TCM Foundations: Liver

This article will be the first of several outlining foundational theory in Chinese Medicine. It should be useful to students of Chinese medicine as a quick refresher, help those new to Chinese medicine to gain a higher level understanding of the topics and hopefully bridge the gap for non-TCM practitioners.

Before beginning, it is important to note that the organ function in TCM is different to that of biomedicine. As such if a TCM practitioner mentions that there is something wrong with one of your organs – it comes from a TCM diagnosis which takes into consideration the energetics, function and physical nature of an organ; if you are concerned – always ask for clarification.

The Liver in a very important organ regardless of medical system. From a TCM perspective, it is related to the wood element, paired with the gallbladder and is associated with the colour green (this is to do with diet therapy, green foods may assist the liver when consumed in moderation).

On the topic of functionality, the liver does the following:

1) Stores the blood: It is believed that blood returns to the liver when we sleep to be nourished for the next day. This phenomenon can be experienced when you go to bed in summer completely hot yet you may wake up cold. Also those that sleep after 1am will notice no amount of sleep will make them feel refreshed the next day, it is of paramount importance that you are in bed by 11pm for the blood to properly return to the liver by 1am (reaching a state of deep sleep). As the liver has a function of dealing with blood, it also plays a vital role in regulating menstruation in women.

2) Ensuring the smooth flow of Qi: Though each organ has a direction in regards to movement, the liver is required to ensure everything is moving smoothly. Imagine the liver as the traffic officer that directs vehicles (other organ’s Qi) in the right direction ensuring there are no accidents. Building on this, there is another function that deals with the immune system however we will discuss that in another article.

3) Controls the sinews: Liver blood is necessary to nourish the sinews in the body with the traditional belief that strength comes from sinew rather than muscle. It is evident that the liver controls the sinews when you consider how tight the body becomes under stress (as the liver is most affected by stress). Tight shoulders are usually the first sign of stress and that area is governed by the gall bladder which is linked to the liver.

4) Opens into the eyes: The liver is believed to control the sensory organ of vision. A lack of liver blood nourishing can lead to blurry vision or the experience of seeing “floaters” (squiggly floating lines).

5) It is affected by anger: Anger is the emotion which causes the most trouble for the liver. This includes, repressed anger, irritability, rage, stress, frustration and resentment. If any form of anger is present, it can cause the other functions of the liver mentioned above to fall out of balance and create health problems. The relationship between the liver and anger is also two-fold as anger can make the liver act out but illnesses of the liver can also causes anger. Though it is also important to note that a short burst of anger can be very healthy for releasing stress however it should only be situational, performed and sorted – dwelling will cause more issues.

There are several other characteristics likened to the liver in Chinese medicine however they are a much more in-depth such as the concept of the Ethereal soul (Hun), concepts best explored if you wish to have a deeper level of understanding and have a lot of time to digest and philosophise.

To ensure your liver is working properly make sure you:

  • Sleep by 11pm
  • Do regular exercise to allow the smooth flow of qi
  • Express your anger in a healthy and constructive way
  • Avoid being out in the wind (this aggravates the liver)
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