The Liver Part 1: The 5 Functions of this Ambitious General
The wood element in Chinese medicine is a valuable teacher. Its lessons are born out of an interesting balance of an energy that is clear and decisive and at the same time flexible and able to bend to change with the times. Wood, like all the other phases of the 5 elements is first and best understood as a type of vibration, a movement that occurs in nature. This vibration has many correspondences, that is, that there are a multitude of things that move, reflect and vibrate as wood does.
The Chinese character illustrates the image and feeling of wood beautifully. It is the same character for bamboo. This reveals that wood energy is bendable and pliable, yet well rooted and strong. The vibration of a healthy wood element is one that expands in all directions. This reflection is seen in most healthy plant life. That is, that plants grow upwards, root downwards, and grow outwards simultaneously.
In the body, the liver is the somatic representation of wood energy. It reaches in all directions and in fact, can actually regenerate itself when large portions are removed. This mimics the healing and growing action in plants. Western and eastern medicine are not that different from each other. There is certainly a difference in the expression of observable phenomenon, but most of the time the two paradigms share more in common than they have dissimilarities. This contrast in expression often turns a more "scientifically" minded person off from Chinese medicine unfortunately.
The language of Chinese medicine is often filled with nature imagery, and flowery, soulful language that illustrates its connection and partnership with earth. One just needs a bit of patience to be able to interpret this expression into a more useable translation. Whether one is utilizing Western biomedicine, or Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine can be expressed, applied and translated to meet whatever system of thought one is using. Again, Chinese medicine is not a belief system, but rather a way to express observable phenomenon. It is science, with the expression of art.
Chinese Medicine Functions of the Liver:
1. Promotes the free flow of qi (pronounced chee) and blood throughout the whole body.
This function has a broad interpretation, in that Western medicine is lacking a generally accepted definition of what qi is. For the sake of brevity, qi is energy that encompasses ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), our body's cellular energy, oxygen and glucose. Qi has many more correlates, and perhaps will be the subject of another post later.
So the liver is responsible for the "free flow" of qi and blood? Yes, it is. The liver has the very important function of storing unused glucose as glycogen. When the body's demand for glucose to make more ATP arises, the liver converts that glycogen back into glucose so the body can carry on doing what it needs to do. If a low carb diet is employed and there is not enough glycogen/glucose then the liver resorts to making ketones for the body to use as fuel. The liver keeps the body moving, or in other words, "freely flowing".
2. Responsible for storing the blood when the body is at rest/releasing the blood during activity.
Both Eastern and Western medicine agree here. When the body is resting/sleeping the liver will store some of the supply of blood. The body simply does not need it at rest. Blood pressure will lower during sleep, respiration slows, as does the heart rate. All of this is in response to less blood in circulation. When the body is very active, blood is released and we have more fuel and blood to supply the muscles, tendons and ligaments with the nutrients to get the job done.
3. Regulates mental function and harmonizes the emotions.
This Chinese medicine function is a clear indication that the Chinese had a deep understanding of physiology during a period in history where these types of somatic responses were not able to be detected technologically. The liver produces and is one of the main organs responsible for breaking down stress hormones. In other words, when stress is high, the liver produces hormones in response to that stress, and also needs to break them down over time. This extra work by the liver effects blood glucose as well as insulin levels in the body and gives rise to anger, anxiety, foggy thinking, etc.
The liver's role in the emotional landscape will be covered in more depth in Part 3 of this series, but to summarize; the more stress a person has, the harder the liver has to work with regards to the creation of stress hormones, the breakdown of those same hormones as well as the production of insulin. This creates more stress in the body, and a positive feedback loop that generates an inordinate amount of tension in the liver. In Chinese medicine, this is called Liver Qi Stagnation/depression.
4. Regulates and harmonizes the digestive system.
This function is complex from a western perspective. Read How the Liver Affects Insulin and Vice Versa for a detailed explanation of the biochemistry that is happening with the liver. The liver also produces a substance called bile. As most know, bile is essential for the break down and digestion of fats. Hepatocytes (liver cells) are also responsible for the protein synthesis of important plasma proteins like albumin. So the liver plays a major role in the digestion, absorption and synthesis of our three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
5. Rules the tendons and ligaments.
The tendons and ligaments (sinews) are made primarily of collagen. Collagen is made up of several amino acids, the most abundant of which are Glycine and arginine. These two proteins aid the liver in its function of detoxification. Glycine synthesizes glutathione which in turn aids in detoxification. Arginine helps the liver reduce ammonia in the body. One can also see that when the liver becomes cirrhotic, the cells will appear similar in structure to collagen. The liver literally becomes collagen when diseased. Part 2 of this series will discuss collagen and the tendons and ligaments in depth.
The liver is an amazingly ambitious organ that reaches and expands in all directions in our body. From digestion/absorption, to detoxification, from the mind and the emotions to the very foundations of our physical structure and how it holds together with the most abundant protein in the body; collagen, the liver springs forth with a plan and strategy for understanding and direction of movement. Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists have had a deep understanding of this organ for thousands of years. Modern medicine only solidifies and supports these findings.
*Please let me know if there are any subjects of interest with regards to health, fitness, and/or Chinese medicine. *