The Liver is one of the most important organs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is described as the “General” that orders and coordinates the flow of energy throughout the entire body. If the General is doing his job properly, then the right resources will arrive at the correct locations at the proper times. If not, then the system won’t operate in an efficient manner. Here is the description of the TCM Liver.
Tissue Type: Tendons
External Manifestation: Nails
Maintains the free flow of Qi
The failure of the Liver to perform its primary function of maintaining the free flow of energy in the body has both physical and emotional manifestations. If energy is flowing smoothly the mind is at ease, much like a broad river with no obstructions is able to flow calmly between its banks. If the river is dammed, however, the water stagnates. Pressure builds up behind the dam until it finally reaches critical mass and bursts through the dam. Emotionally, constant stress damages the Liver’s function of maintaining the free flow of Qi. Now the pressure builds, creating a feeling of generalized restlessness and irritability with no defined cause. It is also easy for the person to become angry as pent-up energy bursts through the dam and manifests and excessive or inappropriate anger.
Physically, failure of this function manifests and pain and pressure in various parts of the body. These pains come on subtly with no associated trauma or injury to explain their origin. People who speak of ‘carrying their stress in their shoulders’ are often experiencing this disharmony. Also common is abdominal pain or indigestion that gets worse with stress.
Element: The wood element is associated with wood in its natural, living state. Trees exhibit an orderly growth and development that mirrors the Liver’s function of maintaining orderly development within the body. Furthermore, the Liver’s associated tissue, tendons, are hard and ‘woody.’
Emotion: Anger and irritability are both a cause and a symptom of disharmony in the Liver system. Excessive anger and irritability can both make it harder to maintain the smooth flow of energy. Over time, this increased workload can compromise the Liver’s ability to perform its job. As the Liver’s ability to perform its energetic function declines, anger and irritability become more and more easily manifest. The person exhibiting this pattern will gradually come to have a shorter and shorter fuse, becoming irritated and anger over ever more minor annoyances.
Tissue Type: The tendons are the tissue associated with the Liver. Diseases characterized by stiffness of the joints and limbs are said develop from the Liver’s inability to nourish the tendons.
External Manifestation: Vertical ridges on the nails or soft, easily chipped nails are indicative of Liver deficiency.
Opening: Persons with stagnation of Liver Qi often manifest with red eyes. From a Western medical perspective this is due to hypertension, likely exacerbated by a high-stress lifestyle. Most arteries have thick walls that are able to withstand an increase in pressure. The blood vessels in the eye, however, are much finer and respond to the increase in pressure by swelling or even breaking. This causes small hemorrhages in the eye which lead to the red appearance. Additionally, people with Liver deficiency may present with dry eyes or blurry vision after a long day.
Liver Qi stagnation is one of the most common diagnoses at modern acupuncture clinics. There are very few patients who do not have at least a few signs and symptoms related to this pattern of disharmony. Part of the underlying reason for this is, I think, the unique stresses that modern living places on the human body. The body has two types of neural stimulation: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The parasympathetic corresponds roughly the body’s Rest and Digest functions, that is its ability to relax, heal and absorb the nutrients necessary for repair and growth. Sympathetic stimulation relates to the body’s Fight or Flight response. Blood flow is diverted away from the organs of digestion and to skeletal muscles, the pupils dilate to expand the field of vision and breathing and heart rates increase. It is a system admirably designed to deal with immediate, acute dangers—ones that can be fought, or fled.
Ideally, these two systems work together in balance. Modern living, however, tends to overstimulate the sympathetic system. A stressful job, irritating co-worker or white-knuckle commute is not something that one can just fight or run from—at least not without incurring more serious consequences. This constant stress not only can contribute to the frustration and anger that impairs the Liver, but keeps the body from entering its Rest and Digest state as much as it needs to as well. The result? Lower immunity, slower healing, poorer digestion and a precarious state of health ready to be compromised.
A large step towards solving this problem is to take time for yourself throughout the day away from stressful triggers. Find time to think, rest, pray, meditate or take a short walk. Removing yourself from stressful situations during meals is especially important. Rather than bolting down food on the run find a relaxing environment to eat in, share the meal with friends or family and give yourself a little breathing space after the meal before rushing off for your next engagement.