About Lynn

lynn jaffeeLynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of the book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health, a clear and concise explanation of Chinese medicine for the lay person. She is co-author of the book, The BodyWise Woman, a personal health manual for physically active women and girls. Read more about Lynn...

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The Meaning of Dreams in Chinese Medicine

Dreams can be crazy things.  In them, you can morph seamlessly from one place to another, interact with someone you haven’t seen in decades, and do seemingly impossible feats.

We dream in symbols, and it’s generally believed that our dreams are our subconscious way of working out the emotions and issues of our lives.  That’s why when you dream of Great Aunt Millie, who passed away back in the seventies, you may actually be dreaming about that kindly but manipulative older coworker who’s making your life miserable.

Not long ago, I had a vivid and memorable dream that made me start thinking about not only it’s meaning, but also the meaning of dreams in Chinese medicine.  In my dream, I was diving off a diving board into a pool.  The most outstanding element of the dream was that once I left the diving board and hit the water, the entire dream went into very slow motion.  So slow, that I could take note of every single detail of my body entering the water from the first touch with my fingertips to my slightly crossed, but pointed toes. True to my nature, I remember being impatient at how slow I was going. In addition, both of my parents were in the dream, including my dad, who passed away almost ten years ago. Weird!

So, how does Chinese medicine weigh in on the meaning of dreams?  Well, the first and simplest answer is that issues with sleep and dreaming are related to your Chinese Heart.  Your Heart in Chinese medicine houses something called the Shen, which embodies your conscious thought, memory, subconscious, and soul.  When your Heart is strong, it is anchored at night, and it will be easy for you to fall asleep, stay asleep and have appropriate dreams.  However, when your Heart is weak, it will “float” at night producing symptoms such as insomnia, early waking, and vivid or disturbing dreams.

For more on the meaning of dreams in Chinese medicine, we have to look back at some of the ancient texts, written hundreds, and even thousands of years ago.  In them, the meaning of dreams was more or less diagnostic, in that the content of dreams pointed to an organ imbalance or a health diagnosis.  Some are pretty entertaining.  For example:

When one has Small Intestinal parasites, one will dream of crowds.* I think they mean crowds of bugs in your gut.

Here’s another, When the Bladder is deficient, one dreams of voyages.**  In my experience, those voyages are trips to the bathroom.

There were many examples that were enlightening.  For simplicity, I’ve arranged them by organ system.


When the Liver is in excess, one dreams of being angry.*

This makes total sense to me, as your Liver system is responsible for the smooth flow of everything in your body, including your emotions.  In addition, the specific emotion most related to your Chinese Liver is anger.  So if you’re angry, it seems likely that it would spill over into to your dreams in one way or another.

When the Liver is deficient, one dreams of forests in the mountains.**

This one is a little less straight forward.  The element associated with your Liver is wood, and a healthy Liver moves upward smoothly like plants growing or sap rising in a tree.  Your Liver is also a moist and nourishing organ, like young wood—new shoots and sprouts.  So if your Liver is deficient, you might be dreaming of what you need—lots of wood in the form of a forest. In addition, the nature of mountains is to be cool and moist at higher elevations, so forests in the mountains could speak to the need for the cool, moist nourishment that is missing when your Liver is deficient.


Your Chinese Spleen is paired with your Stomach as the organs of digestion.  Their job is to convert the food you eat into energy and nutrients.  Your Spleen is prone to bogginess or dampness in which it fails to metabolize fluids very well, resulting in a sensation of heaviness.

A couple of straightforward dream interpretations about the Spleen and Stomach include:

If the Spleen is deficient, one dreams of being hungry***

When the Stomach is deficient, one dreams of having a large meal**.

Both of these quotes relate to the fact that a deficient Spleen or Stomach is related to hunger, especially centuries ago.  Nowadays, a weak Spleen is more related to poor digestion and eating too much junk food and sweets.

Another quote about the Spleen refers to the issue of dampness:

If the Spleen is in excess, one dreams of singing and being very heavy…if the Spleen is deficient, one dreams of abysses in mountains and of marshes**.

In Chinese medicine, the Spleen is rarely excess, so I take this pearl to mean that when the Spleen is excess, one is well fed, therefore singing.  However, a weakness of the Spleen can cause an excess of dampness signified by dreaming of marshes and heaviness.  The abysses in mountains may simply be referring to the great emptiness of hunger.

More on the Heart

Beyond a general Heart imbalance when you have trouble sleeping or are experiencing vivid dreams or nightmares, the ancient texts offer up a little more on the Chinese Heart.

When the Heart is weak one dreams of fire***.

When the Heart is excess, one dreams of laughing, when deficient, one dreams of mountains, fire, and smoke**

Your Chinese Heart is associated with the element of fire.  It’s hot and passionate, so dreaming of smoke and fire are symbolic of an imbalance or deficiency of your Heart.  In addition, the emotion most closely related to your Heart is joy—however in excess joy becomes mania, so when your Heart energy is over the top, one sign is laughter, especially inappropriate or uncontrollable laughter.

The Kidneys

When the Kidney is weak, one dreams of swimming after a shipwreck; if the dream takes place in winter, one dreams of plunging in water and being scared.***

When the Kidneys are weak, one dreams of being immersed in water.**

Aha!  Here’s something that relates to my diving dream!  The Chinese Kidney is related to the element of water—fire’s opposite.  While the season of fire is summer, the season of water is winter, hence the reference to dreaming of water in winter.

Your Kidney is home to your vital substances, such as Yin and Yang and your Essence, which is a bit like your DNA.  In addition, the emotion most closely aligned with your Kidney is fear.

Clearly, the ancient Chinese interpreted dreams of swimming or being in water as a weakness of the Kidney organ system, which is absolutely true for me—my Kidneys tend to be my weakest organ system.  Interestingly, both of my parents appeared in my dream, which I believe refers to my Essence—my ancestors loaded with DNA.

While fear is the emotion associated with a Kidney dream, I remember simply being impatient—it was taking too damn long to complete my dive.  Perhaps, my dream was a message to slow down and enjoy life (the dive).  To do otherwise by working too hard, stressing out and hurrying just further damages the vital substances of my Kidney.


Source:  The Foundations of Chinese Medicine:  A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists by Giovanni Maciocia, 1989 Churchill Livingstone

*Simple Questions, Chapter 17

**Spiritual Axis, Chapter 4

***Simple Questions, Chapter 80

1 comment to The Meaning of Dreams in Chinese Medicine

  • This is a very interesting post and pertains to my life so perfectly.

    I frequently have vivid dreams and I am a very light sleeper. I have looked into dream interpretations in the past and the answers I usually find often don’t pertain to my life. However, this heart explanation is perfect. I am not as physically active as I used to be,which explains the weaker heart.

    Thanks for the information!