Spring has Sprung! What that means for your Liver and Traditional Chinese
Melanie Haggert RAc TCMD
What does spring mean to you? For most of us Albertans it means unpredictable weather, snow showers, emergence out of long winter darkness, a little bit more sunshine, palette change of the landscape from cerulean blue skies, bright white snow covered ground into emerging earth tones, mud on our boots, new aromas of thawing dirt, budding populars and pinches of green emerging from perennials in flowerbeds stretching to the sunshine. In TCM spring is not restricted to a date like our Gregorian calendar date of March 20th, the date of the Spring Solstice. The Sages/Daoists like to express springtime by watching nature.They knew that spring is expected but never knew exactly the exact time or date it arrives. Only the signs from nature, like the green that emerges on hillsides, leaves start to emerge and creeks become full like rivers for a short burst of the accumulated gathering of melting snow. We can all agree that weather cannot be controlled but can accept Spring means “GROWTH”
I am a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. Over the years I’ve been practicing, I have substantiated, as we head into spring it can be a difficult or tumultuous time for people. It sneaks up on us, like the day that the trees start to pop their leaves, the spring storms or that crazy wind that hits southern Alberta like a prairie spring squall.
Let me introduce myself, my name is Melanie and I practice Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) and Acupuncture. I absolutely love what I do, my treatment room is my sanctuary, my zen space. I am an artist, a painter and now I include artist of health in that self description. I’m chatting about TCM and the change of the seasons from winter to spring. How does this effect us and how can we prepare and enjoy the change, instead of reacting and feeling really off and out of control. By sharing my experiences in the treatment room and explaining the 5 Elements concepts I hope to help ease into spring with grace and understanding on why we might feel this way.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is based in the knowledge and study of nature and universal experience. The Taoists/Sages taught us to live in harmony with the natural environment as it pertains to holding all aspects of Mind, Body and Spirit in balance so disease never has a chance to flourish.
A colleague quoted this so eloquently “TCM views humans as a microcosm of the universe that surrounds them. Humans, and life forms are seen as inseparable from nature. This philosophy also implies that what harms one person damages all people and what injures the earth injures us all.”
Changing seasons using TCM and 5 Element methodology of Organ system, emotions, sound, colour, odour, taste and food choices can assist on creating balance with our bodies and the seasons. The 5 Element philosophy describes the interactions and relationships between nature and life force or “Qi” that flows through them. The 5 Elements are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. I will be discussing the Element of Wood and how it pertains to Spring and how to gently guide ourselves through this big seasonal change. What attributes does the Element of Wood hold for us and how we can understand this concept to help with our health and well being?
Spring is the time of Wood, the organ system is the Liver, the colour is green, the flavour is sour, the emotion of the Liver is anger/frustration, the sound of spring is shouting. I know that sounds a bit strange and esoteric, TCM explains concepts in stories and metaphors. We definitely loose some nuances with translations from ancient Chinese to modern english. I will do my best to explain these concepts.
In TCM we talk about the organs in more conceptual ideology. Yes we know that the main job of the liver is to filter the blood coming from the digestive tract before cycling it through the rest of the body. It also detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs. When the blood is being stored in the liver, if there’s too many toxins on the Liver it gets “Stagnant” the purification may be inadequate leading to the release of those toxins thru the skin. Impure blood is a cause of eczema, acne, skin allergies and rashes.
In Chinese medicine the Liver rules the tendons and eyes, supports menstrual blood and lubricates and nourishes the tissues. If there is a disfunction, as in the Liver is not detoxifying well or is in toxic overload we get aches and pains, that feeling of stiffness. If this becomes chronic, toxic blood also feeds all degenerative conditions including cancer and arthritis. We can also be emotionally toxic too, carrying what we feel is the weight of the world on our shoulders, repressing our anger and frustration.
All of our organs have an emotion attached to them and the Liver’s emotion is anger and frustration. The Liver is perhaps the most congested organ in the modern human, we deal with so many toxins, from environmental, processed foods, drugs, alcohol, emotions, and stress which lead to Liver disfunction. I tell patients that the Liver likes to be the chill dude, calm, happy helping with smooth flow of energy. Unfortunately with our busy non chill lives, poor eating habits, self medicating with alcohol, drugs, smoking and food the Liver takes a bit of a beating and over time and we get that “Stagnant Liver” feeling.
Signs and symptoms of this are as follows, see if you have any of these?
Quick to temper, road rage, outbursts of anger, easily to cry especially when we are close to having a period, heavy painful periods, poor digestion, heartburn, vertex(top of the head) and temporal(side of the head) headaches, high pitched ringing of the ears when we are frustrated and angry. The Liver is a very important organ in women’s menstrual cycle health as it supplies blood to the uterus so if there is a Liver issue like “Stagnation” we might have these symptoms: painful periods, cramping, heavy big clots, intense pre-menstrual symptoms, headaches, emotional outbursts, breast tenderness, acne, pale face, anemia, eye floaters and fatigue. If you notice or have any of these you may have some Liver Stagnation happening. (The Kidneys and Spleen-Pancreas can also effect the flow of menstrual blood as well which I will discuss in the future issues of this magazine.) Unfortunately these signs and symptoms have become very common and “regular” for so many women but TCM can defiantly help ease these issues so we don’t dread that time of month.
When we suppress the emotions of anger and frustration it also taxes the Liver with emotional toxins. I’m not saying start yelling at everyone that pisses you off but maybe the frustration can lessen if we take care of the Liver. When I get patients that are feeling stuck, holding in anger and frustration I recommend to let it out, not at anyone, but in a safe place. I love to get in my car and let it out, yep screaming to the top of my lungs, vehicles are usually pretty soundproof and it feels great to move this “Qi”. Mine usually ends in tears and I feel like I have lost emotional baggage that could fill a steamer trunk. Thinking becomes much more clear, usually I come to some resolution. I also recommend gratitude for our Liver/Wood, go hug a tree. It’s spring and the Wood element, I find it very grounding to hug a tree, thank it for all it does. We all need to hug more trees!
What we put in our bodies is as important as dealing with our emotions. I don’t like to call anything a “diet” as for many people diet sounds restrictive, negative and historically has set us up for failure. I’m sure we have all been on different diets, some work, some don’t and I feel they can cause more stress which we are trying to alleviate. Lets call it a lifestyle change or food change or whatever works for you. What we eat can have monumental positive changes as well as negative outcomes too. I like to focus on the positive, I suggest really notice what we put into our bodies. Intention is an important quality of nourishment. If we slow down, sit to eat, have few distractions like the nightly news and are calm and have gratitude/intention, our food will nourish us, almost always we have much better digestion. If we resent what we are eating that intention gets swallowed and over time manifest physically with digestive issues. We generally know that food is our fuel, to have long term wellness we need cut out out the processed foods, refined sugar and start eating a clean diet of simple food. Lets start with vegetables, your mom was right, eat your veggies! Liver health depends on it. I encourage everyone to start cooking at home.
One of my favourite books on TCM and nutrition by Paul Pitchford says “Nutritional principles for healing and balancing the Liver for spring cooking can be fun and a change from soups, stews, rich, higher fat and bland winter ingredients. In the spring we tend to eat quicker and less amounts to cleanse the body of excess fats that have accumulated over the winter months of eating comfort food. Foods to stimulate the liver out of winter stagnancy are as follows: pungent herbs and spices, watercress, all members of the onion family, mustard greens, turmeric, basil, bay leaf, cardamon, marjoram, cumin, fennel, dill, ginger, black pepper, horseradish, rosemary various mints, angelica root. Try not to eat too much extreme hot foods as they can damage severe liver stagnation. To much to quickly can set the liver to overheat and get even angrier. Foods to help with that stagnancy are mild pungent food: beets, taro, strawberry, peach, cherry, pine nut, leafy veggies like the brassica family, cabbage, turnips, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts and arugula.”
“Bitter and sour foods can help move the Liver stagnation and winter depression. Sauces or dressings for the veggies made out of vinegars, good oils and a bit of sweetness from honey or brown rice syrup can add flavour and aid in digestion. Unrefined vinegars are the best like Apple cider, brown rice, balsamic or rice-wine vinegars. Using small amounts of good oils can help as well. Make sure its of good quality like almond oil, olive oil grape-seed oil, sesame oil.”
If you feel the need to do a cleanse, spring and fall are the best time to do a cleanse. I recommend a gentle cleanse with food. I learned this cleanse information from a wise teacher and I use it all the time when patients are wanting to do a cleanse and clean up their diet. Instructions as follows: Omit all processed food, sugar, caffeine, processed items, even flours, breads etc. Veggies, meat and grains on a plate. Again back to simple foods, made at home. I like to have patients cleanse a little, then build a little, cleanse a little and build a little. I find that if we go fast and hard into cleanse we get headaches, pimples, rashes or physically ill and cannot finish the cleanse 2-3 days in, not only do we feel horrible we also feel totally defeated and didn’t help our Liver at all. I recommend setting a date to start this whole new food change, please be gentle with yourself, you will fall off the cart so to speak but not to worry, brush yourself off, get up and keep going. Don't give up because when we put good thing into body, our body does good things!
Starting with a weekly meal plan is helpful, grab some yummy recipes of ingredients you like and will eat. If that seems overwhelming try those companies that deliver prepared uncooked meals in a box to your door. They give you lots of healthy choices, and in turn some confidence in the kitchen cooking. The food is healthy, tasty with great portion control. Then you can move onto preparing your own meal plan and cooking. Not only will this nourish and assist the Liver to what is does best, but all our other organs will benefit from this as well.
There are 12 meridians or pathways in the human body and Liver is one of them. Along those pathways are acupuncture points which correspond to the organ system and have physical phenomenon when the points are activated from needles(acupuncture) or pressure(acupressure). The Liver meridian starts on the inside tip of the big toe and ascends up the medial side of the foot to the lower leg, inside of the knee continues up the inside of the thigh around the genitals, ascends to the upper hypochondriac space by the ribcage you guessed it to the Liver. It then ascends along the neck and back of the throat to link up with the tissues surrounding the eye, ascends across the forehead to the vertex of the head. If you can picture that, it might make much more sense when we get headaches from say hangovers, stress, to period headaches. We also hold lots of tension in our necks and sometimes we also feel like there is something stuck in our throats, that’s the Liver telling you it needs a bit of attention and love.
The practice of TCM can help acute health issues, chronic issues and what I find the best attribute is that its a lovely preventative medicine. We can treat all three levels of issues with our sessions. When you find a great practitioner they will assist with prevention in what questions they ask. I recommend finding an registered Acupuncturist and treating yourself to some treatments especially with the change of the seasons .
References for article:
Green Lotus Healing, Calgary Ab
Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
Between Heaven and Earth a Guide to Chinese Medicine, Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold
The Web That Has No Weaver, Ted Kapchuk
The Five Spirits, Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing, Lorie Eve Dechar