Over the years, I have seen patients in my acupuncture clinic for conditions such as bladder infections, edema, chronic sinus infections, dehydration, problems with yeast, athlete’s foot, dry itchy skin, and obesity. What do all of these conditions have in common? In Chinese medicine, they all arise from your body’s inability to metabolize water effectively.
Most of us don’t think much about water; you drink it in, you pee it out. Also, we’ve been repeatedly told to drink enough. Beyond that, what could water metabolism have to do with anything?
For the answer to this question, we have to look at the Chinese organ system called the Triple Burner (sometimes called the Triple Warmer–either way it’s very poetic). The Triple Burner is an odd organ, considered to be a bowel, tasked with the function of water metabolism.
The Triple Burner has been compared to a pot or pressure cooker boiling up something nutritious on the stove. In addition, it is divided into three areas, each with its own function:
The Upper Burner–This includes your head and chest and the organs of the Heart and Lungs. The Chinese say “The upper burner is like a mist”, similar to the steam coming from that boiling pot on the stove. The job of the Upper Burner is to distribute fluids throughout your body, but also to act as a vent, much like the escape valve of the pressure cooker. You might be thinking that your Lungs don’t have much to do with water, but if you were to sleep in your car overnight, you’d wake up in the morning with the windows steamed up from the moisture of your respiration.
The Middle Burner–Your abdomen above the navel is home to your Middle Burner. It includes the Chinese organs of the Spleen and Stomach, and is really the heart of the Triple Burner. Here, fluids are taken from what you eat and drink and used to nourish your whole body. To use the pressure cooker analogy, your Middle Burner is what’s cooking in the pot.
The Lower Burner– Your Lower Burner encompasses your abdomen below the navel, and includes the Kidney and Liver organ systems. If your Middle Burner is what’s cooking in the pot, the Lower Burner is the water that’s left over in the bottom. The Chinese say that “the Lower Burner is like a sluice”, in which the water that is not needed is considered waste and is drained off—pretty much like pee.
Well so what, Lynn? What does the Triple Burner have to do with anything? Actually, it has everything to do with water balance in your body. If you’re ankles puff up every month before your period, if your skin is dry and itchy, if you have chronic sinus infections or congested lungs, or if you are chronically thirsty, your Triple Burner is out of whack.
When water metabolism is out of balance, it can go one of two directions; either damp or dry.
Generally, if you’re having a problem with dampness, it’s coming from your Middle Burner—your digestion. Poor digestion or eating the wrong foods can bog down your digestion to the point that it no longer functions well. The end result is dampness, which can move to your Upper Burner and clog up your lungs or sinuses. More likely, however, dampness tends to be heavy and move downward, and can manifest as loose stools, bladder infections, yeast infection, gout, and edema in the legs and ankles.
If there’s not enough water in the pot, you can end up with dryness. Dryness can come from the Middle Burner, too, which might manifest as feeling hungry all the time or heartburn. However, dryness tends to be more systemic, with symptoms such as chronic thirst, dry and itchy skin, waking with a dry sore throat, a dry cough, and in some cases feeling warm, especially at night.
While most people don’t think of balancing water metabolism as a job for their health care provider, it’s an important consideration in Chinese medicine. During your initial visit with an acupuncturist (and frequently thereafter) you’re likely to be asked about thirst, water retention, dry skin, urine output, and other signs that relate to the balance of water in your body.
If your water metabolism needs some help, there are a number of ways to get thing back in order. One of the most important tools is acupuncture to resolve the dampness or moisten dryness. Chinese herbs are also very effective, with formulas based on your specific needs. There are actually herbs that are considered to be drying or moistening. Your practitioner can also recommend foods and some lifestyle tweaks that will help you correct any fluid imbalances.
You don’t have to walk around feeling like a swamp or the Sahara Desert. With the help of Chinese medicine and an understanding of the Triple Burner, you can get your water metabolism in back balance.