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Chinese Medicine: The Liver

Liver and skeleton

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) understanding of the organ systems incorporates the physiological function as understood by allopathic medicine, but also sees the organs as part of a holistic body system.

According to Chinese medicine, all the internal organs work together harmoniously as a team with the liver being considered the 'General' or 'Chief of Staff'. As such, TCM has recognised for thousands of years that liver problems are the source of many ailments including: 

  • Breast distension and menstrual pain in women and a swollen prostate gland in men
  • Headaches (especially if long-lasting)
  • Irritability and inappropriate expressions of anger
  • Redness of the face and eyes and dark extremities
  • A dry mouth
  • Tendonitis and joint and muscle stiffness
  • Difficulty relaxing and sleeping well at night with nightmares
  • Feeling groggy in the morning
  • Glaucoma, night blindness, visual blurring and/or 'floaters' (spots in front of the eyes) 
  • Strokes and heart attacks
  • Tinnitus and/or deafness
  • Fainting, dizziness and/or convulsions
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Aching or pain in the sides
  • Hiccups
  • Hernias and
  • Constipation


Your liver has been filtering blood day and night your entire lifetime - often with little nutritional support and with quite a lot of dietary and environmental challenges. In particular studies linking liver damage to excessive or long-term use of painkillers have been reported. 

This creates a situation in which most people over the age of 50 will have liver weakness or toxicity. As a result, blood quality will slowly deteriorate to the point where the affected individual feels sluggish and heavy due to poor circulation. Along with kidney function, liver function is seen as a playing a key role in ageing in Chinese Medicine.

Liver congestion and stagnation are common liver problems. Yet conventional medicine does not understand them and has no test to detect them. Liver function tests only detect deterioration in liver function when it is critical. ALL chronically sick people will have heavily compromised liver function and working to detoxify and support the liver is crucial to recovery.

In TCM the Liver is the most important organ after the heart performing many important functions including metabolism, detoxification, and formation of important compounds including blood clotting factors. It also filters, regulates, and stores blood. The Liver is also responsible for regulating the blood volume throughout the entire body according to physical activity. During the day when the body is active, blood flows to the tendons and muscles and then returns to the liver at night.

This means that when liver Chi is functioning harmoniously, we have good energy during the day and feel rested and revitalised when we wake in the morning. The joints and tendons are nourished enabling us to move freely and strong, healthy nails (which are considered a part of the sinews) are a sign that the Liver blood is plentiful.

In TCM, the Liver (yin organ) is paired with the Gallbladder (yang organ) and both are associated with the wood element which is the element that allows us to grow. The Liver is also seen as having a powerful effect on the digestion because not only does the Liver control the proper functioning of the Stomach and Spleen Chi, but also the secretion of bile from the gallbladder.

The liver is responsible for denaturing sex hormones and a congested and inefficient liver can lead to elevated blood levels of circulating sex hormones. This can induce abnormal cell growth such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, breast cysts, and breast cancer in women and prostate enlargement and prostate cancer in men. 

The liver also acts as a bridge between blood returning from the digestive system and the heart. This makes the liver an important organ for the health of the heart with a weakened, swollen or congested liver obstructing the venous blood flow to the heart and potentially causing heart palpitations or even heart attacks.

In other words a healthy liver is essential for maintaining an adequate amount of blood flow to the heart and the heart can only pump the blood it receives. The liver also stores a variety of emotions including anger and, as a consequence, excessively angry people are more prone to both heart problems and strokes.

Portal circulation



As the circulation becomes more sluggish and the cells receive less oxygen and nutrients, chronic fatigue may manifest as energy production is compromised. In particular, the brain and eyes are vulnerable, partly because of the high demand for nutrients and oxygen and also because the blood has to flow against gravity to reach these organs resulting in age-related vision and memory loss. According to TCM, the Liver is said to open into the eyes and when the Liver is healthy, the eyes will be moist and our vision and particularly colour vision will be good.


Emotions and the Liver

The liver is the most emotion sensitive organ and its weakness is often connected to emotional sensitivity. Individuals who are emotionally sensitive are more prone to weak liver even if they do not have a poor diet or are not taking medication regularly.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver is said to govern and store the following emotions:

  • Anger
  • Distress
  • Vengefulness
  • Resentment
  • Self-righteous indignation
  • Transformation
  • Responsibility
  • Unhappiness/happiness
  • Irritability
  • Hostility
  • Frustration and
  • Bitterness


The TCM view is that anger is primarily stored in, and damages the liver. Excessively angry people are, as you are probably already aware, more prone to both heart problems and strokes for the reasons already detailed.

However, anger can have a positive side too in making you feel alive and inspiring corrective action in the world. Many experts consider that depression is repressed anger and in the same way that allopathic medicine regards depression as a problem requiring treatment, TCM feels that anger deserves remedial treatment too. 

The Liver is also said to help us to work harmoniously with other people and to flow through life. Constricted liver Chi can produce a loss of temper and even fits of rage. Often anger is counterproductive when the trigger is out of our control and expressing anger merely creates resistance in others that can further prevent progress.

Chinese medicine believes that the Liver plays a part in our ability to plan our life and make decisions and also relates to self-esteem. And whilst Liver fire can cause excessive self-esteem, Liver blood deficiency can cause low self-esteem, indecision and the feeling of being outnumbered even in one-to-one situations. Constrained Liver Chi produces a sense of being blocked, opposed and overshadowed at every turn.

Be warned: As you cleanse the liver and gall bladder, the long-buried negative emotions housed there may surface along with the toxic load.


TCM liver associations 

Although the liver is found on the right side of the body, Traditional Chinese Medicine maintains that it is related to the left side of the body in many ways. For example, the left side of the tongue reflects the health of the Liver and the Liver pulse is taken on the left wrist.

The liver meridian starts on the inside of the big toe and traces a course along the inside of the foot and leg passing to the side of the groin and ending on the flat of the ribs beneath the nipple as shown below. A struggling liver may produce occasional sharp pains along the path of the meridian.


Liver meridian and holding points


The muscles associated with the liver meridian are the pectoralis major sternal muscles which help to move and turn the arm forward. So problems or pain relating to moving the arms may ultimately lie with the liver. 

The neurovascular holding point relating to the liver is shown above and lies on the top the head (put the heel of your hand in the hollow between your eyes and the second finger will mark the spot). This point can just be touched using 2 fingers to help regulate the liver meridian.

Other related points include the neurolymphatic massage points shown above and if these are tender when rubbed - then they need rubbing! Rubbing these points helps to dissipate overenergy in the liver meridian and to rebalance the system. Occasionally they are not tender initially, but become so as you rub them.  

Also according to TCM the liver works hard to filter our blood between 1 to 3 am during our sleep and a struggling liver will produce hot flashes during this time. On waking, a fair amount of blood may still be retained in the liver and early morning exercises can help to bring the blood out of the liver into the circulating system. One of the symptoms of excessive blood being retained by the liver is waking up in the morning with stiffness or numbness in the fingers or dizziness due to lack of blood in circulation.


Further resources

You might also be interested in the following: 

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Body Basics

Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Gallbladder and Rage



Supplements to Aid Liver Detoxification

Finger- and Toe-Nails and Health

Deadly Drugs Scourge?

Face Reading

For a self-help programme of detoxification using supplements and diet please refer to The Natural Recovery Plan book

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Chinese Medicine and the Liver: Article summary

This article looks at the crucial physiological and emotional significance of the Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine and at the various points on the body that can be used therapeutically to restore liver function.


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The Natural Recovery Plan Ezine July 2011 Issue 19. Copyright Alison Adams 2011. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach

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