The Liver and the Gallbladder are the organs of spring. These wood-natured organs are vital for many functions, including metabolism and detox. Stress, an unhealthful diet, and a sedentary, or excessive lifestyle all contribute to stagnation of Liver Qi and other imbalances that challenge our health and impede our quality of life. Read on to see what the heck I am talking about!
Chinese medicine theory looks at the human body as a microcosm of nature. All of our organs are ascribed to one of the five qualities of nature: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Each element has two organs paired with it, a Yin organ and a Yang organ. The Liver (Yin) and the Gallbladder (Yang) are represented by the wood element, which has the characteristics of growth, vitality, support and planning. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi, blood, and emotions, through the body. The Qi of the wood element, and that of the Liver and the Gallbladder, flourishes in the spring. During the spring, it is important to work with the nature of the Liver and the Gallbladder and to eat and live to support these organs.
Biomedically, the liver is described as the largest vital organ, performing many critical functions. The liver plays a large part in metabolism, detoxifying the blood, producing hormones, regulating glycogen storage, synthesizing plasma protein and decomposing red blood cells.The liver produces bile, which is essential to digest fats. The gallbladder stores and concentrates the bile produced by the liver, before it is released into the small intestine to aid in digestion.
Stress, a poor diet, and an improper lifestyle can cause a number of pathogenic conditions of the Liver and Gallbladder, such as stagnation of Liver Qi, or damp-heat conditions of the Liver and Gallbladder, Gallbladder deficiency, Liver blood or Yin deficiency, or Liver heat. Liver Qi stagnation is a commonly seen pattern in America, likely due to levels of stress, the standard American diet (SAD) and a lifestyle that is too hectic, too sedentary, or too excessive. The symptoms of Liver Qi stagnation include: frustration, irritability, depression, menstrual disorders, bloating, indigestion, fullness in the chest, pain in the rib side, a feeling of something stuck in the throat, and anxiety. Liver Qi stagnation can lead to other pathologies of the Liver and Gallbladder, as well as pathologies of all the other organs in the body. The Liver, like a general, is responsible for the movement of Qi through the body, and its proper functioning is critical for the health of the rest of the organs. Liver Qi stagnation often leads to pathologies of the Spleen, Stomach, Kidney and Lungs. All of the Liver and Gallbladder imbalances, if left untreated, can create impairment of the organs, leading eventually to such diseases as cholecystitis, hepatitis, metabolic diseases, hormonal problems, and even infertility. Acupuncture, herbal medicine, food, and lifestyle can be very helpful in addressing these patterns and keeping the liver and the gallbladder functioning optimally.
The Liver and Gallbladder, likened to the general and the general’s advisor in an army, encourage proper movement of Qi through the body, decisiveness, planning, and courage. For us to live our life with these qualities, these organs need to be healthy. When not functioning properly, we may experience emotional issues, especially excessive anger or irritability (Liver), or indecisiveness or timidity (Gallbladder). Other problems may also arise, such as sleep issues, menstrual issues, tension headaches, muscle and tendon tightness, eye issues (red, dry, blurriness), dry skin, thin and brittle nails, pain in the rib-side, headaches and migraines, abdominal pain and bloating, and ringing in the ears.
The spring is the best time to cleanse the body and to give the Liver and Gallbladder a break from caffeine (green tea is acceptable), alcohol, processed foods, fatty or greasy foods, spicy foods, and other stimulants and intoxicants. The taste that goes with the wood element is sour. Therefore, sour foods are important for the health of the Liver and the Gallbladder. Beneficial sour foods include: citrus, vinegar, yogurt and kefir, and fermented foods (like kimchi and sauerkraut). Other important foods to nourish the Liver and Gallbladder include: fresh greens (arugula, kale), dandelion root, radish, celery, carrot, apple, beet, goji berries, mung beans, barley, avocado, honey, mussels, liver, seaweed, and more! Chinese nutrition encourages a diet of healthful whole foods with a balance of flavors, sour, astringent, bland, sweet and bitter. Often bitter and sour foods are included less frequently in the standard American diet.
Lifestyle practices that are important for the Liver and Gallbladder include gentle exercise, avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption, getting to bed before 11:00PM, and finding enjoyable ways to relieve stress. For the health of these organs gentle exercise such as walking, qi gong, or swimming are important. Hard and fast exercises such as running or other more strenuous workouts, overwork and tighten the tendons, which are the tissue associated with the wood element. Alcohol is a toxic substance that is metabolized by the liver, and therefore easily creates stagnation and heat in the organ, eventually causing disease. The 12 organs are also assigned two hour blocks in the 24 hour day during which they are at their peak functioning. The Gallbladder is from 11:00PM-1:00AM, and the Liver from 1:00AM to 3:00AM. It is critical to sleep during these times for the body to properly detox and rejuvenate. The Liver and Gallbladder are the organs that are most affected by stress. Finding ways to relieve stress and remain calm is important for the optimal function of these organs. Mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, gardening, walking in nature, painting or creating other art that you enjoy, and acupuncture are wonderful ways to relax the nervous system.
Acupuncture and herbal medicine are excellent at helping to keep Qi flowing smoothly. Because the Liver is the organ most affected by stress, it can be challenging to keep balanced with even the healthiest diet and lifestyle. Modern life has a way of keeping the stress coming! Getting regular acupuncture aids the body in keeping balanced, calm, and flexible. If you tend towards Liver and Gallbladder imbalance, Chinese herbs are greatly beneficial for improving function, continuing the effects of acupuncture treatment between visits, and aiding in a large number of health complaints.
As spring (finally!) returns, we can make the most of the season by honoring and caring for our wood element, through healthful nutrition, gentle detox, and mindful exercise. We can live more vibrantly with guidance from the energy of spring - planning and growing a garden for fresh produce, rebirthing ourselves by making healthful decisions, getting active outdoors in the warmer and light-filled days, and like a budding tree in the wind, moving with calm and ease through the lengthening days.