In Chinese medicine, how we explain health and disease is very different to conventional medicine. Therefore, how we describe organ function is completely unique.
In this series, I’m going to try my best to explain what individual organs do from a Chinese medical perspective. There are 12 “main” organs that are given great emphasis in the classical texts.
I’ll try and post a blog a month about each one. It will be brief, and intended for patients, or prospective patients, who want to gain a bit of a better understanding of some Chinese medicine theory.
This might then open up new dialogue for other blog posts to explain the relationships between these organs, and how these relationships affect health overall. But I’m getting ahead of myself before I even start!
So let’s start with the Liver, since we’ve just had Christmas and New Year, with lots of indulgence in alcohol and rich foods…
The Liver is not a detox organ. Contrary to popular belief, the Liver does not need special detoxification herbs. Nor do you need to go on some whacko apple cider vinegar and kale smoothie cleanse to help rid your Liver of “toxins”. I have never seen any mention in our Chinese medicine textbooks that the Liver is a “detoxification organ”.
In Chinese medicine, the Liver’s main role is to regulate Qi movement around the whole body. It also “stores blood”. Its affiliated emotion is anger and frustration. Waking between 1 – 3am is seen as being “Liver time”. The Liver also “opens to the eyes” and the health of one’s Liver Qi and blood can be seen in the nourishment of one’s nails (fingers and toes).
In women, the Liver’s function of storing blood and regulating Qi, manifests in their menstrual cycles.
Liver Qi needs to move smoothly, and on time, so that this Qi can then move some of the stored blood into and out of the uterus (resulting in a regular period). If Liver Qi moves smoothly, the result is a regular, fuss-free period. No pre-menstrual symptoms, no pain, and healthy fresh red bleeding.
The Liver Meridian/Channel pathway
(my own illustration using an outline from A Manual of Acupuncture by Baker, Al-Khafaji and Deadman because I couldn’t find any FEMALE illustrations depicting where the meridian flows through female genitalia)
In both men and women, the Liver channel (also known as the Liver meridian) has a main pathway that starts at the big toe, runs up the inner leg (close to the shin and up the inner thigh), into the groin encircling the genitalia. From there it moves up the central lower abdomen to the outer/lateral aspect up to the ribs and spreads across the rib/breast region, this is where the main channel stops. A deeper pathway moves to travels around the stomach and then into the Liver and Gall Bladder where it spreads across the diaphragm (another branch spreading across the Lungs) then up into the neck and throat. It continues up into the eye through the forehead and finishes at the very top (the vertex) of the head.
Some of the menstrual cycle issues that we see in clinic are a result of Liver Qi being “stuck” or “stagnated” and consequently not being able to move blood smoothly during a menstrual period.
For example, PMS or the more severe PMD, is generally a sign that Liver Qi needs moving and regulating. Some other symptoms of stuck Liver Qi could be:
That all too familiar feeling of anger that rises and builds over little things that normally wouldn’t bother us, usually resulting in irrational arguments with loved ones, and after a while them asking “Is your period due soon…?”.
Breasts so tender and swollen that a whole section of “pre-menstrual bras” is devoted to the underwear drawer.
Headaches experienced at the top of the head, or migraines with light sensitivity that coincide with ovulation or the period.
Weird sleep patterns in the lead up to the period, often with weird dreams, nightmares, or insomnia. Often waking between 1-3am.
A painful, clotty period.
Pain with ovulation.
An irregular cycle.
All of these can be signs that your Liver Qi is not moving well.
These symptoms, in Chinese medicine are not “normal”. These symptoms are common, but common does not make it normal. These symptoms give the Acupuncturist, or Chinese medicine herbalist, clues as to how to get things moving properly. There are acupuncture points and Chinese herbs that are specific to helping move and regulate Liver Qi. Depending on where, or how, the Liver Qi stagnation is manifesting, combined with any other symptoms of other organ dysfunction that the patient complains about, will further refine our choice of which points or herbs to use.
Lifestyle advice would be to get the patient exercising regularly. It can be gentle, or moderate, such as walking, swimming, yoga or pilates. It could be high impact like running or HIIT workouts. Any exercise that moves the body will help to move Liver Qi. Not letting anything “fester” by holding back our thoughts or feelings, is essential for smooth flowing Liver Qi, so spit it out! Get it out! Dark green, slightly bitter, vegetables (such as kale, choy sum or spinach) are good for the Liver but you can just cook them, you don’t have to make a smoothie out of it!
If you think your Liver Qi needs a bit of help getting things moving, call us for an appointment today.