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Tangled Weeds In Your Body: The Effects of Liver Qi Stagnation

There is a famous Native American parable that says inside of us are two wolves: one with good, noble qualities and another with negative qualities. They are both hungry, and whichever wolf we feed is the one that comes through in our nature. You've probably seen this story in some form on TV or an Instagram meme.

The truth is, inside of us, there are actually two trees.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Liver System is associated with the Wood Element (other systems have their own elemental affiliations: Fire, Water, Metal, Earth). The nature of Wood is orderly reaching and branching. It is growth, expansion, support, and establishing networks. The Liver System has three main functions in our body, according to TCM theory.

  • Firstly, it keeps all of the acupuncture channels and connecting vessels open to ensure the free flow of Qi, and thus Blood and other body fluids.

  • Secondly, the Liver itself serves as a reservoir for Blood, containing up to 15% of the body's total Blood volume.

  • Finally, the Liver governs the connective tissue and sinews (tendons & ligaments)

The acupuncture channels, and the Liver's role in regulating them, are similar to the internal waterways of plants, which are called the xylem and phloem. These are the tissue structures that move water and nutrients up and down the body of the plant from the roots, through the stem, and into the branches and leaves. They also help plants maintain flexible structure, similar to the human body's sinews. When the Liver system is functioning properly, the body is connected to itself with all the channels open: Qi flows freely, tendons and ligaments stretch and move easily, and fascia is pliable, making it easy for blood to circulate and nourish our cells.

That is our good tree.

...Then there is the bad tree.

In some ways, the plant world is one of the most aggressive and violent areas in the circle of life. We don't think of it that way because it happens so slowly, but plants compete for water, sunlight, and nutrients to the point of crowding, covering, and strangling other plants. Plants defend themselves with thorns, poisons, and malodorous scents. They do this unthinkingly. In the animal kingdom, there is choice and instinct, which can result in violence, but there is also temperance, nurturing, and behavior that benefits the herd over the individual. Plants are 100% aggression. It is easy for an unattended garden to devolve into chaos as plants expand. In the body, we want the Wood Element to branch out in an orderly way, but this does not always happen.

When the Liver goes awry, this is usually due to what we put in our body – greasy foods and alcohol – and the big one, constrained emotions. The Liver gets agitated when we experience anger, frustration, and unfulfilled desires. A lot of this falls under the umbrella of stress and strain, and the result is the Liver begins to fail in its function of keeping the pathways open. This is Liver Qi stagnation. With the Wood Element no longer able to reach and stretch and grow outwardly in a controlled way due to this constraint, it attempts to grow chaotically. Vines plunge in all directions, strangling the acupuncture channels and choking off avenues of nutrition rather than delivering it. Instead of Qi flowing freely through the channels, it feels like they are filled and blocked by brambles.

The path of the Liver channel runs along the rib side and up into the chest and breast area, so Liver Qi stagnation can feel like vines wrapping tightly around the torso, making breathing more difficult. The Gallbladder channel (the Liver's paired system) wraps around the head, so migraines can feel like thorns in the temples. The Liver and Gallbladder organs themselves can become backed up. Imagine a plant outgrowing a small pot, cracking the ceramic as its roots push outward. This can be what a Gallbladder attack feels like.

Liver dysfunction can also cause disorder among the other elements in the body. The Metal Element typically controls and balances Wood, i.e. the axe chops the tree. When the Wood Element becomes overly excessive, it is said to rebel against or insult Metal, in this case, aggravating the Lungs. Anger and other emotional stress can cause coughing fits, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Wood is the controlling element of Earth (the digestive system in TCM). The roots of trees hold the soil together, making the earth stable and preventing landslides. When Wood over-controls or overacts on Earth, that disharmony causes Earth to fall apart or be drained of its nutrients, resulting in digestive distress. Fried foods, alcohol, and stress pour gasoline on fire, or, perhaps more appropriate to the metaphor, promote growth of a tangled mess of weeds.

In the pursuit of the garden that is our body growing in an orderly way, one in which our systems are in harmony and all of our tissues are properly nourished, we must provide the Liver an environment in which it can thrive as the good tree. We must encourage the Liver Qi to move smoothly and freely.

  • This means experiencing and expressing emotions in a healthy way

  • Maintaining a healthy diet

  • Movement begets movement; as such, exercise helps to move the Qi and prevent the weeds from taking over.

  • Lemon and mint are good flavors to add to the menu in order to help the Liver keep the channels open.

  • And, of course, acupuncture is excellent at untangling the vines and choking tendrils of a Wood Element run amok.

So, as Spring is just around the corner and we will soon be tending our gardens, don't forget about the garden in your body! Give it appropriate amounts of water and sunlight, ensure the soil is balanced, prune and redirect when necessary, space things out, and adapt it to the ever changing environment!

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