The rise of COVID-19 has stirred the emotions in all of us. The increase in fear, stress, and anxiety has reached new levels. Excess worry over our health, income, and our loved one’s well-being has an affect on our health and immune system. The cascade of inflammation that takes over when cortisol (our stress hormone) is released on a consistent basis decreases our ability to fight pathogens (viruses and bacteria), digest foods, think clearly, and sleep soundly. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is a system of diagnosis called the Five Elements. The Five Elements are a comprehensive template that organizes all natural phenomena into five master groups or patterns in nature. Each of the five groups—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—include categories such as a season, a direction, climate, stage of growth and development, internal organ, body tissue, emotion, aspect of the soul, taste, color, sound, and more. The Five Elements reflect a deep understanding of natural law, the Universal order underlying all things in our world. In this article, we will explore the element of Wood and the organ the Liver. The Liver is responsible for maintaining the free flow of qi (energy) within our bodies. When we feel stressed, our Liver Qi “stagnates” and we feel stuck. What impact does this have on our physical wellness?
In TCM, each organ is assigned “functions” that help us diagnose and treat a patient. The emotion associated with the Liver is anger and the sound is shouting. Anger unexpressed can smolder as depression. The Liver is said to harmonize digestion, emotion, menstruation, and the production of bile. When you are living in a state of stress, you may notice you can feel easily frustrated, irritable, quick to temper, or overwhelmed. This can turn into being short with our loved ones, or blowing up at our co-workers which is not so great for being in quarantine! In Chinese Medicine, this is a classic case of what we call, “Liver Qi Stagnation.” In these cases, you should avoid overworking, eating while on the run, and saying yes when you really mean no! Many people in a Liver Qi Stagnation pattern will also hold their breath, further stagnating Qi. You might notice your loved ones sighing more often. This is the body’s way of trying to move the Qi. When your Liver energy is in balance, we do not sweat the small stuff, it is easy to focus, exercise leadership, work smart instead of hard, and a good challenge feels fun rather than overwhelming.
In Chinese medicine your Liver also regulates menstruation. When your liver is in a state of imbalance you may have an increase in premenstrual symptoms such as: mood swings, cravings, bloating, fatigue, breast tenderness, and depression. Your cycle may become irregular and you are more likely to experience menstrual cramps. Women with stagnant qi and blood tend to have more blood clots in their menstrual blood, and more pain. You may also experience symptoms of infertility and have trouble getting pregnant. Acupuncture is a great way to regulate liver qi, menstruation, and boost fertility.
In Chinese medicine the associated tissue of the Liver is our tendons. When we are stressed, it is common to hold tension in our muscles and tendons leading to a tight upper back, shoulders, and neck as well as various muscle aches and pains. To combat these symptoms, make time in your day to stretch and breathe. It is as important to take time for meditation as it is to exercise.
The season for the Liver is spring and the element is wood! Spring is a time for expansion and growth so when our liver becomes restricted and compromised by stress it can lead to a diagnosis in Chinese Medicine called, “Liver (wood) Overacting on Spleen/Stomach (Earth). Symptoms include digestive issues such as gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. When this happens, the best things you can do for your body include: taking walks, getting outside, exercising (to move your qi!), and nourishing your body with foods that are easy to digest and are replenishing to your Liver! In Five Element theory, the color associated with the liver is green and the flavor is sour! Foods that have these properties can therefore nourish the liver. Alfalfa, algae, asparagus, basil, broccoli, radish, citrus peels, collard greens, kale, seaweed, spirulina, sprouts, and wheatgrass are good options to nourish your liver. In Western Medicine, the liver is responsible for filtering out toxins, so it is no consequence that nourishing foods for the liver are often found in detox juices, cleanses, and diets. You should avoid overly spicy foods, fried or greasy foods, alcohol, and caffeine as these foods may help you feel stress relief in the moment, but they are taxing on your liver and will be detrimental to your feelings of well-being in the long run.
The liver opens to the eyes and manifests on the lateral sides of the tongue. When the Liver is out of balance, the tongue coat may be lacking and the tongue body may be pale or bright red. If Liver Qi is left to stagnate too long it will turn into heat and the heat will start to rise. In Chinese medicine this is called “Liver Yang Rising.” You may notice symptoms such as a red face or red and irritated eyes. Other symptoms can include: headaches, migraines, tinnitus, sudden deafness, an increase in blood pressure, dream disturbed sleep, or insomnia.
In Chinese Medicine, the Liver time is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Waking between these hours is a sign of an imbalanced Liver. Secondarily, when heat rises it will also affect the Heart because in Chinese Medicine, the Liver is the mother to the Heart. This is a generating relationship because the liver’s element wood generates the heart’s element of fire. In nature, wood fuels fire; so if you are adding excess wood to the fire you are generating an increasing amount of heat. This same effect takes place within the body. When heat starts to rise it will lead to what we call, “heart fire.” Symptoms of Heart Fire include: anxiety, palpitations, mouth and tongue ulcers, mental restlessness, agitation, extreme thirst, and vivid dreams. To combat Liver Yang Rising and Heart Heat, participate in activities that bring you joy, start a gratitude journal, and make time for your own self care. If there are unresolved issues or unspoken resentments, find a way to express them in a beneficial way.
The Liver maintains the free flow of Qi within our body and is easily stagnated by stress. If you have high stress you are compromising the energetic functions of your Liver. The relationships between each of the organ systems and each element is directly affected by one another and is ever changing as they try to maintain balance. This is why stress can lead to a plethora of symptoms that may seem unrelated at first glance and why acupuncture is so holistic, treating the person rather than a symptom. Acupuncture studies have shown that it is effective at significantly reducing depression, anxiety, and stress (1), (2). Finding balance can sometimes be challenging. Acupuncture offers an avenue to reduce stress and attain homeostasis (regulation) within the body. When your environment is not changing, the only choice is to change yourself and your response to what is around you. In addition to acupuncture, sufficient exercise, a healthy diet, breath work, resolving conflict, and finding joy and gratitude will promote a happy Liver and in turn a happy body.