Loving Your Liver with Chinese Medicine - Part 1

Loving Your Liver with Chinese Medicine

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Spring is here, and Spring is the time that the Liver flourishes and its energies are at their peak. Spring is a time of new life and the growth and activity of plants and animals after a long winter hibernating. The Liver is associated with new growth and expansive energies, just like plants in Springtime stretching up and out, reaching for the sun. Spring is the best time to support the Liver, eating fresh green foods and being mindful to express our emotions.

The Liver has many responsibilities in Chinese medicine, as you will see below, and the Springtime is the best time to treat the Liver, as its energies are at their full expression. First we will discuss the Liver's responsibilities in the body, then, in part two, we will move onto the emotions and in part three we will discuss the ways that we can keep the Liver healthy and happy through diet, the emotions and making sure you get to bed by 11pm. :)

What Does The Liver Do in Chinese Medicine?

Stores Blood

The Liver stores blood in Chinese medicine

One of the most vital functions of the Liver is that it is responsible for storing blood. This means that it regulates the volume of blood in the body at all times, and this serves an important function during physical activity. The Liver stores the blood when it is not being used by the body, but when we are active, the Liver sends the blood to the muscles, nourishing and moistening them. This function also has an important influence on a person's energy level. The Liver sends the blood to specific parts of the body, nourishing the necessary tissues. If the Liver is healthy, we will have energy to do our daily activities. If the Liver is impaired however, the blood will not get to the parts of the body that need it and we will become easily tired.

The Livers function of storing blood also directly influences our ability to fight off pathogens. If the Liver function is normal, the skin and muscles will be well nourished and the body will be able to fight off attacks by exterior pathogens. There are other factors that affect our ability to fight off pathogenic factors, like our defensive Qi and the strength of our Lung Qi, but it is important not to overlook the Livers role in our ability to fight off invaders.

The Livers function of storing blood is also extremely important in gynaecology and specifically, menstruation. If the Liver is functioning normally, the periods will be normal. If the Liver is deficient, the periods will be late, irregular or absent. If the Liver is in excess or has excess heat, there can be excessive bleeding and pain. The Liver is very important in Women's physiology and pathology. Many gynaecological problems are due to pathologies of the Liver. If there are gynaecological problems, the Liver will be involved. Because the Liver governs the smooth flow of Qi, the bodies energies, stagnation of Liver Qi is a common diagnosis and manifests in the periods as painful periods, pre-menstrual tension and clots.

Responsible for the Smooth Flow of Qi

Liver responsible for smooth flow of qi

The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi throughout the body. In Chinese medicine, illness or disease is seen to be a blockage of the flow. When things, like blood, are not flowing properly, the results can be catastrophic, like a stroke. So, the Liver's function of keeping Qi moving in the body is important for our health. A blockage of the flow of Qi is central to almost all Liver disharmonies and is one of the most common patterns seen in clinical practice. In Chinese medicine, each organ also is seen to have a specific direction in which its Qi naturally flows. The Lungs Qi flows downwards (a pathological upward flow causes coughing), as does the Qi of the Stomach (when it moves up we get vomiting and belching), and the Qi of the Spleen naturally flows up (when it moves down we get diarrhea). Part of the Livers function of moving Qi smoothly throughout the body is also to ensure the proper flow and direction for all the organs. This is a big responsibility as you can imagine. It is a big job which is why it is so important to have a health, happy Liver.

The Liver function of ensuring the smooth flow of Qi also has an impact on the emotional state. If the Liver is functioning normally, the Qi will be flowing and the emotional state will be balanced. However, if the Qi is obstructed, there can be anger, frustration, depression and a feeling of being "wound up" as well as physical symptoms like hypochondriac pain, a sensation of oppression in the chest, a feeling of a lump in the throat and distension in the abdomen.

Controls the Sinews

Liver controls the sinews

 As you can imagine, the state of our sinews affects our ability to move our bodies freely. Anyone who has ever done a yoga class will be able to tell you exactly how important it is to have moist, supple sinews as even the ability to do something simple like touching your toes can be a humbling experience! The health of the sinews is under the control of the Liver, and specifically Liver blood. Liver blood nourishes and moistens the sinews, ensuring that we can move freely and easily. The sinews ability to relax and contract is also dependent on Liver blood. If Liver blood is deficient, sinews will become dry and brittle and we can experience symptoms like contractions, spasms, numbness, tremors and muscle cramps.

Manifests in the Nails

In Chinese medicine, the nails are considered a by-product of the sinews which are under the control of the Liver and specifically, Liver blood. Liver blood is responsible for nourishing and moistening the nails in the same way as it is for the sinews. If Liver blood is abundant, the nails will be hard, shiny and moist. If Liver blood is deficient, we can see symptoms like dry and brittle nails, and nails with ridges, spots, cracks and can be dark and have a withered appearance. So, next time you break a nail, you might want to consider giving your Liver some extra love!

nails and the liver in Chinese medicine

Opens Into the Eyes

Eyes and the liver in Chinese Medicine

 Every organ in Chinese medicine is associated with a sense organ and the Liver opens into the eyes. The eyes, therefore, are used as a diagnostic tool for helping to determine the health of the Liver. Liver blood is responsible for the eyes capacity to see clearly. Psychologically, the health of the Liver can also determine how clearly we are able to recognize what is actually happening in our lives and how connected we are to reality. If the Liver blood is abundant, then we will see clearly, but if it is deficient, we will have eye problems like blurred vision, dry eyes, myopia, colour blindness and especially floaters.

Because the Liver is especially susceptible to heat, when Liver heat is in excess we see eye symptoms like red and blood shot eyes and the eyes may be painful and have a burning sensation. These symptoms are often accompanied with headaches, ringing in the ears and a bitter taste in the mouth.

Controls Planning

The Liver in Chinese Medicine

One of the other responsibilities of the Liver, and one that is not often mentioned, it its ability to help us plan our lives wisely. A healthy Liver gives us the capacity to organize and plan our lives and gives us a clear sense of direction. A Liver that is out of balance however, affects how well we are able to plan into the future which we see so often in our society, partially because of Liver imbalances, and partially because so many of us are simply overwhelmed with our lives and have a hard time keeping up with our daily activities. A healthy Liver will help with so much more than your health! It will literally help you to focus, and plan your life smoothly and effectively.

As you can see, the Liver has a lot of responsibilities so keeping it healthy is always a good idea. The good news is that there are many, many ways that we can keep Liver energies balanced and keep this important organ happy and healthy. We will discuss these as well as the very important emotional aspect of the Liver (anger) in the following sections.



Download Our Sheets - The Liver in Chinese Medicine

Are You A Practitioner?

Please visit the Chinese Medicine Professionals Shop to get PRO sheets for your clinic that you can share with patients. Yay!


The Spleen - The Earth Element

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

I don't want to play favourites, but the Spleen is a pretty awesome organ. The Spleen and I have gotten pretty cosy over the years, as I talk about it a lot and treat it probably more than any other organ. In Chinese medicine, the Spleen, along with its Yang partner the Stomach, are the main organs of digestion. The Spleen has an important job in the body and psyche, processing not only all the food and drink we consume but all the stimulus as well. If you think about how we live you will realize that the nature of our lifestyles - which is to constantly be doing many things at once - puts a lot of pressure on the Spleen, and I would say that most people in the West have some level of Spleen deficiency as a result.

People new to Chinese medicine might think it strange that the Spleen is seen as an organ of digestion, as they probably know it as an important part of the immune system which is how it is viewed in the West. In Western medicine, the spleen is a part of the immune system and is where old red blood cells are recycled and platelets and white blood cells are stored. It is on the left side under the rib cage and sits next to the stomach. You can live without a spleen (called a splenectomy), but this makes you much more susceptible to infections. The spleen is sometimes removed in emergency situations like car accidents or serious traumas, but you definitely want to keep your spleen, as it serves many vital functions both physiologically and psychologically.

5 Element Chart - Spleen

This lovely 5 element chart designed by Angel B Lee in New York, NY

The Spleen

In Chinese medicine, the Spleen has a list of responsibilities. Every organ has a unique list of things they are responsible for in the body, and from an emotional point of view. Here are the things the Spleen is responsible for.

Controls Blood

The Spleen is responsible for manufacturing the Blood and the Spleen Qi keeps it in the vessels. If Spleen-Qi is weak, a person will bruise easily, and/or will have problems with bleeding.

Controls The Muscles And The Four Limbs

the spleen controls the muscles

The Spleen is responsible for circulating nutrients to the muscles and tissues. If the Spleen is weak, then the muscles and limbs are not nourished and become weak and tired.

Responsible For
Transformation & Transportation

The Spleen is responsible for the intake, processing, and distribution of nutrients extracted from food and drink. The Spleen takes these nutrients and creates Qi and Blood, both vital substances for all the body’s functions and maintaining proper health. If transformation and transportation are functioning properly, the Qi is strong, digestion is smooth and the body is kept moist. When malfunctioning, the Qi is weak (lassitude and lethargy), the appetite is poor, digestion is sluggish and the stools are loose and watery.

Opens Into The Mouth &
Manifests On The Lips

The Spleen manifests on the lips

Chewing is necessary for the functioning of the Spleen and if the Spleen is deficient, the sense of taste may be dulled. Red, moist and vibrant lips indicate a healthy Spleen. If the Spleen is deficient, however, the lips will be pale from lack of nourishment.

Controls The Upright Qi

The Spleen is responsible for the body’s “holding” function. This is called the upright Qi. It is specifically the force that counteracts gravity when it comes to holding things, specifically the organs, in place. This is very important! Without healthy upright Qi, all of our organs would be at the bottom of our abdomen! When the Spleen is weak, we see prolapse of organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapse of the vagina as well as things like haemorrhoids (prolapse of the anus, PLUS bleeding also attributed to the Spleen).

Houses Thought

Every organ in TCM is seen to have its own unique Spirit, and the Spirit of the Spleen is called the Yi. The Spleen is directly related to our capacity for thinking. How well we manage our thoughts, concentrate, exercise discernment and form intentions is dependent on the strength of the Spleen.

The Spleen in 5 Element Theory

In 5 element theory, the Spleen is attributed to the earth element, the centre, and the colour yellow. The season is late summer, but more specifically, it is the late stage of each of the seasons. The taste is sweet and the emotion is worry / overthinking.

Spleen and the 5 Elements

This lovely image from http://thespicedoc.com/content/glossary and designed by Patricia Callison

Late Summer and the Spleen

In the summer, we reach a maximum of Yang energy, so when we move into late summer that energy shifts and begins to turn to more Yin in preparation for fall. It is also the beginning of the harvest with fruits and vegetables at their peak of growth, so it is the perfect time to pick foods right off the vine and benefit from good Qi that they have been soaking up from the surrounding environment all summer. The earth element represents being grounded and having solid roots connected to the earth. Late summer is also a time to prepare for the coming year's work, so it is a time to go from the outward expressions of summer to a more inward expression to prepare for the year ahead.

"The Earth Element, represented by the Spleen-Pancreas, regulates the "centre," that which is constant, from where it harmonizes the effects of the four seasons."
~ Inner Classic

The flavour of the Spleen is sweet, and just as foods with a sweet flavour are stimulating and healing to the Spleen, too much can be damaging and decrease your energy level so balance is the key.  The Spleen likes to be warm and dry so avoid cold foods like putting ice in your drinks and ice cream if you have digestive troubles. Chewing your food very well is another simple way to support the Spleen.

Beneficial Spleen Foods

  • Millet
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Garbanzo Beans
  • Soybeans
  • Squash
  • Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Yams
  • Tofu
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Sweet Rice
  • Rice
  • Amaranth
  • Peas
  • Chestnuts
  • Filberts
  • Apricots
  • Cantaloupe

Foods in late summer should be prepared simply with minimal seasoning to support the Spleen. Because the Spleen is constantly overloaded by the things we eat as well as the stimulus we are taking in, it is a good idea to prepare simple meals with few ingredients as well as longer cooking times (which further breaks down foods, requiring less of the Spleen's energy to digest them) and using water and cooking oils.

Healthy Spleen

Those with a very balanced Spleen will be hardworking, responsible and practical. They like to nurture themselves and others and are very aware of other people's needs. They are strong and stable and live to be active. They have good appetites and strong digestive systems. They will have strong muscles and be very grounded. Those with balanced spleens are orderly and careful and generally are creative and have very fertile imaginations.

Spleen Out of Balance

Those with an imbalance in their Spleen can manifest symptoms of both mental and physical fatigue, loose stools, a feeling of being "stuck" which feels like you are being prevented from moving forward. Weak digestion which is often accompanied by nausea, poor appetite, diminished sense of taste and abdominal bloating are common when Spleen energy is weak. Struggles with excess weight, even if there is no overeating, or being underweight without the ability to gain weight are symptoms of a Spleen imbalance as well. Those with weak Spleen's can tend to have a messy appearance, live in chaos and accumulate many possessions that do not serve them.

As you can see, the Spleen is an organ that gets a lot of attention in clinic. It is out of balance in many people, but there are simple things that we can do to bring this important organ back into balance. Living in a mindful way and being aware of what it needs are the first steps to having a healthy, happy Spleen.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Suspect you might have a Spleen imbalance? Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP offers consults via skype. For more info, write to info@chinesemedicineliving.com.

Download Our Sheets - The Spleen in Chinese Medicine

Are You A Practitioner?

Please visit the Chinese Medicine Professionals Shop to get PRO sheets for your clinic that you can share with patients. Yay!


Winter - The Water Element

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Much of Chinese Medicine is based on the theory of the five elements, or Wu Xing. Each element has many associations, including a season, both a yin and a yang organ, colour, direction, taste and emotions. Below is a list of the seasons, their elements, organs and the emotions associated with them.

Summer - Fire  - Heart - Joy
Late Summer (or the end of any season) - Earth - Spleen - Worry or Over Thinking
Autumn / Fall - Metal - Lungs - Sadness
Winter - Water - Kidneys - Fear
Spring - Wood - Liver - Anger

The winter season is associated with water and the kidneys. The kidneys are the foundation of our yin and yang energies, store our Jing (or essence) and govern vital activities like birth, growth, reproduction and development. The kidneys are said to open into the ears, thus our ability to hear clearly is dependent on strong kidney energy. The kidneys also govern bones, teeth, hair on the head, the nervous system and brain.

Strong Kidneys

The kidneys in Chinese medicine are not the same as they are seen in Western medicine. They are not simply two separate organs that sit at the level of the lower back, remove wastes and release hormones. They are en entire organ and energy system that is connected to the rest of the body, is paired with the bladder, and has important functions both physically and emotionally. When kidney energy is strong we are lucid and able to articulate our thoughts and feelings.  Children grow quickly, and have strong bones and teeth. They are smart, learn quickly and can think clearly. Strong kidney energy will also help a person move through the stages of life without difficulty, giving them the ability to adjust to changes and better able to cope with stresses that come along the way. Strong kidney energy also give the ability to take in information and process it effectively as we go through life, to make keen observations and making you seem wise beyond your years.

5 elements Chinese Medicine

Kidney Deficiency

A deficiency of the kidneys often manifests as developmental problems both mentally and physically. In children these manifest as problems with growth and development, such as learning disabilities, physical deformities, and dental cavities. In adults symptoms of kidney deficiency are sore lower back and knees, frequent urination, prematurely greying hair, weak, brittle bones, arthritis, dental cavities, hearing loss and pain in the soles of the feet. Because the kidneys are also the source of our sexual energy, lack of libido, impotence and infertility are signs of a deficiency of the kidneys.

The Water Personality

The Archetype for Water: The Philosopher

A person with a water type personality will have the following characteristics:

  • Sincere
  • Introspective
  • Modest
  • Observant
  • Sensible
  • Lucid
  • Curious
  • Careful
  • Innovative
  • Resourceful
  • Frugal
  • Objective
  • Particular

Below is a description of a water personality in five element theory taken from the book Between Heaven and Earth...

Revelation propels the Philosopher in her relentless quest for truth. She brings to light that which is hidden, uncovering new knowledge, dispelling mystery, eroding ignorance. Scrutinizing life until the meaning and significance of her impressions coalesce into the germ of understanding, she is like an old time prospector with a nose for nuggets, sifting through the gravel of notions and beliefs, tireless in her effort to apprehend the nature of reality. Just as the miner digs through tons of ore before unearthing a single gem, the Philosopher searches doggedly for truth, which, like a diamond, is esteemed not only for its radiant sparkle, but for its abiding hardness as a tool to advance civilization. It takes millennia to crystallize the residual mineral essence of fossils into this precious stone. Time is the pick and shovel of the Philosopher, who exhumes the bones of culture that endure. The Philosopher yearns for meaning that transcends the rudderless meandering of human affairs.

As she offers insight to the world, she relies on her hope that knowledge will be married with wisdom, power and compassion, aware that destiny is the final authority. Able to envision what can be, she is critical of what is by comparison. She discerns the inevitable disparity between apparent and ultimate reality. As the custodian of our memories and dreams, she articulates our aspirations, our ends, but does not define for us the machinery of their realization, our means.

*From Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfeld and Efrem Korngold

The Water Body Type

There are certain physical attributes that each element portrays. The water body type has a round face and soft, white skin. They love to move and they have long spines. They are loyal to their friends and colleagues and are excellent negotiators. They are sympathetic, slightly lazy and don't always tell the truth. They are usually quite sensitive and self aware. The strong point for water types is their digestion.

The Kidneys and Emotions

The positive emotion of the kidneys is willpower, so when kidney energy is strong we will have willpower and live life with focus and direction. When kidney energy is weak we are susceptible to fear and anxiety. This works both ways, deficient kidneys can leave us fearful and anxious, and if we experience an excess of these emotions, it can deplete kidney energy. A person susceptible to anxiety, panic attacks or phobias may be suffering with deficient kidneys.

Winter is the best time of year to build up kidney energy. It is a time for a contraction of energies and introspection. Winter is a time to rest, going to bed earlier and waking later. The diet should consist of hearty, warming foods, like soups and stews. The longer and slower the cooking, the warmer they become. Supplementing our "post heaven essence" by eating well, drinking clean water and living moderately will help to strengthen kidney energy. The first point on the kidney meridian is on the bottom of the foot, so walking and running stimulates this point and floods the body with kidney energy - so regular exercise, especially outside is great for your kidneys. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are also a wonderful way to correct deficiency and keep the kidneys strong. So, enjoy the cold weather, and be sure to take care of your kidneys - they will love you for it.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

If you would like a downloadable information sheet that will tell you all about how to live in harmony with the Winter Season in Chinese Medicine, you can find it here - The Winter Season in Chinese Medicine.