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.

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If you are having issues with your liver, Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP offers skype consults. Please write to info@chinesemedicineliving for more info, or see our skype consults page to contact us and set up a time with Emma.

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


The Importance of Emotions in Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

The emotions are an extremely important aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Emotional wellbeing is an integral part of health in the TCM model. Each emotion is associated with an organ, which, if out of balance will cause specific symptoms.  These are what the experienced acupuncturist or practitioner of TCM is looking for when you walk into their office with a complaint.

Emotions are of course a natural part of being human. Feeling joy, sadness and anger are all perfectly normal experiences we have in our day to day lives. It is when these emotions become excessive or are repressed and turned inward that they can become pathological and cause disease. The belief is that balancing the organ associated with the emotion will balance the emotion. Sometimes the organ is out of balance and produces the emotional imbalance. But sometimes the emotional imbalance can produce the organ imbalance. The difference to the practitioner is important only in preventing a recurrence of the problem. For example, if a person is experiencing extreme fits of anger, frustration, red eyes, problems sleeping, migraines and constipation, they are seen to be suffering from an imbalance of the Liver. This can be corrected with acupuncture and herbs. The liver returns to balance, the migraines disappear, sleeping improves and the bowels return to normal. But, if the patient is in a job he hates, with coworkers that make him angry and is constantly fighting with his wife, his anger will remain and the Liver imbalance will return. This is why during the diagnostic process, the practitioner asks many questions, and to the patient, it might seem like they have no bearing on the presenting condition. The job of the practitioner is to evaluate all aspects, not just the physical so that once the imbalance is corrected, the environment that created that imbalance no longer exists.

It is important to remember that cause and effect in TCM is not linear but circular. We usually think that something is the cause of an act, or effect such as - eating too much will give you a stomach ache. Eating too much is the cause and the stomach ache is the effect. This is linear thinking. In TCM linear cause and effect does occur when symptoms are present, for example - going outside without enough warm clothes on in the middle of winter will cause you to catch a cold, resulting in symptoms like a runny nose, achy muscles and a fever. These symptoms are the effect of the cold which was the cause. However, in some cases, the symptoms are not a result of such straightforward reasoning which is especially true when we are dealing with emotions.

One very common cause of emotional imbalance in TCM is repressed emotions. TCM is all about balance and flow. If emotions are not being expressed, they are being stuck which can lead to a blockage of the flow or stagnation, which in turn can lead to disease. How the disease manifests is completely individualized depending on many factors, and it is up to the practitioner to determine the “how”. Releasing emotions can heal disease. Even things that are considered extreme and long-standing stagnation in TCM like cancer. Diseases which, in the West, are seen as incurable.  Emotions that do not have avenues for expression and release can create disease and disharmony in the body manifesting as physical symptoms. So, it is very important to have a healthy emotional life, expressing your emotions freely and not allowing things to build up.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Here is a breakdown of the emotions, their related organs and some symptoms when an imbalance occurs...

HEART

Emotion - Joy
Emotion out of balance - Lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, despair, confusion, anxiety, fidgeting, easily startled
Organ Function - Regulates the heart and blood vessels, responsible for even and regular pulse, influences vitality and spirit. Connected to the tongue, complexion and arteries
Symptoms of organ imbalance - insomnia, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, excessive dreaming, poor memory and concentration, dizziness, spontaneous sweating

SPLEEN

Emotion - Worry, overthinking
Emotion out of balance - Dwelling or focusing too much on a particular topic, excessive mental work
Organ Function - Food digestion and nutrient absorption, the first step in the formation of Blood and Qi, holds blood in the vessels, connected to the muscles, mouth and lips, involved in thinking, studying and memory
Symptoms of organ imbalance - Tired, loss of appetite, mucous discharge, poor digestion, abdominal distension, loose stools or diarrhoea, weak muscles, pale lips, bruising easily, excessive menstrual blood flow, other bleeding disorders

LUNG

Emotion - Sadness
Emotion out of balance - Excessive sadness, grief, or detachment, uncontrolled crying
Organ Function - Respiration, controls sweat and body hair, creates energy (Qi) from the air and redistributes it throughout the body, works with Kidney to regulate the water metabolism, an important part of the immune system and helps protect the body from viruses and bacteria, provides moisture to the skin
Symptoms of organ imbalance - Shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, catching colds easily, fever with chills, sore throat, runny nose, headache, asthma, chest oppression, pale complexion, dry skin

KIDNEYS

Emotion - Fear
Emotion out of balance - Fearful, no willpower, insecure, aloof, isolated
Organ Function - Responsible for reproduction, growth and development & maturation, connected with lungs in water metabolism and respiration, responsible for bones, teeth, hearing and head hair
Symptoms of organ imbalance - Frequent urination, urinary incontinence, vertigo, night sweats, dry mouth, poor short term memory, low back pain, sore or weak knees, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, hair that turns grey prematurely, hair loss and osteoporosis, lowered libido

LIVER

Emotion - Anger
Emotion out of balance - Explosive anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, moodiness
Organ Function - Stores the blood, responsible for the smooth flow of Blood and Qi throughout the body, regulates the secretion of bile, connected with the tendons, nails and eyes
Symptoms of organ imbalance - chest distension, red face, bitter taste in the mouth dizziness, ringing in the ears, jaundice, menstrual problems (cramps, irregular or heavy periods), headaches, tendonitis, nausea, vomiting, sighing, breast tenderness, swelling and/or itching of the genitals, blurred vision, floaters, dry skin and hair

Here are examples of some combination patterns:

Heart & Kidney

If a patient is experiencing extreme mood swings between Joy (mania) and Fear (depression), it indicates an imbalance between the Heart (Joy) and Kidney (Fear). We would see symptoms such as insomnia, dream disturbed sleep, heart palpitations and dizziness.

Liver & Lung

If a patient is experiencing violent mood swings between Anger and Grief, an imbalance between the Liver and Lung is present with symptoms involving breathing problems, issues with bowel movements and waking between 1-5 am.

The way the TCM model views emotions is very specific. For example, there are many different types of depression. It depends on which organs are involved. Here are some examples:

Liver

If the depression is actually anger turned inward on itself, which is common with many women, the Liver is out of balance. Symptoms could include PMS symptoms, cramps during the period, vomiting and nausea.

Spleen

If obsessive thinking or worry characterizes the depression, we would suspect the spleen and look for symptoms such as decreased appetite, diarrhoea, fatigue, heavy bleeding with the periods, and bruising easily.

Kidney

Sometimes the depression comes with panic attacks (Fear). In this case, we would suspect the Kidneys.  We would look for urinary changes (usually an increase in frequency), low back pain and weakness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), poor appetite and diarrhoea.

Photo by Andy Chilton on Unsplash

Emotions are not the only factor contributing to disease. Another thing to consider is lifestyle. It is difficult to always avoid getting cold, having an umbrella for when it might rain, getting enough sleep and eating properly. We live in a fast-paced world full of stresses on both our minds and our bodies. We always seem to be rushing and there never seems to be enough time. And although sometimes we can’t help getting sick or feeling a little under the weather, it is important to remember that the cause of an imbalance may be occurring from events in your life. There is no needle for a bad relationship, stressful job or frustrating coworker. A practitioner can help you to deal with the stress in your life that may be causing the imbalance, but we can’t remove the stress. Only you can do that. Sometimes we feel that we are unable to change the circumstances that are causing stresses in our lives, but a practitioner can help you to deal with that stress by advising on how to eat healthily (eating with the seasons, and the incorporation of the 5 flavours - Sour, Salty, Spicy, Bitter, Sweet), and how to incorporate exercise and meditation techniques such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong into your life. The TCM practitioner is trained in how to live or the “Tao” (which comes from Taoist philosophy) helping both to rebalance a patient and educate him on how to retain that balance by living a healthy balanced life.

We are all living full, busy lives. Imbalance is everywhere, and staying healthy isn’t easy. I have found that in my practice people often feel overwhelmed and exhausted. I always suggest that they be kind and gentle with themselves, and to try to do at least one nice thing for themselves every day, as our happiness is so important for our health. We are living in a time when we are dealing with so much, so it is important to take the time to do things for yourself like have a bath, read a book, spend time with your children, or walk outside in nature. Whatever brings you happiness and makes you feel good. It is these small things that are the keys to wellness. Life is the journey we all share, and if we live it with mindfulness and wisdom, that journey will always lead to balance and happiness.

Photo by Blaise Vonlanthen on Unsplash

Lovely featured image photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash


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