Transformation. Change. Letting Go. Moving On. These might not be words that come to mind when you think of the Large Intestine. But they are just as connected to that system as are our bowels and our digestive health.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Large Intestine lately.
This might seem a weird thing to say, but I’m an acupuncturist, so I think about the body and its systems and functions a lot. I also had someone close to me recently need to have colon surgery to remove a precancerous lesion. This put the intestines at the front of my mind. But more than the physical organ inside our bodies, I’ve been thinking about the energy system that supports that organ and its functions.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Large Intestine energy system, like all of our systems, is defined functionally as opposed to anatomically. It is defined by the role the energy plays in the body, not by a physical organ or tissue. However, the Large Intestine system actually correlates fairly strongly with the actual physical Large Intestine organ in our bodies. (This is not always the case.) The Large Intestine energy system (“Da Chang” or “Great Intestine”), is in charge of functions in the body such as receiving waste material from the Small Intestine system, absorbing fluid content, and excreting the waste. Understandably, we often treat the Large Intestine system when patients present with symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, or lower abdominal cramping.
This is where most of us stop thinking about the Large Intestine, if we think about it at all. But Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that the Large Intestine energy system is SO MUCH MORE than just regulating our bowels – and it is when we can begin to understand these other aspects that we can actually affect real change in our health.
First off, the Large Intestine energy is paired with the Lung energy. We can therefore support the Large Intestine energy when treating a Lung pathology, such as an acute or chronic cough. Many times people get sick with a cold and then it transfers to their digestive system. This can at least in part be explained by the relationship that exists between the Large Intestine and the Lung. The Qi of both the Large Intestine and the Lung needs to descend to be healthy – when Lung Qi doesn’t descend, we cough. When Large Intestine Qi doesn’t descend, we get constipated.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is all about relationships. The Large Intestine energy also has a special relationship with the Stomach energy, in that they are both designated as “Yang Ming” or “Yang Brightness”. Yang, as we have mentioned, is the active, hot, fiery, expansive parts of our being. (As opposed to Yin, which is the passive, watery, cool, inward parts.) Yang Brightness, as the name implies, are strong Yang energy systems. This means that they are easily affected by heat. This heat may be generated by long-term patterns of stagnant energy, a poor diet, or physically or emotionally toxic environments. The Yang Ming designation also means that we can effectively use these systems to clear pathological heat from the body. Some of the best acupuncture points in the body to clear excess heat are on the Large Intestine meridian. One of the ways to clear excessive heat (such as a high fever) with herbal medicine is to use herbs that stimulate the Large Intestine to promote a bowel movement and bring the fever rapidly down.
Now to the most fascinating part of the Large Intestine energy system. As you may know, Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at the interaction and connection between the physical, mental, emotional, and psycho-spiritual aspects of human existence. Pathology in any given energy system can manifest in any of these levels, or multiple levels. An emotional imbalance in the Large Intestine energy could manifest as chronic constipation, but it could also manifest as an emotional tendency to not let things go. Or chronic constipation could lead to certain destructive patterns of negative emotions. These aspects are not separate and distinct, but different manifestations of the same core imbalance.
The Large Intestine energy’s number one function in the body is to let go of those things that don’t serve us. Physically, it lets go of waste after our upper digestive system has taken all the necessary nutrients out of the food we eat. On an emotional level, the Large Intestine does the exact same thing. Healthy Large Intestine energy allows us to let go of patterns of negative thinking, destructive emotions, and spiritual blockages that we create that prevent us from being our best. When the function of the Large Intestine energy is compromised, people have a hard time moving on from difficult situations, or hold very tightly to emotions they know are harming them. This holding on can also manifest as an unwillingness to share emotions or be open with others – the phenomenon of “bottling up” emotions for years very often leads to chronic constipation.
As mentioned, the Large Intestine is a Metal element. Metal is associated with the emotion of grief. We frequently see grief damage the Lung system (the other Metal energy center) – a common example is when someone comes down with pneumonia or bronchitis or even a common cold after losing a loved one or the loss of a relationship. But grief can effect the Large Intestine, too, particularly when one becomes attached to the grief itself, or too attached to a memory to move on.
This attachment indicates Large Intestine energy involvement, for other negative emotions, too. A pathology in the Large Intestine energy may make one too attached to anger, or fear, or possessiveness – and manifest as an inability to make a change.
The Huang Di Neijing, one of the oldest texts in Chinese Medicine, speaks to the spiritual and emotional importance of the Large Intestine: “The Large Intestine is the official of the transmission of the Way, change and transformation emerge from it.” Change and transformation come from being open to the new, and ready and willing to let go of the old. There is only room for new and positive transformation when we are able to move on from the patterns that hold us to where we are now. And it is the health of the Large Intestine energy that allows us to do that.