and irregular bleeding.
Many classically recognized patterns of Heart imbalance include both mental/emotional (like worry and irritability) and physical symptoms (like paleness or disordered bleeding), signaling the intrinsic links between the multiple aspects of Heart health, tangible and not. By identifying shen imbalances both spiritual and physical, TCM practitioners can prescribe remedies and behavior changes to restore equilibrium and help patients find comfort and peace.
TCM Heart Remedies
The Heart is associated with the bitter flavor in TCM, and many of the herbs used to balance and moderate Heart-related imbalances (in both Chinese and Western herbalism) possess a bitter flavor. According to TCM frameworks, bitter cools and tempers the excitation associated with excess and intemperate heat, which may manifest as racing thoughts, irritability, anger, sleeplessness, or worry. When working with clients or teaching about herbs for psycho-emotional Heart conditions, I often recommend formulas that combine energizing and mood-elevating nervines and adaptogens with bitter herbs for full-spectrum support.
While often touted as digestive remedies, many classic Western bitter herbs offer profound therapeutic benefits for the physical Heart muscle and vascular system, and they can function within TCM frameworks to provide multidimensional Heart support. Nutritive bitters like dandelion, yarrow, and artichoke have been used by herbalists for centuries to help regulate pressure and repair the vascular system.
HERBS FOR HEART HEALTH
- Cacao has affinity for the Heart in multiple ways. It is well-known for its impressive antioxidant content, making it a tasty way to combat cardiovascular and cellular damage in the body. From a TCM perspective, it also tends to the spiritual Heart, moving Liver qi to facilitate access to joy and inspire passion in formulas like our Penetrate the Heart Tincture.
- Cinnamon is a warming ingredient that stimulates circulation. In TCM formulas like Gui Zhi Jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang Plus, cinnamon helps move Blood and vital energy through the body to harmonize body, mind, and Spirit.
- Linden leaf and flower offers nourishment and tranquility for the physical and emotional aspects of the Heart. In our Suan Zao Ren Tang Plus extract, we combine linden’s comforting and stabilizing abilities with a traditional Chinese formula known to clear heat, nourish the Blood and calm the Spirit.
- Hawthorn’s berries, leaves, and flowers have been shown to support cardiovascular and digestive health, and the plant demonstrates a strong affinity for the emotional Heart as well. You can find hawthorn in our G.I. Feel Better Tincture, modeled after classic TCM "Five Stagnations" formulas that resolve stasis of food, heat, dampness, qi, and Blood to facilitate ease and comfort. It also plays a leading role in our Penetrate the Heart Tincture, formulated to fortify cardiovascular tissues and elevate mood.
- Motherwort is probably best known for easing menstrual discomfort and menopausal transitions, but its calming and balancing actions offer Heart benefits as well. This makes it an excellent botanical for two classic TCM manifestations of Heart disturbances: bleeding irregularities and emotional distress. In our formulas like Full Moon and Season's Change, motherwort exerts a steadying influence during times of fluctuation, helping to regulate the Blood and quell disturbances of the Spirit. It is recognized specifically for the experience of heart palpitations.
- Skullcap is useful for remedying emotional Heart complaints, such as sleep disturbances and mild anxiety. Combined with other nervines like California poppy and milky oat tops, it helps quiet the mind and cool Heart and Liver heat in formulas like Chai Hu Jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang Plus.
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Written by Benjamin Zappin, L.Ac.: Five Flavors Herbs co-founder Benjamin Zappin is one of the Bay Area's most respected and knowledgeable herbalists and a licensed acupuncturist. With over 20 years of experience, Benjamin synthesizes his deep knowledge of Chinese and western herbal medicine with modern medical perspectives to create effective herbal formulas and treat patients. He serves patients through Paeonia Integrative Medicine.