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?
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
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
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!
Opens Into the Eyes
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.
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.
Part 2 – Loving Your Liver With Nutrition
He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the time of his doctor.
~ Ancient Chinese Proverb
In this second installment of the Liver series, we will cover how the foods we eat can heal and support the liver. The spring is the time when liver energies are at the fullest, so this is the perfect time to eat foods that support the liver as well as detoxify, letting go of things we don’t need to make room for the new things that will nourish and heal us.
In spring we begin eating less than we did in winter, consuming lighter foods and cleansing the body of the excess fats and heavier foods eaten in winter. Spring is a time of renewal and growth, a time of expansion and expression. Spring is when we introduce newly grown greens and sprouts, salty foods and pungent herbs which support the liver and help to cleanse the body.
Cleansing the body is especially beneficial in spring not only because of the liver’s function of filtering toxins, but emotionally as well – emotions like frustration, impatience and anger are associated with the liver and a cleansing of the body and emotions allows us to clear out old residues and enables us to see more clearly and move forward in life with renewed passion and purpose.
Here is a list of things associated with the liver and spring in Chinese medicine.
Yin Organ – Liver
Yang Organ – Gallbladder
Season – Spring
Colour – Green
Direction – East
Flavour – Sour
Sense Organ – Eyes
Emotion – Anger
Weather – Wind
Cooking in Spring
Cooking in spring should be of shorter duration and at higher temperatures. In Chinese medicine raw foods are mostly seen to be cold in nature so some cooking is always recommended, but of all the seasons, the spring is the time food is cooked the least for its cooling and cleansing capabilities. Sautéing with a bit of high quality oil over high heat, or light steaming with water is the perfect was to cook food in spring and the way your liver will receive the most benefit.
Of all the organs, the liver tends to be the most congested, and ironically, is responsible for the free flow of qi throughout the body. A diet high in fatty, deep fried foods as well as eating highly processed and denatured foods congest the liver and lead to disharmony, physically, mentally and emotionally. A person with a healthy liver in Chinese medicine is supremely calm, has no feelings of stress or tension, easily makes decisions and has excellent judgement.
Physical symptoms of liver imbalance include many symptoms. The liver opens into the eyes so many eye symptoms point to a liver disharmony (bloodshot eyes, floaters, vision problems like cataracts and glaucoma), tendon issues (contraction, weakness, rigidity and inflexibility), pain and distension in the sides and rib areas, vertex headaches and outbursts of anger or frustration are all symptoms of a liver disharmony.
Beneficial Liver Foods
- Honey/mint tea
- Herbs – basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill, bay leaf, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, horseradish, mint, lemon balm, angelica root, prickly ash bark
- Complex Carbohydrates – grains, legumes, seeds
- Vegetables – beets, carrots, watercress, onions, mustard greens, taro root
- Raw foods – sprouted grains, beans, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables
- Fruits – lemon, lime, grapefruit
- Bitter Foods – rye, romaine lettuce, asparagus, amaranth, , quinoa, alfalfa, radish leaves, citrus peel
- Liver cleansing herbs – dandelion root, bupleurum, mandarin, milk thistle seeds, Oregon grape root, chamomile flowers
- Liver detoxifying foods – mung beans and their sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, watercress, seaweeds, celery, millet, tofu, plum, chlorophyll rich foods, mushrooms, rhubarb root, radish, daikon radish
If you are feeling like your liver might need a little extra love, then try eating some of the foods listed above, drinking some green juices (dandelion and milk thistle are particularly good) and go outside, take in the new green of the growing plants through your eyes, move your body to circulate the qi and stretch to keep those tendons limber. Your liver will love you for it. :)
Part 3 – The Liver & Anger
Ever see a really impressive display of anger? Someone losing it in the lineup at the bank, an exasperated parent yelling at a child having a tantrum in the grocery store, or someone, after being on a plane for a bazillion hours being told that they have missed their connecting flight and that the airline has lost their luggage. Yeah, we’ve all seen that. And it is most of our instincts’ to back a way a few steps because of how powerful that anger can be. That, my friends, is your liver talking.
Now in the West, this doesn’t make much sense. The liver, we are taught, is the body’s filter, making sure that we stay clean and toxin free. But in Chinese medicine, each of the organs has an emotional component, which is just as important as its physical functions in the body, and the emotion of the liver is anger. Below is a list of the organs and the emotions associated with them in Chinese medicine.
The Liver – Anger
The Lungs – Sadness & Grief
The Spleen – Over thinking & Worry
The Heart – Joy
The Kidneys – Fear
Now these outbursts of anger are not the liver in its normal state, they are obviously a liver terribly out of balance. It is of course normal to experience emotions like anger, but as we know in Chinese medicine, it is when those emotions are unexpressed or repressed that things can build up and in the case of the liver, if left long enough, can cause a Chernobyl like effect. And nobody wants that.
So how do you not let it get there, you may ask? Well, it is interesting to me that of all the life skills that are most useful to us, none of them to be taught in the place where it would be useful to acquire them – school. Emotional wellness is vital to our health and wellbeing and yet, most of us are at a loss at how to deal with them.
In Chinese medicine thinking, the emotions are a cause of disease. Now this may sound ominous, but let me clarify. HAVING emotions is not a cause of disease and that is an important distinction. It is emotions out of balance, and they become imbalanced when we do not express them freely, or worse, when we do not express them at all.
Let me give you an example…
Expressing Your Feelings
Two friends are having a conversation and one says something that is hurtful to the other without realizing it. The conversation continues with one person being very hurt and the other having no idea that they hurt the others feelings. After the conversation the hurt person starts to feel angry at their friend for having hurt their feelings and not even realizing it. But, once they have had a few days to cool off they realize that they need to express their feelings to their friend so they will feel better. After the conversation the friend who said the hurtful thing unintentionally apologizes and explains what they meant when they said the thing that the other perceived as hurtful. The hurt friend sees it from the others perspective and realizes it was not said intentionally and that anger was diffused and let go. The friends make up and their relationship is made stronger by the fact that they can openly express their feelings to each other.
Suppressing Your Feelings
The alternate scenario, and many people do this, is for the hurt friend to be hurt which turns into anger and never mention anything to the other friend about it. This builds up over time and every time any other little thing the other friend does frustrates the already angry friend it just adds to the anger that is growing and growing. The friend who initially said the hurtful thing, completely unintentionally, has no idea that their friend is harbouring so much anger and one day, after a small disagreement, the angry friend has a complete blowup and all the anger that has been growing comes out all over the bewildered friend who had no idea that all that anger was in there, and certainly not that things they had been inadvertently saying or doing was the cause.
Not Expressing Your Feelings
Another scenario is that the hurt friend internalizes the initial hurt, and all other hurts, frustrations, etc… and never speaks about them. They do this not only with this particular friend, but with everyone in their life. Eventually this person becomes sick, despite being otherwise healthy and wonders why. This is one of the theories about where many cancers come from – a long standing stagnation of energy, and in many cancers, many believe that there is a huge emotional component.
Now all that said, sometimes expressing your feelings isn’t easy. We are not taught how, but it is of vital importance for your health and well being. A lot of us are taught to avoid confrontation, and many see expressing emotions that are seen as negative as opening the door to possible confrontation. But, I can tell you, that if you can speak your mind, and express what you are feeling, with kindness and compassion, it will almost always strengthen a relationship, and if it doesn’t, that might not be a relationship you want to keep.
A Healthy, Happy Liver
When the liver is balanced and healthy we are able to move freely because of the liver’s responsibilities of governing the smooth flow of Qi in the appropriate directions. You may wonder what happens when Qi flows in the wrong direction? Well, each of the organs has a natural direction in which its Qi flows. For example, the Qi of the stomach flows downward, helping to move food and drink through the digestive system, but when the flow of that Qi is reversed due to pathogenic factors it causes belching, hiccups, nausea and vomiting. A healthy liver means a strong immune system because the liver is responsible for the body’s resistance to exterior pathogens. Because the liver opens into the eyes, if you have a healthy liver your vision will be clear and your eyes moist. If your liver is in a state of balance you will have strong nails, recover quickly from physical activities, your movements will be smooth and your body flexible. Those with a healthy liver will also have great courage and resoluteness, and will easily be able to plan their lives wisely and effectively with a clear sense of direction.
Some Symptoms of Liver Stagnation & Imbalance
- frustration, depression or repressed anger
- hypochondriac pain
- sensation of oppression in the chest
- a feeling of a “lump” in the throat
- abdominal distension
- women – pre-menstrual tension, depression, irritability, distension of the breasts
- belching, sour regurgitation, nausea, vomiting
- bitter taste in the mouth, belching, jaundice
- contraction and/or spasms in the muscles and sinews, impaired extension/flexion, numbness of the limbs, muscle cramps, tremors
- dark, dry or cracked nails
- blurred vision, myopia, floaters, colour blindness, a feeling of dryness or grit in the eyes
- bloodshot, painful or burning sensation in the eyes
- irritability, outbursts of anger, red face, dizziness, tinnitus, headaches
- lack of direction in life, feeling of being stuck
As you can see, there are a wide variety of symptoms that can point to a disharmony of the liver. The liver has a great many responsibilities in the body, so keeping it healthy and happy is not only good for your physical health, it is important for your emotional health too. The other thing to remember is that having prolonged feelings of anger or frustration that are repressed or unexpressed can damage the liver and the opposite is true as well. A deficiency in the liver from either external pathogenic factors, or an internal imbalance can make you more prone to feelings of anger and frustration. Expressing our emotions honestly and regularly is one of the best ways we can keep this important organ healthy. You’ll know you achieved it the next time you are in a stressful situation and you are able to shrug it off and see the positive instead of going nuclear and destroying everything in your wake. ;)
Anger and the Liver : Chinese Medicine Living
The Liver in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living