Yin and Yang (and Their Imbalances)

Most of Chinese Medical theory can be distilled down to the dualistic concept of yin and yang. For example, the notion that any condition falls into the category of excess or deficient, or that it can present itself as hot or cold (Yang excess or Yang deficient), or dry or damp (Yin deficient or Yin excess) are all manifestations of this principle. Yin and yang are energetic, organizing forces in Nature but they are also treated as bodily substances in the body.

Yin and yang are polar opposites but they are in constant interaction. There are four main aspects that we apply to our understanding of yin and yang: opposition (they have opposite characteristics), interdependence (you can’t have one without the other), mutual consumption (too much of one will begin to consume the other), and intertransformation (too much of one can turn into the other).

This article will outline the substances of yin and yang in the body, signs and symptoms of their imbalances, and some lifestyle changes that can shift those imbalances back into a state of harmony.

Yin and its imbalances

Yin in the body is best thought of as substance. The energy of yin shares a relationship with water, cold, darkness, and stillness. It is inside rather than outside. It is fluid rather than firm. The bones are yin. The brain is yin. The blood and lymph are yin. Synovial fluid in the joints is yin. Simply put, yin is what your are made of.

Dampness (Yin Excess)

We refer to excess yin in the body as dampness. In it’s extreme form it becomes phlegm (esp. when in the presence of excess heat). Dampness occurs when we eat dampening or cold foods like bread or pasta, poor-quality dairy or ice cream, sweets, and raw vegetables. These foods are hard to digest and expend the yang energy that your body uses to transform food. When one’s body can’t transform food into the substances you are made of, it stores this untransformed substance as dampness or phlegm. Another prominent cause of dampness is living in a damp or humid environment. Signs of dampness are heavy limbs, weakness, cloudy thinking, runny nose or sputum, frequent urination, edema or bloating, and a lack of thirst. Things you can do to remedy dampness are remove the dampening foods from your diet and consume meals that are warm and thoroughly cooked, consume foods that are warming to the interior like ginger or chai tea, exercise and sweat, and get in the Sun.

Signs: Pale tongue that is swollen (side-to-side) and wet, pulse that is slippery and feels like a slithering snake or like rolling marbles

Yin Deficiency (False Heat)

When you have too little of what you are made of rather than too much, this is referred to as yin deficiency. When there is not enough substance to keep your tissues nourished and lubricated, then a sort of metabolic friction takes place. We refer to this symptom of heat as yin deficient heat or false heat rather than excess heat. It is referred to as “false” because it does not stem from excess (heat is excess by nature) but is instead a product of deficiency. This can be caused by overthinking, overwork, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, excessive sexual activity, drug use (esp. amphetamines), and antibiotics. Yin deficiency can cause night sweats, trouble falling asleep, dry mouth, skin, or eyes, constipation, and agitation. Yin deficiency can be corrected by eating well-cooked and nourishing meals (esp. high-quality raw dairy or kefir and animal products), adequate hydration, rest, and getting your bare feet on the ground.

Signs: Dry and cracked tongue, thin pulse that is tight like a guitar string

Yang and its imbalances

Yang in the body is best thought of as metabolic heat and is related to the warming, lifting, transforming, and preotecting functions of qi. Yang naturally goes up in the body. It is a substance that raises itself in clear form to the head to power clarity of consciousness. It’s activity is associated with movement and with heat.

Internal Heat (Yang Excess)

Too much yang energy in the body is referred to as excess heat and is usually a product of other pathology. Excess heat can happen in the blood, in the stomach or digestive system, on the skin, or in other organs. On the skin or inside the body it combines with dampness and can form what are thought of as infectious or necrotic conditions.When yang rises unnecessarily it can cause headaches, agitation, and a red complexion. Blood heat can cause acne, skin lesions, fever and agitation. In the digestive system it can cause heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea or constipation, or inflammatory bowel conditions. In various organs it affects the function of that organ by either burning it up, possibly causing inflammation – like burning, strong-smelling, dark urine in the case of the bladder. Ways to clear heat are eating cooling food or drink, inducing a good bowel movement or urination, sweating, receiving acupuncture, or getting one’s bare feet on the ground.

Signs: Red tongue or tongue with red patches with a thick yellow coat or dry, and a forceful, pounding pulse

Yang Deficiency (Internal Cold)

When there’s not enough yang to warm the organs or to transform food into nourishment, there is a condition on yang deficiency or internal cold. Internal cold can also overlap with yin deficient heat. This is caused by stress, overwork, excessive sweating, exposure to severe cold, or eating a diet high in cold foods (like raw vegetables or ice cream). Symptoms are cold hands and feet, feeling of being cold inside and preferring warm weather or warm drinks, fatigue, and diarrhea or constipation (depending on other pathology). Ways to supplement yang are rest, eating well-cooked nourishing and warming foods, qigong, and getting one’s bare feet on the ground and bare body in the Sun.

Signs: Pale blue, swollen tongue, and a weak or slow pulse

I hope that these ways of thinking about Chinese medical pathology aid you in your journey towards a happy and healthy body, mind, and spirit.