The Fire Element. Five Element Acupuncture for fire elements.

The Functions of the Triple Burner

Triple Burner – The Official of Balance and Harmony

The Triple Burner is a Yang Fire organ paired with the Pericardium. It is an ‘organ’ unique to Chinese Medicine and is therefore the most difficult to define and understand. It is often referred to as the Sanjiao or the Triple Warmer. Throughout history, scholars have argued about the nature of the Triple Burner. Zhang Jiebin, a physician of the Ming dynasty sates “The Triple warmer is, in fact a bowel. It is outside all the viscera and bowels but within the body, containing all the other organs… within the body cavity” 1 From this perspective the Triple Burner is clearly seen as a physical organ.

However, other important historical texts explicitly state that the Triple Burner “has a name but no form” – Classic of Difficulties2 This has led to the proposal that the Triple Burner is actually a collection of functions rather than a physical organ.

Although this is confusing, it actually doesn’t impact too greatly on the role of the Triple Burner. In essence, like the other Yang organs it is involved in receiving food and drink, transforming, transporting and excreting wastes, specifically fluids. Let us look now at its specific functions in order to gain some clarity.

The Functions of the Triple Burner

1. Three-fold division of the body into spaces
Here we can begin to see where the confusion lies, because the Triple Burner is actually involved in the functioning of nearly all the other organs.

In acupuncture the Three Burners of the Triple Burner are more specifically – The Upper, Middle and Lower Burners. These three burners contain the other organs and summarise the function of the organs contained in them, especially those related to fluids:

The Upper Burner – Is like a Mist
The Upper Burner is the area above the diaphragm and contains the Heart, Pericardium and Lungs. Its main function is seen to be the dispersal of fluids all over the body in the form of a fine vapour or mist.

The Middle Burner– Is like a muddy pool
The Middle Burner is between the diaphragm and the belly button and contains the Stomach, Spleen and Gall Bladder.

Its main functions are the digestion and break down of food and drink and the distribution of nutrients to the rest of the body. In acupuncture theory this is often referred to as transformation and transportation.

The Lower Burner– Is like a drainage ditch
The Lower Burner is below the belly button and contains the Kidney, Bladder, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Uterus and Liver (Functionally not physically).

Its main function is the separation of food and drink waste with the reabsorption of useful fluids and the elimination of the rest to the Bladder.

This idea of the Triple Burner as three distinct spaces, again implies that it in some way ‘contains’ or encapsulates all of the other organs – particularly the Yang organs. It is only by looking at its next two functions that we start to understand how.

2. Enable the passage of Yuan Qi through the body
First lets recap on Yuan Qi. This is the constitutional Qi that we were born with. It comes from our parents and is the essential motivating force for all physiological functions of the body. The Triple Burner holds the vital role of providing an avenue for the transportation of Yuan Qi from its residence between the two Kidneys to all the other organs. This helps to make sense of the systemic nature of the Triple Burners influence.

Yuan Qi travels up to the Upper Burner, via the Triple Burner, to fuel the production of Zong Qi, from the food we eat and the air we breathe. Zong Qi is refined by the body and in the Upper Burner it is dispersed to the periphery in the form of Wei or Defensive Qi.

In the Middle Burner another refined product of Zong Qi is dispersed to the interior of the body – This is called Ying or Nutritive Qi.

The Lower Burner is the seat of the Yuan Qi, where this whole process begins. Yuan Qi travels up and the Qi it helps to produce travels out, down and all around.3

3. Regulates the water functions
We have seen throughout this commentary that the Triple Burner is particularly concerned with fluids. The classic Chinese Medical text “Simple Questions” states in Chapter 8 “The Triple Burner is the official in charge of irrigation, and it controls the water passages.”3

So let’s look more specifically at the transformation and transportation of Body Fluids in relation to the Three Burners.

The Middle Burner is the origin of Body Fluids. They arrive there in the form of food and drink. The Stomach and Spleen separate these fluids into pure and impure parts. Pure fluids are sent to the Lungs in the Upper Burner by the Spleen. The impure part is sent down to the Small Intestine in the Lower Burner.

Once the pure fluids from the Middle Burner arrive in the Upper Burner the Lungs distributes some of them out to the body in the form of a mist. This moistens the muscles and the skin. The Lungs also sends some fluid down to the Kidneys. The Kidneys in turn heat the pure fluid into a mist and send it back up to moisten the Lungs.

In the Lower Burner the refinement of Body Fluids continues. The Small Intestine again separates them, sending impure to the Large Intestine and pure to the Bladder. The Large Intestine re absorbs any fluid it deems to be pure enough, and the Bladder redirects any it finds pure to the skin to be released as sweat. All remaining impure fluids are finally released by the Bladder. Generally, pure fluids travel up, and impure fluids travel down.

The Triple Burners’ connection to all this is sometimes referred to as the thermostat that controls the central heating system of the body. Turn the thermostat up and more fluids are ‘steamed’ up, turn it down and more cold fluids flow down. Again this does offer a helpful analogy to the systemic influence that the Triple Burner has over the complex area that it affects.

We can see from the way that the Triple Burner affects the distribution of both Qi and Body Fluids that dysfunctions with this organ can have knock on effects in any or all of the Burners. Triple Burner problems result in substances ‘not flowing smoothly’, overflowing or being blocked.

On the other hand, a healthy Triple Burner allows the smooth co-ordination and communication between the Three Burners. This ensures that they receive the Qi they need and are also able to refine and release the fluids they are given in a balanced and harmonious way.

1Page 124 – Basic Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine – Publishing House of Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine
2Page 118 – The Foundation of Chinese Medicine – Giovanni Maciocia
3Page 118 – The Foundation of Chinese Medicine – Giovanni Maciocia

Rachel Geary

Rachel Geary BA(Hons), Lic. Ac. MBAcC is a fully qualified acupuncturist, having graduated from the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine in 2002. She has previously practised in Inverness and Barnstaple. "I first became interested in acupuncture whilst I was at university studying History and Philosophy. I was particularly drawn to eastern philosophy, which I found particularly elegant and beautiful. I then went on to complete a three and a half year course of study in acupuncture and discovered it to exemplify these very same qualities. I feel very privileged to have been able to learn so much about the Chinese understanding of health and to be able to use this knowledge to help others." Rachel Geary is a Registered Acupuncturist, she is registered at The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), and The Association of Community and Multibed Acupuncture Clinic (ACMAC).