“The months of the Spring season bring about the revitalization of all things in nature. It is the time of birth….this is the season in which the universal energy begins anew and rejuvenates…one should attempt to correspond to it directly by being open and unsupressed, both physically and emotionally.” Huangdi Neijing
“The Liver holds the office of General .[and] storm[s] the fortifications in pursuit of bandits“ — Basic Questions, Chpt.8, SuWen
So it’s been a brutal winter — again — and as soon as we begin to sense the awakening of nature around us we feel like it is time to fetch the oil to grease our cranky selves and try to regain the pep in our step and the flex in our muscles. We instinctively feel the need to move and shed our layers. Spring marks the season where yang energies begin to emerge and mother nature awakes from its state of dormancy out of the cold winter season. It can be a heady, invigorating, sometimes disturbing season with wild fluctuations of energy surging throughout nature as birth, arousal, and movement. And our bodies naturally resonate with these energies. If we are in good health we immediately spring along, if we’ve been neglectful we sputter….
It makes sense that the climatic energy most associated with the Spring season – from a Chinese medicine perspective – is Wind. The concept of Wind in Chinese medicine is extensive. As Chinese medicine evolved over the centuries, so too did the physiological concept of wind. For instance Wind is understood as arising not only from our external environment — such as the onset of common allergens including the food we ingest to nourish ourselves — but also the internal movements often caused by our myriad of emotions (concept of internal wind).
What’s My Liver Have to Do with It?
From the Chinese perspective the liver is the organ that needs the most attention during the turbulent “Windy” season. To understand this we must review the role of the liver.
As the main blood detoxifier our liver is the second line of defense against all types of allergens and disease (our digestive system being the first). It is our body’s primary blood filtration system and acts as a sieve to catch all the toxins that enter the body and make it through the blood to the liver. The body’s primary source of toxins comes from the choice of inappropriate foods. Simple things – such as stimulants (sugar, salt, caffeine, MSG), overcooked meats, rancid fats, hydrogenated fats, highly processed foods, food additives and preservatives, bad food combinations and even natural foods that are not appropriate for certain people – easily load up the body with toxic substances (“the bandits”) that the liver, as the second line of defense has to process. Toxicity also arises due to drugs, lack of exercise to aid the liver in moving the blood supply, and even toxic emotions that forces the liver to stagnate.
The liver is also a main catalyst to most of our crucial metabolic processes in our body. Almost every nutrient we consume goes through the liver after being digested so it can be transformed into a useable biochemical form. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all processed in the liver and turned into a readily useable form of glucose that is then distributed to the rest of the body. The liver produces a host of enzymes and hormones that facilitates the extensive digestive process.
Blood Storage House
In addition our entire blood supply goes through your liver as many as 20 times/day. To this end, the liver is a major regulator of your circulating blood. It releases vital nutrients, enzymes and hormones through the blood stream as the body needs it.
Why is My Liver Stagnant and/or “On Fire”?
Though active all year, in the Spring the Liver is especially relied upon to function optimally to respond to the rising yang energetic influences. Unfortunately, during the process of filtering and detoxifying the blood, producing hundreds of enzymes and hormones, and regulating the volume of circulating blood, the liver tends to become congested. If this blood-rich organ retains stagnant blood and metabolic waste — which typically happens after winter’s inactivity, it will result in a condition popular in TCM parlance as “stagnant Liver Qi and Blood” and in more extreme conditions lead to “Liver Fire”.
According to Chinese medicine, the Liver controls the smooth and harmonious flow of both Qi (understood more broadly as the basis and impetus for a myriad of metabolic and energetic processes) and Blood. Any obstruction to this flow will cause a serious functional disruption in the circulation of vital energy and vascular components. Stagnant Liver Qi and Blood, an all too common disorder, is revealed through a myriad of symptoms we experience often but tend to medicate which often leads to more congestion and complications down the road. Physical symptoms such as muscle pain, menstrual cramps, trembling movements, poor balance, certain headaches, neck pain, numbness in hands and feet, vision problems, and many digestive ailments, may often be a result of Stagnant Liver Qi and Blood. The mental and emotional symptoms can run the spectrum from frustration and irritability to anger and rage.
Vicarious Detoxification as a Result of Liver’s Failures
Many ailments we experience and might seem unrelated are often a direct result of an overloaded liver. When the liver is unable to effectively perform its detoxification processes the toxins tend to spill over and tax other systems namely our respiratory and immune systems.
One example are seasonal allergies. Seasonal allergies are often related to an overloaded toxic state within the liver. When the liver’s efficiency in cleansing the blood of toxins is compromised, such toxins overload the immune system causing it to pour out inflammatory chemicals (histamines, etc.) which may cause the common symptoms of hay fever, itchy rashes, hives, etc.
Difficulty with Weight Control
When the liver is congested there may be a build-up of fat-soluble toxins (such as insecticides, plastics and pesticides), drug metabolites or waste products of metabolism in the fatty tissues and liver. This slows down the metabolism of the fatty parts of your body and also over-burdens your liver. This means that the liver burns fat less efficiently.
Some people have multiple food and chemical sensitivities, which make it difficult for them to follow a set diet. These problems are generally associated with reduced ability of the liver to break down chemicals and proteins (antigens) as part of its detoxification process.
Stress and Irritability
On an emotional level the Chinese intuitively understood the Liver’s role in managing the internal winds of our existence — namely our emotions. When you’re are having difficulty managing life stresses this could be a sign that your Liver needs “coursing”. This is causing you to be tense, irritable or depressed. In reverse these emotions also has a direct impact on our liver.
(More on the Liver and its relationship to menstrual issues in a future blog.)
Thus as we awaken from the relative conservation state of the winter — our bodies need to be revitalized, supple and flexible. A stagnant Liver makes this transition difficult and as you can see can cause a constellation of dysfunctions.
Making sure that our liver works as efficiently as possible is the best thing you can do for your health leading up to and during the Spring season. Chinese medicine has a long history of helping the liver remain supple and flexible with acupuncture and herbal medicine.
The next blog will discuss some of the other things you can do to revitalize your Liver. Another entry talks specifically about liver cleanses and detoxification, which is a highly recommended practice when done right.