In Chinese medicine, all of the organs are organized into pairs according to which of the five elements rules them. Today we will look at the Liver and Gallbladder which are paired together under the wood element.
The wood element is associated with springtime. It has a powerful upward and outward energy, like green shoots pushing up from the earth and buds bursting into leaf. This element is associated with birth, growth, vision, and hope. Therefore, the Liver and Gallbladder play an important part in planning and carrying out your life’s ambitions and dreams.
The emotion associated with wood is anger. Although this is normally seen as an emotion to be avoided, when it is expressed appropriately, anger can be a powerful driving force for change. But when things do not go to plan, this can have a negative effect on the Liver and Gallbladder, leading to frustration and tension, both of the body and mind.
As well as having a key role in maintaining mental health, the Liver and Gallbladder also have a crucial part to play in many of your biological processes. This is due to their close relationship with the vital substances blood and qi. Therefore, when these two organs fall out of balance, it can have a knock-on effect throughout your entire system.
In this article we look at the functions of the Liver and Gallbladder in Chinese medicine, some symptoms you might see when they are unhappy, and how to take care or these organs for both physical and emotional wellbeing.
The Functions of the Liver
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views the functions of the Liver in a very different way to western medicine. Its primary functions involve the circulation of qi and blood. This is thanks to the vigorous energy provided by the wood element and makes it one of the most important organs for maintaining both physical and mental health.
The functions of the Liver in TCM are as follows:
- Storing Blood
The Liver plays an essential role in circulation and ensuring that blood gets to where it is needed, when it is needed. When you exercise, the Liver pushes blood to the muscles allowing them to move, and when you rest, blood returns to the Liver where it is stored.
When blood returns to the Liver, it is nourished and replenished, meaning that healthy blood relies on getting enough rest. Going to bed at a reasonable time is one easy way to benefit your blood. This is because the Liver is said to be most active between 1am and 3am, and being asleep at this time gives your blood a good opportunity to be replenished after a long day.
The Liver’s relationship with blood also means that this organ has a major influence over menstruation and women’s health. Liver imbalances can lead to all kinds of menstrual problems ranging from irregular periods to excessive bleeding. From a TCM point of view, the Liver is involved in almost every case of menstrual irregularity to some extent.
- The Smooth Circulation of Qi
Like blood, qi plays a crucial role in health. It is responsible for nourishing every organ, muscle, and tissue in the body, and it relies on the Liver to get it there. With its upward, outward energy, the Liver is capable of sending qi to the very furthest reaches of the body. However, when the Liver is imbalanced, qi can become stuck and begin to stagnate.
Qi stagnation can lead to a host of physical and emotional symptoms including depression, mood swings, and pain. Although this pain can occur anywhere in the body, headaches and migraines are an especially common symptom of Liver-qi stagnation.
Liver-qi stagnation can also affect the digestive organs, the Stomach and Spleen. An unhappy Liver can begin to ‘invade’ these organs causing symptoms such as acid reflux, belching, nausea, and bowel issues.
Unsurprisingly, this function of the Liver is also involved with menstruation in women. Along with blood, qi plays a part in keeping monthly cycles regular. When Liver qi is not flowing smoothly, you may suffer from irregular periods as well as symptoms such as PMS or breast pain.
- Controlling the Sinews
Blood from the Liver is responsible for nourishing and moistening the sinews and tendons. This keeps the joints healthy and flexible allowing them to move without pain. Therefore, problems such as stiff joints, cramps, and spasms may be due to a Liver imbalance.
- Nourishing the Nails
The health of the Liver is reflected in the nails. When the Liver is healthy, the nails will be smooth and strong. However, if it is imbalanced, they can become dry, brittle, and cracked.
- Opening into the eyes
The Liver is also responsible for nourishing the eyes and keeping the eyesight clear. Liver imbalances can cause eye problems such as blurred vision, floaters, red or dry eyes, color blindness, or myopia.
- Housing the Ethereal Soul
In TCM, there are two aspects of the soul. The corporeal (physical) soul housed by the Lungs and the ethereal soul housed by the Liver. The ethereal soul is known as the hun in Chinese, whereas the corporeal soul is known as the po.
According to TCM, the po returns to the earth after death. However, the hun is said to survive the body and be reintegrated into the cosmos. Some people liken the hun to a person’s legacy or the memory of their good deeds.
Liver Symptoms in Traditional Chinese Medicine
With so many important functions, Liver imbalances can have a major impact on the entire body. The most common symptoms of an unhealthy Liver include:
- Stiff joints
- Cramps or spasms
- Headaches or migraines
- Menstrual irregularities
- Mood swings
- Anger issues
- Digestive problems
- Dry hair, skin, or nails
- Eye problems
The Functions of the Gallbladder
The Gallbladder has fewer functions than the Liver, but it still has an important role in health and wellbeing. The functions of the Gallbladder include:
- Producing and Storing Bile
This is similar to the function of the Gallbladder in western medicine. It secretes bile to aid the Stomach and Spleen in their digestive function.
- Controlling Judgement and Decision Making
On an emotional level, the Gallbladder works closely with the Liver to help you carry out your plans. While the Liver is more responsible for making plans, the Gallbladder is responsible for putting them into action.
On the flip side, indecisiveness, nervousness, or lack of courage can all be signs of a Gallbladder imbalance. In Chinese culture, people are sometimes said to have a ‘big Gallbladder’ or ‘small Gallbladder’ depending on their assertiveness and ability to see things through.
- Controlling the Sinews
Finally, the Gallbladder helps the Liver in its function of nourishing the sinews and tendons. In fact, one of the most important acupuncture points for joint and muscle problems is on the Gallbladder channel.
Gallbladder Symptoms in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The most common symptoms of Gallbladder imbalances include:
- Digestive problems
- Inability to digest fatty food
- A bitter taste in the mouth
- Lack of assertiveness or initiative
Taking Care of Your Liver and Gallbladder
As you can see, a healthy Liver and Gallbladder are essential for physical and emotional wellbeing. So how do you take care of these two organs?
Firstly, it is important to avoid stress as this is one of the main causes of Liver-qi stagnation. Practice relaxation techniques or try a therapy such as acupuncture or massage. Whatever works for you.
Secondly, you should pay attention to your diet and avoid foods which can aggravate the Liver and Gallbladder. Things to avoid include:
- Greasy or fatty foods
- Hot spices
The best foods for the Liver and Gallbladder are green in color and have a sour taste. Eat plenty of leafy greens and other fresh fruit and veg to keep these two organs in check.
Finally, you should do some moderate cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis. Not only will this help you to manage your stress levels, but it will also help your Liver in its function of circulating blood and qi. And when your blood and qi are flowing freely, you will notice the benefits throughout your whole body!