What is the Role of the Liver in TCM?
What is an Organ System (Zang Fu)?
When the liver comes up in casual conversation, it’s most likely a joke about a night out of drinking, right? This is understandable, as the liver does play the part of processing the beer, wine, and liquor we drink. As the largest organ in the body, it is also responsible for many other jobs. These include; storing important vitamins and minerals, purifying blood from the intestines, creating and eliminating bile, synthesizing plasma proteins, and activation of enzymes.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Liver system builds upon these functions to become a more complex series of processes. Before you can understand all the function of the Liver, however, it’s important to grasp what an organ system is in the big picture of TCM.
Here’s a brief outline of the five zang fu in TCM:
- Spleen and stomach (earth)
- Lung and large intestine (metal)
- Kidney and bladder (water)
- Liver and gall bladder (wood)
- Heart and small intestine (fire)
When all five systems are getting the nutrients, strength, and consistency they need to thrive, they will work together in harmony. The balance between them must come from appropriate equal amounts of yin and yang. When this balance is skewed, symptoms will start to appear and conditions may begin to develop, spreading to other systems in the body. A solid understanding of the zang fu and how they connect to the meridians, blood, and qi is vital to a TCM practitioners’ ability to make accurate diagnoses.
The Role of the Liver System in TCM
In the philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver is partnered with the Gallbladder. This system is said to be responsible for the smooth flow and transportation of blood, qi, and emotions throughout the body. The ability to control the flow of qi, or energy, is reliant upon the power of pushing. The Liver has to ensure that it’s pushing the qi enough to maintain the healthy circulation while not overdoing it. Disease can emerge if the qi is stagnant as well as if it is dispersed too quickly and erratically. The Liver has to use its energy to stay balanced and consistent.
The Liver also holds the role of a regulator in the digestive process. In TCM it is believed that the excess Liver qi emits bile that is then stored and strategically released to help break down, process, and eject the food we eat. This is a pretty important part of digestion, so when qi in the Liver becomes blocked and stagnant pain and disruption of your digestion can occur.
The Liver is also known to be responsible for emotions and expressions of anger, irritability, stress, and difficulty letting things go. It’s believed that a prolonged or consistent experience of these emotions can trigger imbalances within the Liver system or signal that there’s an issue going on. Sour tastes are also associated with the Liver, so it’s said that when you have sudden or unusual sour food cravings, you might need to give your Liver some love and care.
What is Liver Qi
In TCM, healthy qi is vital to having a healthy body. Qi is known as the innate energy or life force that is contained in us all and moves and flows through our bodies. Qi isn’t exclusive to human beings, however. Everything in our world has qi; food, animals, nature, our clothing, the planets, and almost anything else you can think of has qi.
It takes about 15 minutes for qi to travel through the entire course of the body. When everything is working according to design, this path maintains harmony between all organs. However, if there are blockages along the path, trouble can arise and an unsteady flow of qi can create disease. While the qi of all the major organ systems, or zang fu, is important, the Liver qi has a special role to play. As the organ system that controls the flow of qi, the Liver’s health is vital to steady qi production and flow.
Liver Qi Stagnation
When things go wrong with the flow of Liver qi, it can create imbalances. These imbalances can lead to a slowing of that flow which eventually turns into full-on Liver qi stagnation. Stagnation of qi essentially means that it is blocked. For qi, this is pretty much a fast track to uncomfortable symptoms and potential for bigger diseases.
Here are some of the primary symptoms of Liver qi stagnation:
- Pain or discomfort anywhere along the sides of the body
- Mood swings
- General melancholy
- Easily frustrated
- Sudden bouts of anger
- Sensation of a lump or tightness in your throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Bitter taste
- Excessive sleep
- Poor appetite
- Churning sensation in stomach
- Abdominal pain and discomfort
- PMS with irritability or swollen breasts
- Irregular or painful periods
- Irregular menses
- Nervous and emotional disorders
It’s said that Liver qi stagnation can be especially damaging for women, as many negative effects to the female reproductive system have been linked to these particular blockages. The good news is that diet adjustments are one of the best methods for unblocking the Liver qi and easing the feeling of these symptoms. There are several foods that you can try like garlic, mustard seed, dates, tofu, chicken, coconut meat, sweet potato, rice, spearmint, sweet basil, turmeric, and oregano. Additionally, it might be a good idea to pay your TCM practitioner a visit to help design a full treatment plan for you.
Other Important Functions of the Lung System
As we’ve learned, the Liver system is a key part of healthy bodily functioning and goes far beyond metabolizing our alcoholic beverages. Beyond the digestive functions and monitoring of qi, there are several other processes the Liver is involved with. A few of these include the health of the eyes, tendons, nails, and mental and emotional functioning.
The Eyes and the Liver
Every organ system is related to one of the sensory organs. These organs enable our five sense; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. The Liver is uniquely connected to the the eyes. This means that the health of the one or the other can often be reflected. For example, if you notice that your eyes are starting to act unusually such as exhibiting red or dry eyes, blurry vision, or itchiness, it might actually be a signal about the health of your Liver.
The Tendons, Nails, and the Liver
In the same way that sensory organs are connected to the zang fu, so are tissues. The tendons are the tissue assigned to the Liver. Tendons act as connectors between bones and muscles, transferring movement. They’re vital to our ability to move our limbs, walk, and exercise. In TCM, it’s said that the nails are also considered a branch of the tendons. Strength and suppleness of the tendons and nails is said to be directly related to the health of the Liver. If you’ve been pulling many muscles at the gym or notice that your nails are thin or chip often, it might be worth mentioning to your TCM practitioner.
How to Keep Your Liver Healthy
The best way to ensure your Liver system is running well? Maintaining a healthy lifestyle designed with regular exercise, nutrient-rich foods, care for your mental and emotional wellbeing, and general balanced living. However, if you think your Liver could use some added preventative attention, there are several practices you can incorporate in your day-to-day living.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Because the Liver is so intricately connected with the emotion of anger, it’s important to facilitate as much calm and peace in your life as possible. Do your best to take things slow and steady, even when intense energy might be erupting around you. In the ways of TCM, think about practices that will release tension and anger not only emotionally, but also from your mind and body.
Incorporate time for long, casual walks in your neighborhood or park, give yoga or tai chi a try, or block out time throughout the day to do gentle stretches and breathing exercises. It’s also a good idea to set aside time to decompress and actively let go of any grudges, hurt, or stress that might be building inside you. Meditating and journaling are two positive ways to facilitate this process.
Limit Your Alcohol Intake
The Liver has to work hard to process and metabolize the alcohol we drink. Like the other organs in the zang fu, when overworked they tend to drop the ball on certain responsibilities, resulting in some of those unpleasant symptoms. Next time you’re out at the bar with friends, maybe think twice before ordering that last round of drinks. Slowing down and drinking in moderation will help keep your Liver in fighting shape.
While it might be hard to cut out all alcohol from your diet, you can take baby steps to creating healthier lifestyle choices. To start, don’t chug your alcoholic beverages. Sip them slowly and alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening. You might also decide to give yourself a set number of drinks you’ll choose to consume each night, or per week to help stay aware of the work you’re loading up your Liver with.
Eat Liver-Friendly Foods
The Liver has a bountiful link with the season of spring, meaning that many of the foods thought to promote Liver health are fresh and don’t need to be cooked as long as normally suggested. Stock up on healthy veggies and fruits like beets, carrots, watercress, onions, mustard greens, grapefruit, lime, and lemons. You’ll also want to stick with complex carbs like legumes, seeds, and whole grains.
Bitter foods tend to benefit the Liver. Try asparagus, rye, romaine lettuce, quinoa, radish leaves, and citrus peel. For a special cleanse and detox of the Liver consider adding more dandelion root, chamomile, mung beans, cucumber, seaweed, celery, mushroom, and rhubarb to your plate. To top it all off, sip on some honey and mint tea.
Choose Gentle Exercises
The connection between the Liver and the tendons is quite strong, meaning that by protecting your tendons you can support your Liver health at the same time. Though you might love to feel the burn and go hard at the gym, it could be wise to examine whether the types of exercises you’re doing are stressing out those tendons.
Many intense and quick exercises can too rapidly stretch out and overwork the tendons, resulting in loss of elasticity. This can be reflected in the Liver’s health too, making it less flexible and able to perform with ease. If you think you’ve been overdoing it in those work outs, take a few days off and substitute gentle exercises like walking, swimming, dance, or hot yoga to take the pressure off those sensitive areas.
Try Acupressure for Liver Health
Concerned about your Liver health but still have some time before your next acupuncture appointment? Try acupressure massage at home to support your Liver health. The acupressure point known as “Taichong”, or Liver 3, is connected to one of the most targeted areas of the Liver channel.
To locate Liver 3, simply find the spot between your big toe and its neighbor, then your finger down about an inch to the depression in between the two metatarsal bones. You should rub this area on each foot for several minutes every day. Simply use your thumb and apply steady pressure while massaging, either in small circles or in a line. You might feel some slight soreness during this process, but that likely means you’re experiencing the unblocking of your Liver qi.