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The Winds of Change: Spring and the Liver in Chinese Medicine

*Note to the reader: when I speak of the liver's functions in Chinese medical theory, Liver is capitalized. When I refer to the organ's known physiological functions, liver is not capitalized.



Cherry Blossoms at the University of Washington
Cherry Blossoms at the University of Washington

It’s after seven, and the sun is just beginning to dip below the horizon, a welcome shift to longer days after months of dreary darkness. Outside my apartment, pink cherry trees blossom, emerging daffodils cheerfully line the sidewalks, and brisk winds herald the changing seasons. Soon, it will be the Spring equinox, the fourth Qi Node of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, known as 春分 chūnfēn. This is a crucial time of year to pay attention to health as yang energy begins to stir and burst forth, spurring vitality and renewal within our bodies and the natural world.

 

Traditionally, spring meant it was time to clear the fields, dig up fallow soil, burn the detritus, and nurture new growth. For us, that means transitioning from rest and the heavy comfort foods of winter to embracing movement and eating lighter plant-focused meals. Eating light meals and engaging in exercise are essential factors in maintaining optimal function of the Liver and Gallbladder, the organs associated with spring and the wood element in Chinese medical theory. In this system, the Liver's primary functions are the free flow of Qi in the body (integral to mental and physical health) and the regulation and storage of blood. The Liver is also responsible for the health of the tendons, ligaments, eyes, and reproductive organs. Emotionally, the wood element is associated with anger, frustration, stress, and the ability to make decisions, plan, be creative, and have a sense of direction in life. [1]

 



The eastern direction engenders Wind,

Wind engenders Wood, Wood engenders

Sourness, sourness engenders the

Liver, the Liver engenders the

sinews, the sinews engender the

Heart, the Liver rules the eyes.

 

-Section 7 of the Huang Di Nei Jing [2]

 



The liver is a complex organ with a host of functions, including metabolizing carbohydrates, dietary fats, and proteins; regulating blood glucose, vitamin storage, cholesterol metabolism; filtering and neutralizing toxins and metabolic waste; producing bile (to emulsify dietary fats and eliminate toxins), synthesizing specific proteins (like clotting factors) and hormones (like IGF-1); regulating and storing blood (to maintain blood pressure, volume, and blood flow), as well as a being a frontline organ in the immune system. [3]

 

Blood from the digestive system (containing antigens from food, toxins, bacteria, and viruses) is filtered through the liver, where foreign bodies are recognized and neutralized by resident macrophages called Kupffer cells. Kupffer cells are white blood cells that regulate inflammation by producing pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines. One of the several inflammatory cytokines Kupffer cells produce is Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-α) (note: TNF-α is also produced by other immune cells and other types of cells). [4] TNF-α is an essential protein for managing inflammation during acute infections and resistance to infections and cancers, but it is also associated with emotional dysregulation. Specifically, anger and the development of major depressive disorder, just like the Liver in Chinese medicine! [5] The liver is so integral to immune health that people with severe liver disease often succumb to infections... Now you understand why taking care of this precious organ is essential!

 

The liver is especially sensitive to the accumulation of fat from the diet, which can lead to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition affecting 38% of the global population! [6] While dietary fat is not necessarily “bad,” it is vital to eat it in the right proportion with other macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein) and with appropriate fiber intake (70g a day is the gold standard, but work your way up slowly). Because we tend to eat heavier foods during the winter, spring is the ideal time to rejuvenate the liver by lowering fat intake and increasing vegetable intake. In the bowels, soluble fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains binds to bile acids, effectively carrying out excess fat in the stool. [7] In addition to cholesterol-lowering properties, plant foods emphasize the yang energy of spring.

 

Veggies to integrate into your diet during the coming months:


Fresh greens

Sprouts

Broccolini

Romaine lettuce

Asparagus

Watercress

Mustard greens

Dandelion greens

Kale

Green cabbage

Green herbs like basil, mint, and rosemary.

 

Remember, it’s crucial to balance cooked and uncooked foods or to eat them lightly steamed or sautéed to avoid dampening the digestive fire. Drinking ginger tea after meals also aids digestion!

 

Sweet foods to harmonize the Liver and help us move through the season with emotional ease:

 

Honey

Hawthorne berry

Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, etc.)

Molasses

Licorice root (be careful with this herb if you have hypertension)


Foods to avoid or minimize:

 

Cheese

Red meat

Cream

Eggs

Alcohol

Processed foods

Highly processed and refined foods. [8]

 

Other things you can do to support your liver and transition to spring:

 

1)    Get acupuncture! Bonus points if it’s on the equinox.

2)    Try cupping or Gua Sha on the neck and shoulders to relieve Liver-related muscle tension.

3)    Take herbs or drink herbal teas. We have have wonderful liver-friendly teas in office, including the Stress Ease tea by Acknowledge Wellness. For an herbal consultation, schedule an appointment with Breanne to identify the best formula for you to take.

4)    Wake up with the sun!

5)    Engage in moderate to vigorous exercise: long, brisk walks, resistance training, yoga, etc.

6)    Balance active time with deep rest. Try the Acknowledge Wellness Restful Sleep tea if you have trouble falling asleep!

7)    Meditate to manage stress.

8)    Create! Whether in the kitchen, at work, or as a hobby, this is the best time of year to engage in creative projects.

9)    Set intentions. Breanne wrote a beautiful post on the Dragon year, with information on utilizing the energy and setting intentions.

 

I’ll leave you with one more excerpt from the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen (The Inner Cannon of The Yellow Emperor), a Han dynasty Chinese medical text written as a conversation between the mythical Yellow Emperor and renowned physician and advisor Qi Bo.

 

On how to live well in Spring, Qi Bo advises:

 

The three months of spring,

They denote effusion and spreading.

Heaven and earth together generate life,

The myriad being flourish.

 

Go to rest late at night and rise early.

Move through the courtyard with long strides.

Dishevel the hair and relax the physical appearance,

Thereby cause the mind [to orient itself on] life.

 

Give to life and do not kill.

Give and do not take.

Reward and not not punish.

 

Stay tuned for a series of posts on the Liver in Chinese medicine, its relationship with the concept of wind, and conditions associated with the Liver and springtime, including seasonal allergies!

 

Until next time!

 

Jamie

 

 

Sources:

 

1.         Maciocia, G., The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Vol. 2. 2005: Elsevier.

2.         Tessenow, P.U.U.a.H., Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen. 1946, University of California Press.

3.         Ozougwu, J.C., Physiology of the liver. International Journal of Research in Pharmacy and Biosciences, 2017. 4(8): p. 13-24.

4.         Su, L., et al., Kupffer cell-derived TNF-α promotes hepatocytes to produce CXCL1 and mobilize neutrophils in response to necrotic cells. Cell Death & Disease, 2018. 9(3): p. 323.

5.         Lotrich, F.E., et al., Labile anger during interferon alfa treatment is associated with a polymorphism in tumor necrosis factor alpha. Clin Neuropharmacol, 2010. 33(4): p. 191-7.

6.         Teng, M.L., et al., Global incidence and prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Clin Mol Hepatol, 2023. 29(Suppl): p. S32-s42.

7.         Reynolds, A., et al., Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet, 2019. 393(10170): p. 434-445.

8.         Pitchford, P., Healing with Whole Foods: Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition. 1993, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

 

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