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Spring is the season of bursting forth in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); the energetic movement is literally up and out. Based on millennia of nature observations, TCM principles explain the flow of movement in the body in poetic terms of nature. Each season has a different set of internal organs associated with the energy of that season, as well as an element that best describes the qi, or energy, of the season. In spring, the wood element expresses the upward and outward movements of spring, and the liver and gallbladder are the internal organs that most reflect that movement.
The most important role the liver and gallbladder play in the body is detoxification. These organs — the liver in particular — help clear the body of toxins. By clearing toxins, the liver provides the body with higher-quality blood that can more easily circulate. It also helps the body digest fats by releasing bile, which helps clear fat from the digestive system and absorbs it into the bloodstream. This bile is stored in the nearby gallbladder. Additionally, the liver provides a backup energy reserve for the body in the form of glycogen, which is the stored form of glucose. In a nutshell, the liver is busy with three functions: detox, breakdown, and backup.
In order to do these jobs well, the liver itself needs to be clean and clear. When the liver isn’t functioning efficiently, the body will signal that it needs a little extra attention.
On the Lookout
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Common signs that the liver needs detox support include:
- Frequent headaches
- Chronically cold hands and feet
- Irritability, anger, and frustration
- Sluggish metabolism
- PMS and other menstrual irregularities
- Frequent sighing
- Stress-related digestive upset
- Chronic stress
- Breast tenderness or rib-side discomfort
- Lump in the throat
Supporting the Liver
In Western culture, we often think detoxing means quickly clearing out our bodies; if we get rid of everything “extra,” all will be well. However, TCM strives for balance and harmony. Detoxing can mean supporting the liver so it can clear itself, or it can require a combination of supporting and clearing. And yes, sometimes detoxing means just clearing it all out.
TCM practices focus on harmonizing the liver and gallbladder energy. When these two fall out of balance, the body will show a multitude of signs. Here are a few common factors that can hinder the efficiency of these organs.
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Stress. Frequent feelings of tension, anger, irritability, and frustration bind up the liver, which is detrimental to an organ that wants action and activity. The best antidotes to stress are meditation, kindness, and self-compassion. Mitigate anger with kindness, compassion, and understanding. Alleviate frustration with movement, whether it’s emotional, physical, or mental. Irritability is a signal from the body that it needs attention. Reflect and ask yourself what your body needs: less to manage, more rest, or more physical movement? Many times, going for a long run or walk is the perfect way to meet the needs of your liver. However, too much exercise will also frustrate the liver. It needs just enough movement to feel good, but not so much that it ends up stressed and depleted.
Alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Interestingly, small amounts of alcohol actually help move blocked liver energy; that’s why after one drink, people start relaxing, maybe even smiling or laughing. However, too much alcohol overwhelms the liver. It gets incredibly irritable when it’s being asked to do too much, too fast. When people get a headache, feel nausea, or vomit after drinking too much, it means the liver can’t keep up. The same is true for pharmaceuticals. A healthy and supported liver is better equipped to clear alcohol and pharmaceuticals from the body.
Fatty foods. The liver produces bile, but the gallbladder stores and releases it to break down fats. Eating excessive fatty foods can inflame the gallbladder, causing digestive upset, emotional irritability, lack of appetite, and headaches. These are all signals from the body that the wood element organs are out of harmony. The good news: Chinese herbs can do incredible things to help support the liver and gallbladder in times of distress. The formulas most often used to help harmonize these organs are Si Ni San (Frigid Extremities Powder) and Xiao Chai Hu Tang (Lesser Blue Green Decoction). Both herbal formulas help ease both organs’ burdens and give them more resources to do their jobs.
Environmental toxins. Environmental toxins can build up in the liver and cause it to function less efficiently. Hormone-disrupting ingredients can overwhelm the liver and may end up causing a situation of estrogen dominance. This imbalance often appears in cases of fibrocystic breasts, PMS, and polycystic ovary syndrome. Other environmental toxins can also overload the liver. Plastics, pesticides, synthetic fragrances, pollution, and heavy metals (such as mercury and lead) can all find their way into the body and cause problems in the liver.
Spring is the perfect time to detox. The energetics of spring align with the liver and gallbladder, so showing these organs extra love during this season produces more efficient and successful results. Here are a few easy ways to safely clear out the liver.
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Take a break. Though January seems like the perfect time for lifestyle changes, the best time of year is actually spring. The energetics of spring lend themselves to starting new patterns and trying new things. Take a break from alcohol, overly processed foods, and sugar. This is also a good time to work a daily meditation break into your schedule.
Create it. The liver is also the organ of creativity. Dreaming big, designing projects, and playing are all excellent ways to help support liver function. Draw or write out your feelings, play some music, or dance. It’s hard for the liver to become stressed and bound up when you’re in a creative state.
Clear it. If you feel that your body needs a good detox, spring is the time to do it. Check out “Liver Supplements” and “Acupressure Points” below for a few of my favorite detoxing supplements and acupressure points to help support healthy liver function.
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Move it out. Movement is the signature of the liver — it’s constantly moving to clear things out. So, one way to help enhance the liver is through your own movements. With this, it’s important to listen to your body; excessive or harder movements aren’t always better. Start with regular walking or running to move liver qi. If you feel amazing afterward, that’s your body telling you that you’ve found the right movement. If you feel dread at the thought of a more strenuous movement, try gentle yoga, tai chi, or qi gong movements; these will gently move the qi to help support the liver. Keep changing things up until you’ve found the movement that works best for your body.
Express it. The liver is the organ that holds stress, including emotional stress. Therefore, one of the best ways to help clear out the liver is to express your feelings. This usually works best when done in a compassionate way. Holding things in will bind the liver and cause irritability, frustration, and anger. One sign that liver qi is stuck is when you can feel a lump in your throat. In TCM, the “negative” emotion of the liver is anger, and the “positive” emotion of the liver is compassion. Therefore, expressing compassion when you feel anger is a harmonized approach. First, have compassion for yourself about your anger. Then, express your feelings in a compassionate way. This helps build connection and helps communication flow well.
Nourish it. In order for the liver to keep doing its job, it needs nourishment. Below are some of my favorite foods, drinks, and herbs to support the liver.
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- Lemon water helps detox the liver when drunk first thing in the morning and 30 minutes before a meal.
- Beets, broccoli, artichokes, and asparagus are all “wood element” foods that help nourish the liver.
- Goji berries help support the blood-nourishing aspects of the liver. Add goji berries to green tea for a double dose of liver support.
- Turmeric helps regenerate liver cells and move stuck blood, particularly in the upper parts of the body. However, not everyone reacts well to turmeric, so test this herb or speak with your doctor before adding it to your regular diet.
Harmonize it. Two Chinese herbal formulas work wonders in helping harmonize the liver and gallbladder. The first, Xiao Yao San (Free and Easy Wanderer), helps soothe the effects of everyday stress and irritability. It’s particularly effective against bloating, headaches, irritability, mild depression, and stress-induced digestive upset. The second formula, Xiao Chai Hu Tang (Minor Bupleurum Decoction), clears the liver of lingering viruses, alleviates gallbladder irritability, and assists overall detoxification. It also helps treat general irritability, lack of appetite, headaches, and difficulty regulating body temperature.
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- Liver 3: Located between the big toe and second toe. Stroke from the top of the foot toward the toes. Start about 1 inch from the base of the toes, and make several downward strokes to lessen a headache, soothe irritability, and alleviate signs and symptoms of PMS.
- Liver 8: Located on the inner aspect of the knee, right above the crease, in the soft area between the tendons. Rub this gently to nourish the liver, find
compassion, and relieve stress and overwork. This is also a good point to help regulate the menstrual cycle.
- Gallbladder 41: Located right above the first tendon on the top of the foot below the fourth toe, closer to the ankle than to the toes. This point helps clear rib-side pain, alleviate gallbladder symptoms (lack of appetite, shoulder pain, bloating, tenderness on the right ribcage), and clear stress from the neck and shoulders.
- Gallbladder 21: Located at the top of the shoulders, at the highest point of the muscle. By massaging this point, blood flows more freely to the brain, which helps with decision-making, and eases stress and tension in the neck and shoulders.
- NAC: In TCM, this supplement helps the liver support the respiratory and skin systems. It helps relieve allergies and skin conditions, and assists in increasing glutathione.
- Alpha-lipoic acid: This antioxidant helps the liver function better. It’s excellent for helping with peripheral neuropathy, and may help with the management of blood sugar.
- Glutathione: This supplement helps reduce oxidative stress in the body, making the liver more efficient and effective.
In TCM, we say the liver opens into the eyes. That means that eye disorders are usually rooted in liver issues. Nourishing and clearing the liver can help treat dry, watering, and itchy eyes. When drunk daily, goji berry and chrysanthemum tea, a traditional Chinese tea combination, both clears and nourishes the eyes.
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The liver and eyes are also connected through the power of envisioning. In the process of detoxing and clearing, it helps to have a big picture of what you’re working toward. When the liver is functioning well, setting goals and having a vision for what you want your life to look like comes more easily. This relationship, however, works both ways: Having direction is a huge help to the liver. If you don’t know where to start, start simple. How do you want to feel in your body? How do you want to feel in your relationships? What kinds of new creative endeavors do you want to start? Asking these questions is a good start to envisioning the life you want for yourself.
With a singular goal, the liver’s energy becomes focused, driven, and purposeful. Spring is the ideal time to understand what you want for your life. By doing so, it’ll become clear what needs to be removed from your life to make those goals happen. There’s an organizational structure to the change, because goals help provide clarity of action. Enjoy making those liver-loving changes!
Clear Vision Exercise
For 30 minutes, free write about your ideal life, responding to each of the categories below. Choose one or two of these goals and make small decisions each day to find clarity and move toward transformation.
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- Relationship / partnership
- Work / career
- Creative endeavors
Julie Bear Don’t Walk is a licensed acupuncturist and national board-certified herbalist. After experiencing life-changing results of her own, she decided to spend her life helping people feel
better in their bodies and their lives. You can learn more about Julie and her clinic at Julie Bear Don’t Walk.