What the heck is the “Chinese Liver?”

When the Chinese medicine practitioner talks about the “Liver” you can think of two biomedical systems that may apply. The first is hormonal (in the sense of female hormones). Many issues that we treat with Chinese herbal medicine are aggravated or induced on some monthly regularity. These usually track back to the Chinese “Liver” and are treated accordingly.

The other common translation for “Liver” is anything induced or aggravated by emotional stress. This is extremely common. Even the term “hypochondriac” can be applied to the Chinese Liver. “Hypo” means “below” and “chondria” means ribs. People with a stuffy pain below the ribs that is aggravated by emotional sensitivity or stress were often set aside as having psychological problems rather than medical problems. Chinese medicine doesn’t separate these two aspects of the person. OF COURSE the mind can generate physical problems, and physical problems can affect our emotions and spirit. Pain below the ribs is something of a key symptom associated with the Liver in Chinese medicine.

Hypochondriacs are welcome in Chinese medicine. :)

Okay, so I think we’ve lightly covered this “Liver” definition. Now, let’s explain how the Liver can generate these particular headache patterns.

In Chinese medicine there are these ancient sayings that are used to explain how and why problems arise in the body. Some of the ancient sayings that go into explaining the Liver based headaches include:

The Liver opens to the eyes.

Problems with vision or the eye are treated through the Liver. The Liver is connected to the eyes via the acupuncture channels, not the superficial ones that we can needle, but the deeper ones that connect internal organs to sensory organs such as the Liver and the eyes. So, pain behind the eyes are assumed to be some sort of stagnation of qi-energy or blood in the channel that connects to the back of the eyes. Also, the pre-migraine “scintillations” or aura falls into this Liver/Eye connection.

The Liver has an interior-exterior relationship with the Gallbladder.

Biomedicine recognizes that the liver produces bile which is then stored in the gallbladder. This is somewhat self-evident if you can open up the body and look. However, what is unique about Chinese medicine is the recognition that if the Liver gets over-stressed or the monthly cycle isn’t flowing well, the Liver can get hot. Because of the close relationship between the Liver and Gallbladder, there is an intimate relationship between the Liver and Gallbladder channels. So, when the Liver gets hot, this heat can rise up into the Gallbladder channel. The Gallbladder’s channel zig-zags on the side of the head. Pain occurring there is usually assumed to have some sort of relationship with the Gallbladder and by extension, the Liver.

The Liver’s climate is wind.

Wind comes from two places according to Chinese medicine. One is the exterior. This would be defined biomedically as the common cold, flu or seasonal allergies.

Interior wind causes with tics, tremors, and inappropriate jerky movements. Interior wind generally arises from the Liver. So again, any menstrual irregularity can cause wind, as well as emotional stress. Certainly we’ve all had the experience of facial tics when upset, or a shaky body when bluffing during a high-stakes game of poker.

When wind arises from the Liver, it can easily travel upward into the head via the Liver and/or Gallbladder channel. For this reason, stress that generates internal wind can clog up the channels that go through the head giving rise to one-sided headaches or headaches that favor the temples. Even ear-ringing can be tracked down to Liver wind, especially when aggravated by emotional stress.

So, to generate headaches, the Liver can get hot, it can produce wind, or it can also become hyperactive. Functionally speaking, the Liver is in charge of maintaining the free-flow of qi in the body. This is going to look like nervous system functions in biomedicine.

Looking through the eyes of Chinese medicine, the Liver sprays its qi-energy outward, much like the heart pumps blood only in one direction, but because the cardiovascular system is a closed loop, the blood always returns to the heart. Qi-energy is similar. The acupuncture channel system is, like the cardiovascular system a closed loop.

But the outward pushing function of the Liver can become excessive at times, again usually secondary to stress or the female’s monthly cycle. This leads to an excessive amount of qi-energy rising to the head where it becomes a pounding headache. The goal then is to relax the Liver and help the qi-energy to descend out of the head. While herbs are used to directly calm the Liver, heavy herbs such as bones and shells are used to help that qi-energy descend out of the head. This experience from the perspective of the patient is that they’ll feel headaches after getting angry or frustrated. “Rising qi” is in the Chinese language sometimes translated to “anger” in English.

Be well, be VERY well.