Chinese medicine differs from Western medicine in many ways
The Chinese understanding of the functions of the human body did not come from dissection of its consistent parts as it did in the West. In The East the process was far more intuitive. The basic premise was that as human beings we are essentially part of nature. Therefore, whatever is true for nature, is also true for us. Eastern philosophers took their understanding of the rhythms and workings of nature and extrapolated these to explain the workings of our bodies. This means that Chinese Medicine has a much broader view of health than we do in the West. It tends to incorporate everything together: the seasons, the environment and the weather all have a part to play in our health and individual organs are even attributed different emotional qualities.
Given this huge gulf between the philosophies of Eastern and Western Medicine, what constantly amazes me is actually how many similarities can still be found. Two very different paths seem to have led us to the same place. In this article I will explain these similarities to you to see what both practices can learn from one another as well as finding out what we as individuals can glean to make our own lives more healthy and harmonious.
Let us start then with the season we are in. Springtime comes under the Chinese Element of Wood. The physical organs associated with Wood are the Liver and the Gallbladder and the emotions associated with these organs are frustration, anger, courage, leadership, decision making and striving for justice.
The Liver is the largest vital organ in the body. It is situated under the ribs on the right hand side. From the Western perspective the Liver performs literally hundreds of different functions and supports virtually every other organ in the body. This is what makes it so vital to our survival.
This multi dimensional aspect of the Liver is also understood in Chinese Medicine. In this system each of the organs is attributed a direction of flow according to their function. The Liver is said to flow outwards in all directions. The Liver is also refer to as ‘The General’ by ancient Chinese texts.1 This term is a reference to the Livers important role in the strategic planning of systemic processes. As we will see later the military connotations are also significant.
From a Western perspective many of the of the major roles of the liver involve the blood. Blood that has passed through the gastrointestinal tract is then filtered through the numerous tiny channels of the liver known as sinusoids. Nutrients that have been adsorbed from our food, such as fats, carbohydrates and amino acids are processed here into products that can either be used immediately or stored for use later. As an example carbohydrates are broken down into glucose for immediate use and glycogen which is stored in the liver and muscles.
The Liver also stores essential vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, B12 as well as iron, copper and many others.
In Chinese Medicine the Liver is said to ‘Store the blood’.
This means that during times of rest (particularly at night) blood is thought to return to the Liver to be physically stored, but it also relates to the Livers wider role in controlling the distribution of blood and particularly nutrients. Although both traditions agree that it is the heart that pumps the blood around the body the Chinese believe that the Liver choreograph the distribution of increased blood flow to different areas at different times, such as the stomach after eating or the muscles during exercise. We can see that this correlates with the Western understanding that vital ‘reserves’ are held in the Liver until such time as they are needed by the process of the body. For example, when we run glycogen stored in the muscles and the liver is rapidly converted back into glucose for the body to use.
Another very important job performed during this filtering process, is the removal of toxins and poisons. The Liver is able to neutralise or destroy small amounts of toxins and waste products stop them from building up in the body or damaging other organs.
As well as tackling toxins the liver is also equipped to do battle on another front. The walls of the sinusoids are lined with defensive white blood cells called macrophages. These cells are specifically designed to destroy bacterial infections. In this position they are ideally situated to tackle bacteria that have entered the body through the GI tract.
The last major role of the liver in Western terms is the production and secretion of bile into the duct that leads to the duodenum. The Gall bladder also lies along this duct, and collects and stores bile until it is needed. Bile is used during digestion to break down food, particularly fats.
All of these important functions are described in Eastern terms under one major function of the Liver, which is: To ensure the smooth flow of Qi or Energy.
Chinese Medicine does not talk in terms of macrophages of sinusoids but it does talk about Generals in charge of the Smooth Flowing Qi:
A General is charged with processing and storing vital supplies and distributing these when and where they are needed. At the same time he must also defends his troops from attack, both from toxins and marauding bacterial invaders. In the case of the Liver he must also aid in the functioning of the digestive system to make sure the supply lines are not broken. All of this must be done to ensure that the entire body is constantly supplied with the safe, clean and usable nutrients that it needs to function. – Smooth flowing Qi
The role of the Gallbladder in Eastern and Western medicine is virtually identical. The only difference comes in the emotional aspect attributed to it in the East, which I will come on to in a moment.
Looking now then at the emotional aspect of the Liver and the Gallbladder from the Eastern perspective. We have seen that the Liver is like a General who must look after his troops and fight for what is pure and just. The Gallbladder on the other hand is known as the decision maker. On a physical level the eyes are linked to Wood and on a more emotional level this also related to Vision.
Between them the Liver and the Gallbladder helps us to ‘see the wood for the trees’; to decide what we think is right and just, and to follow our chosen path in life with courage and resolve. Balanced wood energy is assertive and compelling. It helps us to act with integrity and to lead. It harnesses anger when things are unfair and it rallies support for change.
However, often in life injustices occur that can not be changed and on many occasions the path we want to take is blocked to us. These things affect our livers very deeply. The free flow of Qi is checked and the energy can begin to stagnate. That is when the less desirable emotional aspects of Wood can start to materialise: frustration, resentment, impatience, irritability, moodiness, rage, depression and hopelessness.
In our current world view we have another term to describe the process that leads to liver Qi Stagnation – Stress. Stress occurs when we feel trapped and out of control. Our muscles tense up and our energy stagnates. Although the idea of organs having emotional aspects is completely alien to Western medicine it is known that the liver plays a part in the endocrine system – in which hormones communicate throughout the body with one another. It is also known that many of these hormones including cortisol – the hormone released when we feel stressed, eventually make it to the Liver to be broken down.
What goes wrong?
As already mentioned the liver is associated with the element of Wood. There are Five Elements all together in Chinese Medicine. The other four are Earth, Fire, Water and Metal. As you can see in this group Wood is the odd one out. All the other elements are eternal. It is only wood that grows and dies or at least at a pace that we can see. This too fits in with or Western understanding of the Liver. We have seen how the Liver process nutrients that come from the GI tract as well as producing the bile that is used by the GI to break food down in the first place. The Liver also works with the Spleen to recycle old blood cells and return any usable components to the system. All in all the Liver is in a constant state of recycling and growth. Interestingly it is also the only organ that is capable of regenerating itself.
However, herein also lies its greatest weakness as this ‘highly geared’ state of affairs means that it can easily become over loaded. In Chinese Medicine the concept of Liver Qi stagnation is associated with far-ranging signs and symptoms including headaches, migraines, reflux, back pain, fertility problems, constipation, diarrhoea, asthma, dizziness, insomnia, tiredness, depression, PMS, IBS, allergies, neck tension, digestive problems, anger, rage, irritability, eye problems and all kinds of physical aches and pains.
As a practising acupuncturist I see and treat Liver Qi Stagnation all the time. In fact the patient who walks into clinic without Liver Qi Stagnation in some form or other is very much the exception!
The other very common Liver syndrome seen in practice is Liver Blood deficiency. This is particularly common in women (due to blood loss during menstruation) and can be identified by signs and symptoms including, postural dizziness or light headedness, pins and needles, muscle cramps and numbness, restless legs, floaters in the vision, finding it hard to drop off, listlessness, lack of direction, tearful/hopelessness, dry skin and hair, hair loss, pale skin and tongue and anaemia.
Many of these symptoms can be seen to relate to a lack of nourishment resulting from a failure of the Liver to circulate nutrients (possibly due to dietary deficiency) Interestingly, in the West the liver is known to play a major part in the manufacture of a very important aspect of the blood called plasma.
So what we can do to support our Liver?
Spring is a great time to detox and unburden the liver for a while. Avoid processed foods, alcohol, fats, white bread, white flour, rice, fats and refined sugars for a couple of days to allow your system to deal with the back log.
Movement is the best way to help to shift stagnant energy in you system. Any activity that gets your heart pumping will help to free up tension on both a physical and a mental level. Exercises that involve stretching and balance such a yoga and Tai Chi are also great for increasing physical and mental flexibility.
3. Feed the blood/Liver
If you recognise any of the symptoms of Blood Deficiency you can help to remedy them by eating foods that nourishes the Liver and the blood. The nutrients you are most likely to be lacking are iron, folic acid, B12, protein or a combination of these. Therefore, start by increasing your intake of protein – this is especially important for vegetarians – mung beans and tofu are both especially good. Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, dandelion greens and nettles are high in folic acid – so long as they aren’t overcooked and algae such as spirulina, wheat grass and chlorella are all great sources of iron. More generally the blood is strengthened by dark red fruits and vegetables such as beetroot, blackberries and raspberries. General blood tonics such a Floradix and organic black strap molasses can be very helpful supplements.
Different foods can also help to move stagnant liver energy. These include, watercress, garlic, onions, leak, chives, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turmeric, vinegar, rosemary, ginger.
Next time: In Chinese Medicine the Liver plays a major role in menstruation and is often involved in problems that arise in this area. Next month in our Well Woman newsletter I will explore how to identify these problems and what can be done to elevate them.
1“The liver in the general who works out the plans” Su Wen Chapter 8