The San Jiao, the Bee Gees, and Me

A recent discovery of a “new” organ in our own bodies has created a fascinating link between ancient Chinese medicine and modern western medicine.

First, I would like to introduce you to the Triple Burner, a.k.a. the San Jiao. It is the most misunderstood “Organ” in Chinese Medicine. As acupuncturists and herbalists, our medicine uses the Organ systems to help diagnose and treat the body. I always explain to my patients that we are using the term “Organ” with a capital O, because it is more of an idea and concept rather than an actual physical structure. Most of the Organs we use in Chinese Medicine sound like organs we know: Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lung, Kidney. And most of the Organs and functions make some intuitive sense. For example, the Heart (which refers to an organ we can see) is in charge of Blood. Makes sense, yes? But for Westerners learning Chinese medicine, there is one mystery Organ.

The San Jiao has always been complex. Said to be an organ with a name and no location, it is described as connecting the “upper, middle and lower.” Important for the movement of the body’s energy, or Qi, it is seen as pivotal in the movement of fluids throughout the body. According to one of our classic books, The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, the San Jiao “holds the office of irrigation design; the water passages issue from it.” In acupuncture school, we were taught to think of it as mist (upper), foam (middle), and swamp (lower).

Understanding San Jiao is a challenge for most Chinese medicine providers. Meanwhile, us Westerners, we have no frame of reference, no equivalent organ, NO IDEA what this thing is. Does that mean it doesn’t it exist? I think not, and to explain why, I have to diverge a bit.

When I was young, I remember sitting by our record player. (Yes, this dates me!) I loved listening to the Bee Gees and wanted to be just like them. At one point I decided I would write songs just like theirs. Ready to come up with the next amazing album of 1978, I sat down in my room with a pencil and a tape recorder, but all I could come up with were Bee Gee songs and rhythms. I remember thinking, “The Bee Gees have used up the last of the musical ideas. There are no more.” I was convinced that because I couldn’t “know” it, it didn’t exist.

Now, back to medicine in 2018: You may have caught wind of a headline that came out this spring: Newfound “Organ” Could Be the Biggest in Your Body.

In an article published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found a new organ, known as interstitium. Previously undetected, it was discovered by using a new method of examining living tissue microscopically. Before this method was available to us, the interstitium could not be examined because in post-mortem, the tissues would dry up and the interstitium collapsed.

The interstitium is a name for widespread, fluid-filled spaces below the skin. They are also found in surrounding layers lining the gut, lungs, and urinary systems, as well as around blood vessels and the fascia between the muscles. A 3-D latticework of collagen and elastin connective tissue, the interstitium is a highway of moving fluid. This new organ is understood to be a conduit for fluids to enter the lymphatic system, which could lead to an understanding of how diseases are spread throughout our body. Researchers found that the interstitium accounts for 20 percent of the body, and if it is an organ, it is the largest organ we have, even larger than the skin.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? It sounds a lot like the San Jiao to me!

As a provider of Chinese Medicine, I am humbled and amazed at the wisdom that has been passed down to me, and the power of that wisdom in helping the body to heal. There is always more to know! The Bee Gees did not write the last song in the world, and we do not know everything about the body. New technology will lead us to groundbreaking discoveries that sometimes will feel familiar!

[written by Julie]