Remember, Chinese medicine was already fairly well-developed 2,500 years ago. At that time, the Chinese had a different perspective on the liver organ, but of course 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 in Chinese medicine for Liver syndromes of disease.
Acupuncturists see and treat this 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?
1. Liver Function Enables your energy to flow smoothly
What do we mean by saying that your Liver functions have a huge effect on your life?
Let me explain!
Qi takes many forms, including mental(excessive mental exertion can upset Qi) and emotional(how calm or frustrated, angry, upset, resentful or otherwise emotional you are).
That means that when mental or emotional issues cause life blocks, Qi stops flowing and the result is 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 function 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 (see below) is working well it will provide 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. For example, 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.
2. Liver Function? Stores Blood
The Liver regulates the amount of Blood circulating, withdrawing and storing it when resting or sleeping, and releasing it during exercise.
This function – of storing Blood – is almost more profound than its function of smoothing the flow of Qi. Think of it like the manager of the oceans. Ideally, the water flows around in an orderly manner, coming in and going out with the tides. When the tide comes in it refreshes the shoreline, gradually washing onto the land the garbage that amasses out at sea, leaving it for beachcombers to discover.
If the water is acting normally, when the tide goes out it leaves cleaner beaches and sand.
In the same way, if your Blood is healthy and plentiful, you submerge happily and comfortably into sleep, awaking next morning refreshed.
The tide is ruled mainly by the moon and the Liver also regulates a woman’s menses, her monthly cycle, 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 your confidence, your character and your strengths or weaknesses. It’s a major resource on which you can depend – or not, if your Liver fails to do its job.
Good sleep – like a good high tide – revitalises your Mind too. In the morning you can think through problems more easily, and often your Mind supplies answers to questions that had worried you the day before. Insufficient sleep, in either quality or quantity, means you aren’t at your best the next day so you have to work harder to be alert. Probably you’ll take caffeine (coffee) but that has downsides too – see more about coffee downsides here.
Storms disturb the oceans: the equivalent of emotional or mental excesses or ‘passions’. The less Liver Blood there is, the more easily you are disturbed by Life. That disturbance in Liver Blood can lead to all sorts of problems, from cramps and spasms to poor vision. More about these below.
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. (By the way, the foods in the picture all benefit Liver Blood.) So how well your Liver functions – including how well it smoothes your Qi – depends on Liver Blood.
For example, you probably skipped through that first sentence ‘The Liver regulates the amount …’! Did you see the word ‘sleeping’ there? Liver functions govern all parts of life. So if you wake up with leg cramps at night, you’ve probably got a Liver Blood deficiency at root!
Of course, nutrition is important, especially Blood Building foods which help form the sub-structure for a stable personality. But developing your Mind so that you have more control over your thinking greatly helps, which is why learning meditation helps.
3. Liver Function Regulates Your Emotions
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 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.
Effect of Drugs
So next time you take medication or even social drugs or immunisation, all of which are non-foods that enter your system, watch out for side-effects!
All these chemicals are metabolised by your liver organ, and the work entailed can disturb your Liver function in TCM. If your Liver labours under the extra strain, you’ll probably get digestive disturbances for a while.
So, all you Covid 19 vaccinatees, make sure you are well and rested before your vaccination!
The same goes for other immunisations, of course, not least for infants having all those vaccinations during their first two years.
5. Liver Function Opens into your Eyes
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, then the sight will be clear and in a bigger sense, there is the potential for Vision – seeing the larger picture which means 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 able to articulate arguments for 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.
Another way your Liver energy may affect you is when there is too much Liver Yang energy (click the link to read more about this): that pushes upwards – because yang energy rises – and affects you head and shoulders with tension, pain, eye problems (eg red eye, visual disturbances, etc) and often nausea.
Visually, your sight is poorer so 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.
6. Controls your tendons, and manifests in your nails
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. Often, if Liver function is involved, you’ll get problems along the Liver meridian or channel, see image above.
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 your Blood is poor quality, your Liver Blood will be too, and your Liver Function as well.
Harmonising the Liver
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 in Chinese medicine there are 9 basic 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.
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