Most of us acknowledge that our heart is the body organ most closely linked to emotion. The terms heartache, heartbroken, sweetheart, or heartstring come to mind. More often than not, the heart is not associated with subtlety; the emotions it embodies always seem to be on opposite poles, either extreme joy or intense sadness.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the heart has a physical responsibility which is somewhat similar to its roles in Western medicine. In TCM, the heart controls the sweat and the blood vessels. Profuse perspiration is an indication that the heart needs to be supported and built up (tonified). The organ also can affect speech because it also controls the tongue. Signs of a deficient heart include speech difficulties such as loss of words and stuttering.

However, the heart has a main responsibility which is to control the shen and house the mind. “Shen” can be determined by the general health and well being of the mind. You will know a good spirited and healthy person just by looking at their eyes. Their eyes have a sense of health and a certain bright lucidity that sparkles from within. For acupuncturists, this person would be acknowledged as having good shen.

On the other hand, there are people with eyes that when you look at them seem to be cloudy and dull or shifty (their eyes tend to shift from side to side). These people have a poor or weak shen. This unhealthy shen can sometimes be caused by distraction or mild depression; it can also indicate mental imbalance if the shen is severely unwell.

The heart is both the victim and cause of extreme joy. A lot of people would consider extreme joy as a good thing, but it can lead to ADHD or manic depression. ADHD is sometimes due to the heart not controlling the mind properly.

Some wise people believe that the job of the heart is to maintain proper timing in life. An example of this would be a person wearing a bathing suit. If this person wears a bathing suit for a business meeting, this indicates that his heart was not him giving the correct information on what to appropriately wear on a specific occasion. But if he wears the suit in summer in a swimming pool, his heart is doing its job. This means, the heart’s responsibility is to maintain the correct behavior for the appropriate situation.

Dr. Vickery is a licensed acupuncturist in Tarzana, CA., and the founder and clinical director of Vickery Health and Wellness.