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Did you know that nourishing your “Shen” is a major key to calming your spirit (also known as your “heart-mind”), in order to achieve more balanced emotions, deeper connection with others, the ability to be more present in daily life and relationships, and even how you can access better sleep?

The concept of Shen in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has fascinated me for ages, and working with “Shen tonic” herbs over the last few years has helped me learn how to be more present with myself and others, especially after years of feeling uncomfortable being in my body — a feeling I believe many of us relate to.

Shen tonics nourish the Heart and slow us down, so that we may regain equilibrium and feel settled on a deep spirit-level. They also nourish the physical heart, supporting foundations of health like proper blood circulation, healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a vibrant, hydrated skin complexion.

Here’s why these herbs are so important for those us who feel flighty, lost or ungrounded emotionally — or who feel cold and are experiencing poor circulation physically. Shen tonics are instrumental for when you’re ready to plug back into your heart space to regain your inner fire, courage, and direction in life.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE HEART MERIDIAN IN CHINESE MEDICINE

As per usual, the “Heart” meridian in TCM doesn’t refer to the organ of the heart alone (which is why it’s capitalized to denote an entire organ system).

In fact, the Heart:

  • encompasses our entire vascular system, from our tiniest capillaries to our largest veins and arteries
  • opens into (and thus, feeds and nourishes) the face and tongue (think a healthy, rosy complexion = a strong Heart and spirit) and governs our speech or the way that we speak and communicate
  • controls our ability to sweat and release (when imbalanced we sweat too much or too little)
  • houses the mind, memory, mental activity, and sleep
  • is in “charge” of our ability to feel joy amongst life’s sadness
  • overall: regulates the circulatory system, blood distribution to tissues, pericardium, small intestine, tongue, speech, triple burner, face and facial expressions

The Heart in TCM is the king of all organs, and other organs will always give their energy to help the heart maintain its balance. This is why we often say in herbalism that the true root of a problem or symptom isn’t necessarily where it’s immediately presenting or where we think it is. Many other organ system imbalances actually affect and weaken the heart.

In the five element chart below, you’ll see that the Liver is the mother of the Heart. When a person is under continuous mental stress and is overworked with no time to rest, process or release, Liver Qi becomes compromised because one of its jobs is to process and regulate emotions.

When that chronic stress is experienced over and over again, stagnant Liver Qi leads to Liver Heat, which causes us to become bitter or resentful. Then, the Liver as the mother, cannot offer proper support to the Heart as the child.

This affects what we associate with heart health — blood flow and circulation — because the Liver “stores” blood for the Heart. This true Liver disharmony may manifest in other symptoms that present as heart issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and again, poor blood circulation or cold extremities. However, getting to the root of the issue requires treating what’s taxing the Liver (aka stress and lack of connection with the self and nature to process and release), rather than solely treating the Heart with herbs for cholesterol etc.

Funny enough, the herbs that often work so well for achieving healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels are actually liver herbs, like artichoke leaf! This is the perfect example of the Liver (mother) Heart (child) connection. Another example is the fact that stress and anger (which again, stress the Liver meridian in Chinese Medicine) can cause our blood pressure to skyrocket. Heat from the Liver goes right to the Heart.

While all organs are associated with specific emotions in TCM (like the stress and anger above affecting the Liver), the Heart is actually associated with a positive emotion: joy. But again, because the Heart is the “King of the Organs”, which commands all of the other organs and emotions, it’s not always easy to find that joy in life — everything else has to be nourished and in place first.

The other organ system emotions of…

  • grief (which affects the Lungs),
  • fear (which affects the Kidneys),
  • worry (which affects the Spleen),
  • anger (which affects the Liver)

…must all filter through our Heart. The issue is that when we experience any of these emotions in excess, it often leaves little room for joy.

Excessive anger (manifesting as Liver Qi Stagnation -> Liver Heat -> Liver Yang Rising) tends to rise up and affect the Heart directly, creating the dynamic we talk about in this post.

On the other side of the coin, we see on the same five element chart, the Heart is the mother organ to the Spleen/Stomach pairing (child). Thus, the energy of the Stomach meridian, which is heavily affected by both our diet and the emotion of worry or rumination, must also be in balance for the Heart energy to be balanced.

Prolonged worry and stress to the child (Stomach/Spleen aka digestion) affects the mother organ because it is the mother’s job to help balance the struggling organ in need. The mother does this by taking her own Heart Qi to supply the Stomach/Spleen — which when out of balance, is using a ton of energy/Qi to process and digest not just food but constant worry and looping thoughts. In this case, when the child is weakened by worry or a diet lacking in nutrients and vital Qi, the mother (Heart) can weaken and experience palpitations, shortness of breath, feeling cold, fatigue, restless sleep, and/or a feeling of despair and depression. This can manifest as a sense of helplessness or complete indifference to life.

While this originated in the Spleen (child), it is affecting the Heart (mother), so we have to protect the child to protect the Heart.

THE HEART & SMALL INTESTINE

TCM also pairs organ systems to ensure a complete circuit within each one. Every main “yang” organ that leads the system – in this case, the Heart – is paired and works side by side with its teammate “yin” organ. For the Heart meridian, that’s the Small Intestine.

The Heart expresses movement upwards and outwards (expressing our speech and ideas, our joy through laughter), while the Small Intestine meridian expresses movement downwards (the assimilation and elimination of food). We see this pairing play out in real life, as when we are experiencing shock, stress or heartache (all of which affect the heart) most of us simultaneously experience upset in the GI tract: stomach pain or nausea, a lack of appetite, and even vomiting when something really hurts the emotional Heart.

I remember breaking up with a boyfriend once and being so heartbroken that my usual robust appetite had completely vanished — I was nauseous at even the thought of food. This is how deeply the Heart and Small Intestine are connected, and how our emotions have a true physical effect in acute and chronic illness, even if we can’t necessarily see or tangibly measure them.

In TCM, the Small Intestine plays both a physical and a mental role, and has the job of separating the “clear”, wise, or logical thoughts from the confused or turbid ones. This is another way the Small Intestine is connected to the Heart, as the Heart houses that Spirit/Shen (heart-mind) and is in charge of of our overall mental health. Clear judgement and a clear heart, depends on the ability of the Small Intestine to separate the pure from the impure.

WHY HEART HEALTH IS SO IMPORTANT

Remember, the Heart is the king — and other organ systems will sacrifice their energy when the Heart is out of balance.

Overall, our Heart meridian is so important because it represents the very act of being able to feel truly alive, to feel the blood coursing through your veins and be able to experience the full spectrum of human emotions, especially joy and the excitement of possibility. Thus, a healthy Heart is essential for combating sadness and depression that can come when we lose the fire and courage to explore and experience joyful connection.

From the lively beat of the physical heart in our chest, to the healthy flow of blood through our veins to the tips of our fingers and toes, to our mental ability to stay present and focused, looking those we love in the eyes, and even our ability to feel emotionally whole, settled, and complete on our own — all of these things are governed by the Heart meridian. They require not only a healthy physical heart, but the healthy processing of emotions, heartache, and stress.

A healthy Heart meridian also gives way to a healthy “Shen”, and vice versa. Nourishing your Shen with calming activities such as meditation gives way to a healthy heart. It goes both ways. Your Shen is the part of your spirit that is housed by the Heart system, and it’s where one should look when they’re feeling lost, directionless, unsettled, and disconnected.

WHAT IS OUR “SHEN”? THE PART OF OUR SPIRIT THAT’S HOUSED IN THE HEART

Each organ system in TCM is related to an aspect of the human spirit:

  • our intellect (Spleen/the Yi),
  • our willpower (Kidneys/the Zhi),
  • our ‘psyche’ or perspective; the way that we uniquely “see” and envision our lives; our creativity (Liver/the Hun)
  • our instinct (Lungs/the Po)
  • our soul’s consciousness or Spirit (Heart/the Shen)

These are the five types of “spirit-minds” that branch-off from someone’s central, all-encompassing personality and overall Spirit. The Shen is the most important, as it governs all the other aspects, just like how the heart is the King of all the other organs.

Shen can be translated as “Spirit” or “Mind” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and essentially means our consciousness, the way we think and lead from our true heart’s calling and purpose, our mental health, our vitality, and our ability to be fully present and connect.

“The Shen is in charge of our identity and capacity for self-awareness, but also, how we view and interact with others: how we orient ourselves in the world around us. The Shen is essential for integrating our psychic and emotional life since it governs perception, insight, ideas, the ability to extend beyond the Self (form relationships), determine our values, morality, and wisdom. The Mind is what bridges our intuition and inspiration: it allows one to recognize their truth and callings so they can show up in the world as their most authentic self.” – EmpowerChiroAcu.com

Shen is the embodiment of our “soul” and can be seen in our eyes.

“The Shen is said to be the “most visible” of all the spirits, evident in how one carries themselves both in public and in conversation: the sparkle (or dullness) in one’s eyes, the capacity to maintain eye contact, as well as the use of clear/logical speech (since the Heart is the root of the tongue in TCM). It is the Shen that calculates appropriate behavior in order to “click” with others and foster mutual understanding.” – EmpowerChiroAcu.com

Shen lives in the Heart, where it retires to sleep in order to be nourished during the night. If the Shen is disturbed or is not being nourished by healthy blood flow either from the Liver (which stores blood) or Spleen (which creates it from food), one may experience an inability to fall asleep, restless sleep, or frequent waking. “Heat” within the body may also disturb the Shen, which is where we an use cooling herbal medicine to clear heat and soothe.

WHAT A BALANCED VS. IMBALANCED HEART + SHEN LOOKS LIKE

When the Heart meridian is imbalanced and Shen is disturbed, one may experience any or several of the following:

Palpitations, shortness of breath, excessive sweating or night sweats (or the opposite: an inability to sweat upon exertion), insomnia, emotional stress, sadness, pale face, tired, feeling cold (especially in the extremities), dull complexion, disconnection, difficulty expressing oneself, hyper-vigilance or anxiety, confusion, poor memory, poor self-awareness, inappropriate or somewhat incoherent speech, rash behavior, a hard time relating to others, reduced capacity for compassion and empathy, irrational thoughts, pain in arm or shoulder, blue or purple lips & nails, mental restlessness, talking incessantly, speaking inappropriately or carelessly, disturbed sleep, etc.

When the Heart meridian is healthy and balanced and the Shen is vibrant, one may experience:

Excellent blood circulation, a vibrant complexion with good blood flow and bright eyes, bright blood flow to lips, healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, an energetic disposition and rhythmic, forceful pulse signaling vitality and strong metabolism, restful sleep with the ability to fall asleep easily and sleep soundly rather than the mind “floating”, the ability to speak the truth with grace, honesty, and a clear and strong voice, sharp insight, strong self-awareness, good judgement, flowing ideas, alert and strong eye contact with others, strong sense of morality, clear speech, feeling deeply connected to your inner essence, feeling in touch with your consciousness, presence, and the meaning in moments, the ability to give and receive warmth, laughter and enthusiasm.

The Heart/Shen are disturbed by:

Quite simply: habits that don’t nourish us. Mindless scrolling on phones, staying home far away from nature and community, participating in a power struggle, aggressively arguing, competition, being judgmental, binging (on anything) to fill the void or numb, over-indulgence of substance (drugs, caffeine, sugar), isolation, distraction, an unclear direction in life, an upbringing that may not have felt nourishing on one or several levels (which can be remedied by creating a nourishing home environment for yourself and building/connecting with a new support system and community), lack of love in one’s environment, spicy food, excess fat and sugar consumption, fried foods.

The Heart/Shen are nourished by:

Meditation, stretching, visualization, breath work, taking time to be quiet and silent, soft and nourishing music, taking time to be completely alone, consistent and compassionate self-reflection, a simple and nourishing diet with lots of color and variety, recalling and reflecting upon our dreams, cultivating self-awareness through books and healthy conversation, journalling emotions, choosing and cultivating a nourishing environment, qigong, staying connected to and working towards one’s purpose or destiny, cultivating balance between all organs and emotions, and very important: good friends. Unhooking from the “outer world” (social media) and hooking into our inner world; becoming friends with ourselves.

HERBS FOR THE SHEN

When taking a multi-faceted approach to “getting your Shen back online”, herbs like Rose take care of the heat that can disturb it, and blood building herbs and foods like Hawthorn Berry then nourish the blood and to ultimately feed the Shen. Foods that nourish the blood, separate from herbal medicine, include parsley, iron rich foods, leafy greens, eggs, organ meats, dates, and more.

Our favorite Shen-calming-and-nourishing herbs are a mix of nerviness, blood builders, and even adaptogens, that ultimately help to strengthen the heart and settle the spirit and mind.

  1. Rose – Rose is a beautiful, medicinal plant with a heavenly scent that truly does gladden the heart and ground the Shen, allowing us to be present with our own emotions and those we love so dearly. The energetic quality of Rose is one of love and self acceptance, rekindling a passion for life. Rose allows one to be open and resilient rather than bitter and closed off; to develop a stronger, more grounded perspective around our grief and pain so that one may be able to find courage, meaning, and connection through the madness. Rose encourages us to speak our emotions out loud — to be with them, to see them, to journal them, to move them physically even by softening and releasing tension within the physical body that so often prevents us from being as active as we’d like to be. She also acts on the lack of motivation to move that may be present when one is so disconnected from their heart and emotions, feeling stuck, lost, or defeated. You can learn all about this potent plant medicine right here.
  2. Holy Basil – A brain adaptogen and Shen tonic, this aromatic herb works to restore balance within the emotions. Tulsi is often used—either on its own or within an adaptogenic blend—to help support a healthy stress response. It addresses adrenal health and HPA axis balance, the effects of occasional stress (especially when it comes to a healthy inflammatory response), occasional tension, low spirits, and cognitive health. In Ayurveda, this herb is considered ‘Sattvic’ in nature, which helps increase calm clarity of the mind, harmony in the spirit, and overall spiritual illumination. Notably, Tulsi supports the heart chakra, which can bring about clarity around our true nature and soul purpose. Learn more here.
  3. Mimosa – aka Silk Tree, her Latin name is Albizia julibrissin. Mimosa is the “collective happiness flower,” used to support uplifting the mood and calming tension within the body and heart. I find that it works beautifully to help restore tranquility to a bruised spirit, and to help us move through grief and heartache.
  4. Hawthorn – Crataegus is one of the most nourishing Blood and Shen tonic herbs we have available to strengthen the physical cardiovascular system while nourishing the emotional heart and spirit to create a sense of balance and security. It’s used much like rose to heal, open, and protect the energetic heart. I specifically use Hawthorn for Shen disturbances brought upon by Blood deficiency, where the sleep is affected and the emotions feel restless at night.

WHERE TO FIND SHEN-TONIC HERBS FOR THE HEART

In our Flower for My Love heart-opening, Shen-tonic, mind-calming nervine blend, we chose to pair the lovely Rose with Mimosa, the happiness flower, along with Passionflower in order to help clear heat and and get us out of those looping thought patterns. This tincture is designed to nourish the heart and settle the Shen, so that one can move through life from a place of greater presence and consciousness. Find this in our connection collection for the open heart: launching 2/12/22.

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