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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men.
This fact alone proves that our heart health is central to life itself.
Western medicine focuses on heart health mostly from a physical standpoint. Our heart is the center of our circulatory system—pumping blood throughout our bodies and carrying oxygen and nutrients to all of our cells.
Herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, speaks of the heart’s importance in our body’s ecosystem. She says, “For us to feel energized and vibrantly alive, our blood, our personal river of life, must flow swiftly and undisturbed through its waterways…”
With such wide-spread influence in the body, it’s no wonder that the heart touches nearly all aspects of our lives. Thinking of the heart, feelings of love and connections also come to mind.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), being wholehearted, acknowledges the emotional and spiritual realms of the heart along with the physical. Considered the “root of life” and “seat of intelligence,” our hearts serve our whole being. Shen is the spirit of the heart. Shen plays a major role in intelligence and creativity. Shen Chi is the heart spirit energy, which circulates throughout the body. Shen Chi is nourished by our relationships and connections with people and the natural world.
When we nourish our heart, we are nourishing life itself.
Supporting and Developing Shen
Spending time with loved ones and practicing gratitude is a wonderful way to support and develop Shen. Beginning a gratitude journal and recounting a few things you are grateful for at the end of the day is a helpful practice to explore. Acts of kindness towards oneself and others is another great way to develop Shen. Connect to the sources that give you life—water, food, nature, connections, etc.
In TCM, our emotions are also an indicator of our Shen. When we are overly emotional (our emotions may feel “out of control”), it is a sign that our Shen is imbalanced. According to TCM, every organ is associated with an emotion. You might be able to guess which emotion is associated with the heart… joy. When we experience joy, our heart energy is fed. When we experience a lack of joy, the heart energy becomes depleted; which in turn, can lead to sleep issues, lack of clarity, and in extreme cases mania. Paying attention to one’s emotions and practicing the open expression of oneself can help bring Shen into balance.
Another indication of Shen health can be seen by viewing the tongue. TCM considers the tongue to be the root of the heart. Heart health is reflected on the tongue, particularly on the tip. A bright red tip indicates that there is excess heat in the heart, which can cause symptoms such as sleep issues, palpitations, red complexion and diminished ability to taste. This excessive heat can be caused by imbalanced emotions.
Herbal Shen Support
Traditionally called “the mushroom of immortality,” Reishi (Lucidium ganoderma) is one of the most renowned Shen tonics. Known as Ling Zhi in Chinese medicine, it has long been classified as a superior herb. In fact, the first Chinese herbal text (Shen Nong’s Pharmacopeia), which was written around 2,400 years ago, refers to Reishi as a tonic that promotes health and enhances life.
Scientific studies now give insight into the anti-aging effects of Reishi, which the ancients knew about all along! Reishi contains polysaccharides, which have antioxidant and immunomodulatory (immune balancing) effects in the body.
Considered an adaptogen, this mushroom addresses the negative impacts of stress, such as inflammation, damaged blood vessels, hormonal imbalances, and decreased energy levels. Being a tonic, Reishi is regarded as safe for everyday and long-term use.
Research shows that the heart, is an organ that is particularly susceptible to injury due to the aging process (which can be premature and worsened by stress), can benefit from the antioxidant properties of reishi. The triterpenes found in the reishi mushroom have displayed the ability to lower blood-pressure and can benefit blood-clotting and cholesterol levels. This is most likely because triterpenes play a role in decreasing inflammation while simultaneously restoring hormonal balance. Did you know that high blood pressure and cholesterol issues can sometimes be caused by hormonal issues? Well, the good news is that Reishi can also help resolve those issues by addressing their root causes.
If you have ever seen the albizia tree (also known as a Mimosa) flower, you will understand why Chinese medicine refers to it as “The Tree of Happiness.” Its bright pink and whimsical flowers, speak to the joy this plant brings (seriously, it looks like a tree straight out of a Dr. Suess book). Its Chinese name is He Huan Hua, which translates to “happy get-together flower”.
It is no wonder that Albizia (Alibizia julibrissin) has been a revered Shen tonic for thousands of years. In herbal medicine, taste is considered an important aspect of a plant’s medicinal qualities. Albizia has a sweet taste, which indicates nourishment. Used in TCM and Ayurveda, this herb is known for calming and uplifting the spirit. In TCM it is believed that the albizia invigorates the blood and is connected to the heart energy. Studies show that it improves blood circulation and that it has anti-oxidant properties. It is used for unbalanced emotional states (indicating Shen imbalance), such as depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Longan Berry (Dimocarpus longan Lour) has a delightfully sweet taste. It is known for building the blood and nourishing Shen—bringing a sense of deep relaxation. The Chinese name long yan rou translates to “Dragon eyes”. It actually looks like an eye. The flesh of the fruit is translucent, and it surrounds a black shiny seed (pupil, if you will).
In TCM, Longan Berry works through the heart meridian and has a longstanding history of being used as a heart and blood tonic. Research shows that the longan berry may be particularly helpful to the elderly, as the flavonoids in the fruit can help protect blood vessels and prevent the hardening of arteries.
Longan Berry is particularly high in iron, which enriches the blood. Iron is needed for the transportation of oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. In the first Chinese herbal text (Shen Nong’s Pharmacopeia), it claims the Longan Berry can help people lose weight and stay young. Science now shows that it contains antioxidant constituents that help to inhibit aging. Longan berry is also touted as being beneficial for the mind and for improving memory.
As a Shen herb, Longan Berry has long been used for its calming effects. It can be helpful in relieving anxiety and insomnia and in creating an overall sense of calmness.
The Chinese call this herb Jiagulon, and it is known as “The Herb of Immortality.” Its strong adaptogen properties can be credited to being high in saponins, called “gypenosides.” The well-known adaptogen, ginseng, contains saponins known as “ginsenosides.” Some of the saponins in Gynostemma can actually convert to ginsenosides when ingested! Gynostemma is more abundant and easier to grow, making it cheaper and sometimes more sustainable than ginseng depending on sourcing. In fact, this herb was used by the common people of China, while Ginseng was used by the rich. While they certainly are different plants, they have some similar healing properties—both being powerful adaptogens.
Gynostemma has been shown to enhance circulation. It is capable of balancing cholesterol levels and stabilizing blood pressure. Studies show it has the ability to release nitric oxide in the body, which relaxes the blood vessels and encourages general relaxation. It is known as the “Plant of Immortality” for a reason. Its ability to increase antioxidant activity in the body lends to anti-aging effects.
Being a Shen herb, it can both balance and restore the body. It’s sweet and slightly bitter taste makes for a lovely tea.
While perhaps classified more as a food than an herb, beet juice powder can be a wonderful supplement. Support your heart beat by taking beet powder. Beets provide dietary nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide increases circulation by relaxing the blood vessels. This relaxation influences the entire body and creates a state of emotional calmness.
Beet juice powder is a common supplement used by athletes (due to its nitric oxide effects) to increase stamina and combat fatigue. Nitric oxide is also important for cognitive function and the ability to have and maintain an erection. Overall, increased blood flow helps increase oxygen levels and aids in the recycling of waste throughout the body, for optimal functioning.
The red color of beets may have you thinking about the heart and blood. This color is indicative of phytonutrients that have antioxidant properties. As the other Shen herbs discussed, beets also have anti-aging properties. Their high iron content contributes to their blood building properties. Beet juice powder has a sweet taste and makes for an enjoyable drink when mixed with water.
For the Love of Shen
Our hearts are central to life and to our experience of joy. In taking care of our hearts and supporting Shen we open ourselves up to the beauty of life’s experiences. What brings your heart joy? How can you express your gratitude? By paying attention to your emotions and practicing open expression, you can make empowering choices regarding how to best support your Shen.
Thankfully, nature provides us with the nourishing herbs for Shen. May you always feel connected to your heart, nature, and community.
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Ebrahimzadeh, Mohammad Ali, et al. Taylor & Francis Online, Drug and Chemical Toxicology, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01480545.2017.1413106?journalCode=idct20.
Eggebeen, J, et al. “One Week of Daily Dosing With Beetroot Juice Improves Submaximal Endurance and Blood Pressure in Older Patients With Heart Failure and Preserved Ejection Fraction.” JACC. Heart failure., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26874390.
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