In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), health problems are diagnosed in very different way from western medicine. In western medicine, doctors tend to look at one body part, organ or system and give a diagnosis such as back pain or irritable bowel syndrome, for example.
In TCM, the whole body is taken into account. Every symptom, physical or emotional, no matter how small, is considered. These symptoms are put together to form what is known as a diagnostic pattern. Each pattern is defined by a group of connected symptoms, and the name describes which system is being affected and how.
The single most common TCM pattern we see at our City Acupuncture clinics is called Liver qi stagnation. As the name suggests, in this pattern the qi of the Liver is unable to flow smoothly. To fully understand what this means, it is first necessary to take a look at the Liver and its functions from a TCM point of view.
Traditionally, the Liver is represented by the element of wood.
The Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In TCM, the Liver has quite different functions from the liver in western medicine. The reason that Liver is spelled with a capital L is to avoid confusion between the TCM Liver and the physical organ that we know in the west.
One of the Liver's most important functions is controling the circulation of qi around the body. It ensures that all of your body's muscles and organs have a constant supply of energy when they need it, and that all of your biological systems run smoothly. In western medical terms, this could be compared to the involuntary movements which are constantly happening inside us, such as blood pumping in our veins or the smooth muscles of our digestive system contracting to push food through.
The Liver also has an important relationship with blood. Firstly, it is responsible for storing and nourishing the blood when we are at rest. Secondly, it is responsible for the circulation of blood throughout the body. This is because qi is needed to move blood, and since the Liver is responsible for the flow of qi, it is responsible for the flow of blood too.
As well as these two important functions, the Liver is also said to control the tendons and sinews, keep the eyes and nails healthy, and house the ethereal soul, the most immaterial part of our spirit.
The Liver and Anger
In TCM, each organ is associated with a particular emotion. The Liver is associated with anger. We are often taught to believe that anger is a negative emotion and should be suppressed. However, in TCM, it is thought that suppressing emotions such as anger and frustration is harmful to the Liver. The tension that these feelings cause in our chest and diaphragm constrain the Liver and prevent it from performing its function of circulating qi and blood. This kind of emotional stress is the most common cause of Liver qi stagnation.
Symptoms of Liver Qi Stagnation
Liver qi stagnation affects the whole body and can have a wide variety of symptoms. These can be grouped together depending on which system is being affected.
The first area to be affected by Liver qi stagnation is the area around where the physical liver is located; the ribs, abdomen and chest. Symptoms affecting this area directly include:
The Liver has a close relationship with the digestive organs, the Stomach and Spleen. It also influences the smooth flow of qi in the intestines. When the Liver is stressed, it can easily impact these organs, causing digestive symptoms such as:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Acid reflux, heartburn or indigestion
Because of its relationship with the blood, the Liver play an important role in women's menstrual cycles. Liver qi stagnation can directly influence the qi flow in the uterus and can lead to many different gynecological symptoms including:
- Irregular periods
- Painful periods
- Breast swelling and tenderness
- Menstrual headaches and migraines
Liver qi stagnation is often caused by emotional stress, and it can also lead to more psychological problems in the long run causing a vicious cycle which is difficult to break. The most common emotional symptoms of Liver qi stagnation are:
- Feeling “on edge”
- Mood swings
- Lump in the throat which comes and goes with stress
Liver Qi Stagnation with Heat
When qi stagnates over a long period of time, it begins to generate heat inside the body. In addition to any of the other symptoms of Liver qi stagnation, this can lead to other symptoms such as:
- Feeling hot
- Excessive thirst
- Red face
- Sudden outbursts of anger
- Heavy periods
Preventing Liver Qi Stagnation
Luckily there are plenty of steps you can take to protect your Liver and keep your qi and blood flowing freely. If you are suffering from Liver qi stagnation, you may find that making some simple lifestyle changes helps.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Emotional stress is one of the most common causes of Liver qi stagnation. As we have already discussed, suppressing emotions such as anger over time can lead the Liver to become constrained. This is why it is important to find an appropriate outlet to release any frustrations that have built up over the course of the day.
One of the best ways to blow off steam and get your qi moving is high impact exercise such as running, racket sports or martial arts. Stretching can also help to improve the circulation of qi, and exercises like yoga and tai chi are also good.
You could also try some relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation. These are both good ways to relax and manage stress. Acupuncture is another great way to relax and get your Liver qi flowing freely again.
Finally, talk about anything that has been making you angry. This could mean discussing your day with your partner over dinner, or confiding in a trusted friend. Talking therapies such as counselling or CBT are another good way to express your emotions in a safe and neutral environment to stop them from becoming problematic.
Moving your body is one of the best ways to keep your qi flowing freely. It is vital to take regular exercise and walk as much as you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or get off the bus a stop early and walk. If you have a sedentary job, get up and stretch at regular intervals. Going outside for a stroll during your lunch break is a great way to get your qi flowing and re-energize ready for the rest of the day.
Eat for Your Liver
The best foods for your Liver have a sour flavor or are green in color. Sour fruit such as citrus, gooseberries, plums and berries are all good, as are green vegetables like celery, leeks and scallions. You can add a little vinegar to your meals for flavoring or make up a salad dressing using lemon or lime juice. You can also incorporate some foods to promote the circulation of qi such as cloves, cayenne, garlic and turmeric.
The Liver dislikes greasy foods which can create stagnation and generate heat, so it is best to avoid these and drink caffeinated drinks and alcohol in moderation.
Acupuncture for Liver Qi Stagnation
One of the best ways to combat Liver qi stagnation is using acupuncture. This therapy is not only extremely relaxing, but can also help to improve the circulation of qi and blood while supporting the Liver. Chinese herbs can be added to help regulate qi and clear heat from your body if necessary. You will also get personalized lifestyle advice so that you can begin taking positive steps towards a stagnation-free Liver and a greater sense of well-being in all aspects of your life.