Understanding the Liver in Chinese Medicine

By Dahn Ngo /

Understanding the Liver in Chinese Medicine

Does this resonate? When a company or a leader excels, there is usually an assistant that does all the grunt work - overworked and underpaid, much like Andrea “Andy” Sachs from the movie Devil Wears Prada. This does not always have to be the case and should not.  The “right hand” can perform much better when one feels their work is appreciated and important.   In a way, this analogy reminds me of our liver. Conveniently, our liver is located in our right flank region.

The Essential Role of Your Liver: Your Body's Assistant

The liver, somewhat like our “right hand” assistant, is the second largest vital organ in your body.  The liver performs many essential functions related to digestion, metabolism, immunity, and the storage of nutrients within the body. The tissues of the body would quickly deteriorate from lack of energy and nutrients if the liver is not functioning well.  One good thing about the liver is it can regenerate quickly, revitalizing itself back to its normal state in some cases.

A good “right hand” assistant has the role of screening requests and demands, directing flow of tasks, bringing morning coffee and donuts, overall, making the leader look good.  In a way, so too does your liver for your body.  Let's break it down. 

Western medicine has popularized the liver as a toxin removal system, especially for alcohol and drugs.  A blood liver panel demonstrates its ability to remove toxins like bilirubin and ammonia, while tallying up its production of cholesterol and albumin.  It regulates the composition of blood and produces clotting factors.  

The liver's other roles include changing nutrients that are absorbed by the intestines and converting it into energy for the body.  It stores Vitamin A, iron and other minerals.

water flow

Your Liver & Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Flow of Qi

Liver in Chinese medicine sound like it has a whole different meaning and function: flow of Qi, storing blood, control sinews and houses "the Hun".  If one delves into the nitty gritty of the two medical worlds, one can see the similarities.

What I like about the assistant analogy is how the assistant does everything and when it becomes under-appreciated and overworked, he/she crashes and can become resentful.  If you ever get treatment by an Acupuncturist, most likely you will hear a diagnosis involving your liver.  The storage of blood and flow of Qi in all direction is ensured by the liver.  

When there is stagnated and improper flow of Qi from a dysfunction in our liver Qi, we get a wide variation of symptoms and conditions.  A stagnation of flow can lead to all sorts of organ malfunctions like menstruation irregularities (uterus), stroke (brain), diarrhea or distention (gut), and/or muscle cramps and cold/numb limbs (muscles and nerves).  An improper flow can back up to our lung Qi resulting in coughing from an upward instead of downward flow.

Your "Sinews" & Your Liver Qi

Our ability to move freely is our sinews.  A disruptive sinew from an unhealthy liver Qi flow will result in performance issues like cramps, tremors, and spasms.  A common symptom of a liver Qi issue is lack of energy.  There are few reasons for this lack of energy.  If there is lack of flow, our ability and desire to move is slowed.  Our digestion plays a complementary role with our immune system.  A stagnant flow to our gut makes us weak because we are vulnerable to colds and allergies.  Our external skin and nails will demonstrate dryness and be brittle, weakening our outside defense.

A tired “right hand” will be angry if pushed to the limit.  This can be said of the liver Qi.  Every organ in eastern medicine has an emotion attached to it. Anger and feeling of oppression is manifested of an unhealthy liver Qi.

Your Liver and Your Eyes

Every organ in Chinese medicine theory is associated with a sensory organ because that is where the energy of that organ emerges.  Liver opens to your eyes.  Both western and eastern medicine use eyes as an important diagnostic tool.  Eyes can revel the state of health of your liver. When our liver is not functioning well, one will have difficulty to see clearly.  Early liver disease can be suspected when we become jaundice. This is the yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, arising from excess of the pigment bilirubin.

The Liver and Menstruation

For our female members, there is sometimes a misconception around menstruation dysfunction being normal. Let's summarize what I wrote about earlier to explain how theory explains a disease pathway for a common female diagnosis.

Qi and blood is what keep our body moving and functioning well.  Liver ensures the smooth flow of Qi in all directions.  Liver is also where the body stores the blood.  If there is stagnation in your liver Qi, first your emotion will get effected. One can feel anger, frustration, or depression, depends on how the person react to the stagnation.  This can lead to increase in stress and result in an early or delay in period.

Qi stagnation will then lead to blood stagnation.  This will lead to another factor in the increase or decrease in period.  When women’s Qi and blood are stagnated and not resolved in time, the effects are compounded and result in a maladaptation of the female reproductive system causing conditions like fibroid or endometriosis.  In western medicine theory, often time you will be put on birth control pill to help regulate your period. This is an easy solution, however it does not find out the root of the issue. Early intervention can prevent simple signs and symptoms from possibly becoming into cancer or infertility.

How's Your Liver?  Talk with an Acupuncturist

You may wonder what if my liver function test is normal?  For a detailed analysis and free consultation, contact us and we will happily explain the connection of your symptoms.  Food can be a great source to boost the liver.  Let us know via email and we can send you a list of our favorite foods to supplement for a happy and healthy “right hand” liver.  In the meantime, read our follow up article on “3 Tips On For a Happy Liver“.

This article was originally published here and has been republished with the permission of the author.

Dr Danh Ngo PT, DPT, OCS, SCS is the owner of the ReVITALize Rehab Club in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Ngo is in the prestigious group of 0.1% of Physical Therapists in the country who has a double certification in orthopedic and sports medicine. He has become an expert in helping members achieve an alternative to medications especially painkillers, procedures and avoiding surgery.

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