Liver Functions in Chinese Medicine are different from those understood by Western (or orthodox) medicine.
Remember, Chinese medicine was already fairly well-developed 2,500 years ago. The Chinese then had a different perspective on the liver organ, but they lacked the scientific knowledge we possess.
They made up for it - hugely! -by bringing together a group of functions that they attributed to the Liver. These are the basis for what we call Liver syndromes of disease.
Those syndromes are seen and treated by acupuncturists the world over every day with great success.
Many modern conditions of ill-health are diagnosed as being partly or wholly Liver syndromes. There's a list at the bottom of the page.
So what are the basic Liver functions recognised by Chinese medicine?
(Getting your head round these different functions takes a little while, and understanding their tremendous health implications for modern man and woman takes longer.)
First then, what, in Chinese Medicine, does the Liver do?
What do we mean by saying that your Liver functions have a huge effect on your life?
Because Qi takes many forms, including mental (excessive mental exertion can upset Qi) and emotional (how frustrated, angry, upset, resentful or otherwise emotional you are) when Qi is disturbed and stops flowing, you get pain.
That pain can be mental, emotional or physical.
By definition in Chinese medicine, if there is pain, there is some disturbance in the flow of Qi.
Your Liver functions include, as first priority, the job of keeping your Qi moving smoothly.
So when your Liver is prevented from letting Qi flow smoothly, you get what is called Stagnant Liver Qi.
When Qi is flowing smoothly, you feel fine, all the traffic lights are set to green and everything runs along nicely. Your relaxed personality deals confidently with life's challenges.
But what about those people who always seem tense and preoccupied? If the Liver’s facility for storing Blood is working well (see next heading) it provides stability for the personality to deal with problems as they arise. But if you find yourself reacting to life with tension and emotional frustration, bitterness or anger, then probably your Liver Qi is 'stagnant'.
To some extent you can learn how to make it seem that your Liver Qi is flowing smoothly: you can bluff your way, act it out, do your NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and imitate success at that interview!
But if your Liver Qi is stagnant, your colleagues will eventually notice. So let's hope you get your stagnant Liver Qi sorted out before work actually begins, or they'll get a surprise and your job won't last long.
Fortunately acupuncture is brilliant at smoothing Stagnant Liver Qi. Read more about it below.
The Liver regulates the amount of Blood circulating, withdrawing and storing it when resting or sleeping, and releasing it during exercise.
The Liver also regulates a woman's menses, so how a woman's Liver functions is vital to her health and fertility.
Liver Blood, as it is called, is at the basis of our confidence, our character and its strength of weakness. It’s a major resource on which we can depend, or not.
It’s like money in the bank. If you don’t have much of it, life will be full of problems, and much of your time will be spent just getting by.
If you have plenty of money, you can relax because even in hard times you'll have funds to fall back on.
More to the point, you can feel positive in your dealings with the world: if one project fails you can start another.
In Chinese Medicine, how your Liver functions depends on a supply of healthy Liver Blood.
This, another of the Liver functions, arises from free flow of Qi and adequate Liver Blood.
Even if someone has been very emotional (angry, frustrated, sorrowful, shocked, for example) if they have plenty of reserves they’ll be more likely to recover faster.
If they have poor reserves, there’ll always be that extra tension which prevents them from sleeping properly; that ongoing anxiety that colours all their dealings in life and which puts pressure on their emotional harmony.
Here’s an answer for all those with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), constipation, ulcers, distension, belching, food sensitivity and so on. In terms of Chinese Medicine, this, one of the most vital Liver functions, could be an answer.
Very often, if your Liver functions poorly, the first place you notice it is in your digestion. That doesn’t mean that smoothing or relaxing your Liver Qi is always a complete solution because your Liver energy is only one of many in your body. But it is an important player: it ‘smoothes’ your digestive processes.
If it doesn’t spread Qi smoothly in the digestive tract, you’ll get poor digestion, with distension and discomfort, and the vital portal blood vessels that carry nutrition from the intestines to the liver and blood stream won’t do their job, you won’t absorb what you need and you’ll probably feel cold or weak or irritable or sleepy.
Your Liver functions hand in glove with your Spleen Qi function of transforming food and transporting nutrition round the body.
If the Liver energy is disturbed, the Spleen energy won’t work smoothly either.
There's a Chinese saying: ‘The eyes are the window of the Soul’.
(They didn’t mean ‘Soul’ in the Christian sense, however: more something like ‘Personality’ or ‘Character’, although that begs a number of other questions.)
If there is adequate healthy Liver Blood, the sight will be clear and in a bigger sense, there is the potential for Vision – seeing the larger picture, by which is meant seeing all the possibilities inherent in a situation or life and being able to marshal them into order.
If your Liver Blood is poor or inadequate, then your vision will be impoverished. Not only won’t you see the larger picture – or you’ll see only one part of it – but you won’t be capable of bringing together all the arguments to enable you to see the way forward.
Alternatively you’ll see so many sides of the argument that you can’t make sense of it (which makes it harder for you to take decisions, decision-taking being the task of your Gall-Bladder energy, the Liver’s partner). Your Liver functions in a tight relationship with all the other Zang-fu Organs, and when it functions poorly, so in due course will the rest of them.
Visually, your sight is poorer. It may be blurred, or contain little black specs – floaters. Your eyes may suffer from a range of problems, such as inflammation of the sclera (the whites of the eyes), cataracts and tics, or early tiredness when viewing films or looking at your computer screen.
If your Liver functions well and your body runs smoothly, then you don’t notice these problems.
But cramps, spasms, lack of flexibility, excess tension in muscles, misalignment of joints and pains from poor posture may all be attributable to how your Liver functions in controlling the tendons.
Men: listen! -
In some old texts the penis seems to have been regarded as being an extra tendon. Certainly the Liver channel runs round your sexual organs - in both men and women - and plentiful supplies of Liver Blood are needed there by both sexes - you know when.
(I once treated someone with Peyronie’s syndrome (look it up) because his Liver functions of controlling the tendons weren’t functioning properly. For reasons to do with the British Advertising Standards Authority I’m not permitted to say how successful the treatment was, but he has since referred many patients to me.)
Concerning the nails, maintaining lustrous nails is said to be one of the Liver functions. In fact it’s the nails as well as the nail-bed which are meant. Nails that are deformed, or don't grow properly, or split, or are easily damaged etc come predominantly under your Liver Energy.
Of course, what you eat and how smoothly life flows for you, whether you live a relaxed or a hectic life and any recent diseases you've suffered will all contribute to the health of your nails. But in a way, all those different factors are 'wrapped up' into your Liver function.
Remember that Blood itself has a number of sources, what we eat being only one of them. If the Blood is of poor quality, then so will be Liver Blood.
Zhou Xuehai said “The physician who knows how to harmonize the liver knows how to treat the hundred diseases.” (Reflections Upon Reading the Medical Classics (Du Yi Suibi) ca. 1895)
Mind you, I’ve heard that said of the Spleen too, but can’t remember the reference!
So what can go wrong with the Liver functions? I’ve mentioned a few of the possibilities above, but strictly speaking there are 9 possible syndromes - see below.
I would say, however, that it is rare to get just one of them, except perhaps the first one – Stagnant Liver Qi – on its own. There is usually involvement from another syndrome, whether of the Liver or another of the Zang (Organ) energies.
And if Liver Qi Stagnation, the first one, has been around for a long time, then you'll almost certainly see some of the other syndromes appearing as well.
1. Liver Qi stagnation, but also read Qi Stagnation
2. Liver Fire (‘flare-up of Fire in the Liver’)
3. Cold stagnation in the Liver channel
4. Liver Blood Stasis
5. Liver Wind (‘Stirring of Liver Wind by Heat’)
6. Damp-heat of Liver and Gall-Bladder
7. Liver Yin deficiency
8. Liver Yang rising
9. Liver Blood deficiency