Spring Cleaning and the Liver

It’s a tough job, doing ALL THE THINGS, but somebody’s gotta do it.

If the liver could speak, I’m fairly certain that’s what it would say.

Self-aggrandizing hyperbolic tendencies aside, the liver is tasked with a hefty workload. And probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

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So today, in honor of spring which appears to have finally arrived, I’m paying tribute to the liver, as it is the element associated with this long-awaited season.

The liver, along with its side kick the gallbladder, comprise the wood element.

Just as spring is about renewal and rebirth following the introspection and quiet that mark the winter season, the wood element and its trusty henchmen liver and gallbladder are all about growth and expansion. Onward and upward.

Here’s the deal with the liver. Because one of its main functions is to ensure the smooth flow of qi, it basically regulates, whether directly or indirectly, the internal workings of the body. Like a boss.

The liver courses the body and makes sure the other organs and corresponding meridians are doing their respective thangs.

And if it meets any resistance – think kinks in a hose – it will get backed up. And when it gets backed up, it gets frustrated, angry, maybe even rage-y, and will make its displeasure known elsewhere in the body.

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If the liver sees that any other organ is acting a-fool (cough cough, spleen, stomach, and lungs), it will go crusin’ for a bruisin’ and consequences will be meted out.

Said consequences can take the form of digestive issues of the IBS persuasion, trouble breathing smoothly and fully (shallow breathing, tightness in the chest), heart burn, bitter taste in the mouth, headache, eye issues (blurry, red, itchy, burn-y, etc), insomnia, dizziness, and of course the aforementioned anger (and frustration, resentment, rage).

You see, the buildup created when the liver can’t motor along smoothly generates heat, and heat rises…hence the abundance of symptoms that reside in the upper body. This is compounded by the fact that the liver’s own preferred direction is upward; a healthy ascendant quality is a good thing but when the liver becomes stagnant, there can be an excess of symptoms rising, boiling over, if you will…

Lest you begin to think of the liver as a schoolyard bully, its actually a good guy, it just needs the space to do its thing and it needs the other organs to stay in line and all will be well with the world. In Chinese medicine, the liver’s role is likened to a general. It keeps everyone in order and on task.

Consider this: do you ever notice a vague (or pronounced) sense of agitation when things don’t go your way? Your best laid plans went completely off the rails, because life, and instead of rolling with the punches like the yoga goddess that you area, you get all butt hurt and ensnared by your own emotions? Hypothetically, of course. Not speaking from experience or anything…

But in all seriousness, lack of flow internally or externally will upset the liver and the result will likely be one of stress, emotional buildup and, if it goes unaddressed for long enough, a complete outburst.

Or so I’ve heard. Again, no personal touch points here.

Suffice it to say, the liver is inexorably tied to the stress response. And since stress is in constant supply in our productivity-crazed, achievement-oriented culture, it’s not unreasonable to posit that most of us could benefit from a bit of liver lovin.’

But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t finish my primer on the liver’s role within the context of Chinese medicine. Skip ahead if you’d rather stay on the abridged path and fast track yerself to the actionable takeaways!

Liver Functions:
The liver stores the blood. This one may be a bit esoteric for western-minded folks but bear with me. Chinese medicine wisdom tells us that blood travels to the liver when the body is at rest, and flows to the muscles to support movement – both intentional exercise and simple daily activities – during waking hours. If the blood is in short supply, the liver is unable to direct sufficient stores to the musculature, making it difficult to engage in – and recover from – activity.

The liver opens to the eyes. Every organ and meridian has a corresponding and the eyes are the liver’s main squeeze. It’s not uncommon to see liver issues manifest in the eyes, possibly in the form of redness, itchiness, blurriness, poor night vision, floaters, etc.

The liver controls the sinews. Each organ system has a corresponding tissue and the liver’s is the sinews, which is the Chinese medicine way of saying tendons and ligaments. Having an adequate supply of blood and body fluids to nourish and lubricate the sinews is essential, otherwise they become tight and clench-y, which only aggravates the tension that builds when the liver gets cranky (like when your shoulders unintentionally scrunch up to your ears and get stuck there). Various forms of tendonitis, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and other ‘sinew’ conditions often have underlying liver imbalances.

The liver manifests in the nails. Yet another tissue correspondence. This one is seen as an outgrowth of the sinews, extending from the internal to the external body. Gnarly nails – excessive ridging, spots, discoloration, brittleness or weakness – can indicate liver imbalance.

And now for a biggie – the liver houses the ethereal soul, or the ‘hun.’ Each organ system has a spiritual aspect to it, its own sort of spiritual personification. The hun, also called the wanderer, is charged with life planning. Big picture life plans, hopes and dreams. If the liver is too tightly bound by an overly planned schedule or not sufficiently bolstered by some semblance of life direction, the hun will be disturbed, and will likely ‘go wandering,’ causing insomnia. Often during the ‘liver’ time of the day, between 1 and 3am. How fun. And common. The hun is said to live on after we die, so the concept is akin to some modern and religious conceptualizations of the soul.

But what about the liver in western medicine? The one that’s constantly barraged by toxic insults? Any parallels there?

Why yes, yes, there are. The liver in hugely important and integral to overall health through the purview of both Chinese and western medicine. Both paradigms assign regulatory, detoxifying roles to this wonder organ, and both acknowledge the liver’s propensity for becoming congested – in western medicine, due to food, environmental, and other toxic exposures, and in Chinese medicine, due to all of the above-mentioned insults plus emotional factors (i.e. stress).

So how do we stay on the liver’s good side and keep it motoring along smoothly?

Be cognizant of stress and your reaction to it. Stress is inevitable but how we deal with it is within our control. Meditation, calm breathing, journaling, even simply just stepping back and witnessing your reactions to stressful situations and reframing them can go a long way towards changing the course of stress’ affects on your body.

Move. The liver, belonging to the wood element that is by nature expansive, has to move to be happy and healthy, and moving one’s body can facilitate that. Yoga, walking, jogging, lifting weights, jazzercize, prancercise…whatever floats your boat. Just make sure it’s not overly taxing – you should feel energized after exercise, not decimated.

And stretch. Particularly if you’re a desk jockey who sits for extended period of time. Side body stretches really open up the liver and gallbladder meridians and can liberate some stored energy.

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Eat mindfully and seasonally. Spring is the time to lighten your culinary load, swapping wintry comfort food (buh bye mac & cheese) for lighter fare, such as grains, legumes, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Again, anything with that expansive, ascendant quality is going to be a good fit for the liver, so basically get chummy with produce. Gold stars go to vegetables that have a cleansing effect, such as radishes and beets.

Seasoning foods with pungent herbs will also give the liver a bit of a boost; think marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill, and bay leaf.

Bitter and in particular, sour, flavored foods can also balance the liver, exerting a cleansing and decongesting effect. Citrus fruits, apple cider vinegar, bitter greens like arugula and radicchio are all excellent choices in this department.

Herbal teas such as dandelion root and burdock root are wonderful liver cleansers/tonics. I’m also a fan of adding a few rose buds – called mei gui hua in Chinese medicine – to water as a gentle liver mover/taste enhancer.

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Lastly, acupressure on Liver 3, a top notch acupuncture point on the liver channel, can create a much-needed grounded effect when you’re feeling stressed and escalated. Give it a solid squeeze for 30 – 60 seconds – don’t worry too much about the precise location, it will squawk at you when you find it – whenever you’re feeling wound up.

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And with that, I’m off to keep my liver happy by going for a stroll!

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