The Winds of Spring and Liver Imbalance

Spring is officially here, and with Spring comes many imbalances that we in Chinese Medicine attribute to the Liver organ and meridian system. 

Image from: designua / 123RF Stock Photo   This image shows the Five Element cycle and its ability to "generate" each element.  Wood feeds Fire which burns to ashes, creating Earth.  As Earth compacts, it turns into Metals, and in time, the runoff from the distillation of Metals turns into Water.

Image from: designua / 123RF Stock Photo  

This image shows the Five Element cycle and its ability to "generate" each element.  Wood feeds Fire which burns to ashes, creating Earth.  As Earth compacts, it turns into Metals, and in time, the runoff from the distillation of Metals turns into Water.

As I wrote in the last article, Wood Pillar and the Art of Movement, in Chinese Medicine, we have a particular philosophy that guides us, called the Five Element cycle.  In the simplest of definitions, the Five Elements connect to form a circle.  As Gail Reichstein describes, “the elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – are stations of that circle. …the cycle of the Five Elements integrates human activity with the natural rhythms of the universe.  From its beginnings, the Five Element cycle connect[s] various aspects of experience to its individual elements.  Season, body organs, emotions, sounds, colors, directions, and climates [are] all distributed over the cycle of five.” [1]

Spring is the season associated with the Wood element, as Spring’s energy is like that of wood, explosive in growth capacity, from a seed to a bud, shooting out of the partially frozen ground to eventually become a majestic canopy of earth.  Animals come out of hibernation and we see humans also taking advantage of the longer days, warmer weather, and the beauty of the natural world blooming around us.  Wind is the climate associated with Wood, as wind has the dramatic capacity, in its most violent form, to turn into a hurricane or typhoon, and destroy houses, cars, boats, and buildings.  In Spring, we see a lot of windy days, as it is heralding the change of icy cold, drab Winter days to vibrant, life-affirming Spring days.

In Chinese Medicine, the Liver is the organ associated with the Wood element, and like Wood, we say, "Liver governs growth."  The Liver organ is responsible for maintaining a smooth flow in our bodies; thus, when the Liver is healthy, it helps us to take things in stride without getting stressed out.  The emotion associated with Liver is anger.  If the Liver energy is not flowing smoothly, people become easily angered and often have anger management issues.  Another manifestation of the Liver energy not flowing smoothly is anxiety via the "attack" an angry or overworked Liver does on Spleen/digestive system.  This organ is also responsible in keeping our sinews – tendons, ligaments and skeletal muscles – working smoothly.  The main channel system of the Liver starts from the lateral side of the big toe and ends in the liver, but another channel starts from the liver and ends in the eyes, thus vision, visual acuity and eyes are associated with the Liver system.  Liver is also responsible for controlling immune response.

When the spring season comes forth, the organ system associated with Spring -- the Liver system (both organ and channel) -- gets activated, bringing any imbalance present in the Liver system to the forefront.  This explains why it is so common to see allergies acting up in Spring.  Not only does Spring bring life back to earth, but this life brings an abundance of pollen and hay, activators in many hay fever sufferers.  The winds blow the pollen and hay into the environment, triggering an allergic reaction in people who have a Liver system imbalance.  If you remember, Liver is in charge of controlling immune response.  Spring is when we also often see a sudden burst of conjunctivitis, a.k.a., pink eye, because of the Liver channel ending in the eye.  See the Liver channels illustrated here.  You may also notice yourself getting unusually irritable--or outright angry--for the most minor of triggers during Spring. 

With the preponderance of windy days in Spring, we will then also see a lot of what Chinese Medicine calls Wind symptoms.  Wind affects the environment we live in: moving branches, changing temperatures, and picking up dust from the environment.  This same Wind can also affect us internally in our bodies.  If you have what we call Liver Blood Deficiency, then the quality of your blood may not be as nutritious and vibrant, allowing for a “hollowness” in your blood vessels.  This hollowness invites “Wind” to enter, causing wind-like symptoms such as muscle twitching and cramping, tremors and weakness/numbness.  Think of this condition like a subway system.  When a train is running in the subway, it comes and leaves with a huge gust of wind, rattling everything in its wake, just like the twitches and tremors of your muscles.  You may wake up one Spring morning inexplicably with a stiff neck or your eye twitching, either the top or bottom lid.  I would not be surprised if the day before, it was quite windy and you were out in the park playing with your child.  Other types of Wind symptoms in your body are: dizziness or spinning head, restlessness (like the wind rustling in your mind), and rigid or spastic muscles.[2]

If you have noticed yourself or your family member with a propensity toward these symptoms, and particularly so in Spring, you might very well have a Wood or Liver imbalance.  What can you do to bring your Liver back to balance?   

Dietarily, adding sour flavors to your food will help to invigorate the Liver system.  As we say in Chinese Medicine, "Liver favors the sour flavor".  Sour flavors can be found in foods like sauerkraut, pickles, lemons, sour plums, plain yogurt, berries, olives, goji berries, certain cheeses, sourdough bread and vinegar.  All vegetables, but in particular green vegetables, will also help to soothe an often overworked and overwhelmed liver, as green is the color associated with the Liver system (think leaves of trees and plants).  Hydrating with a little lemon-spritzed water, plain water, and clear broths are also excellent for the liver, as we say in the Five Element cycle that the element Water feeds and nourishes Wood.  Plants cannot grow without water.  Though not sour, drinking peppermint tea is also a great preventative for heat in the Liver system.   Peppermint enters the Lung and Liver channels, clears heat, clears the head and eyes, courses the Liver, disinhibits the throat and release viral pathogens.  It is quite suited for the myriad of symptoms that manifest in the Spring, so consider drinking it as a preventative or at the first sign of a fever, sore throat or itchy eyes.  Chinese Food Medicine has even more specific breakdowns of what types of foods to eat based on the diagnosis your Physician of Oriental Medicine will make, but this is a good start.[3]

Exercises to relax and soothe the tired and stressed Liver system will be smooth, continuous movements like tai chi and qi gong, and rhythmic, flowing movements like walking, swimming, vinyasa yoga (flowing movements coordinated with the breath), running, bicycling, and ballroom dancing.  Do any of these exercises even 10 minutes a day and you will see your stress and anger melt away in no time. 

Spending time in activities, like a hobby, and with company you enjoy will also do wonders to relax the Liver.  Any focus or attention that generates laughter, joy and connection will vent the steam from an "overheated" Liver.  Laughter, joy and connection are attributes of the Fire element, which is the next station after the Wood element in the Five Element cycle.  By sparking the Fire element, we say it drains the excess heat and energy being generated by the Wood element, thus relaxing and decompressing an overworked Liver.

To protect yourself from strong Spring winds, wear a scarf and/or a hat on those windy days, as we say in Chinese Medicine that "the Wind is the Carrier of One Hundred Diseases."  Traditional wisdom also asserts that diseases like to enter the body through the neck (and other connection points, like ankles and wrists); therefore, protecting the neck with a scarf is paramount to protection from external pathogens.  If you get caught being outdoors, unprotected from gusty winds or the oft-freezing air-conditioners Americans love to blast, take a nice warming bath that night.  This increases your metabolism and fights off any Wind pathogens.  In conventional medicine, these would be airborne pathogens discharged from an infected person via sneezing, laughing or in close contact which you may have caught unprotected.  Plenty of good sleep is also always a wise daily preventative measure you can take to keep your immune system strong, your Liver happy, and your body healthy. 

Lastly, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are excellent at bringing balance back to the Liver and ridding the body of Wind.  Depending on the severity of the symptoms, one treatment may be all you need, like for the sudden onset of eye twitching or a stiff neck.  If anger, irritability, depression or menstrual irregularities are what you or your child suffers from, then a longer-term approach may be required.  (In Chinese Medicine, Liver also stores blood.  The liver's channel system circles the reproductive organs, affecting women’s menstrual and reproductive abilities intricately.)  

By taking preventative measures and incorporating daily routines promoting Liver health--diet, exercise, joyful activities and a little Chinese Medicine--you can bring better harmony to your health during the Spring season.

 

[1] Gail Reichstein, “Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life.”

[2] To learn more about Wood conditions in your body, refer to Gail Reichstein’s “Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life.”

[3] To learn more about Chinese Food Medicine, refer to Paul Pritchford’s “Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition” as well as Yuan Wang’s “Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life.”