Welcome to this month’s edition of The Meridian Series where we explore the unique properties of each acupuncture channel in East Asian Medicine, plus the roles they play in our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you are new to this series, or have not heard about the meridians before, here is a little background before we dive into our next featured channel: The Liver Meridian.
What Are the Meridians?
In East Asian Medicine, there are twelve main Acupuncture Meridians (also known as “channels”) that carry energy, aka qi (pronounced “chee”), and blood to provide nourishment throughout the body. In a healthy person, the flow of these vital substances are freely moving in a state of dynamic equilibrium. However, when the flow of qi or blood becomes blocked in one or more of these channels from emotional stress, an injury, or illness — pain and other symptoms of disharmony manifest in the body.
Each meridian is associated with an organ system as well as a host of other natural phenomena since the foundations of East Asian Medicine were created on the basis of observing the human body as a microcosm of nature — from the elements (Metal, Air, Water, Fire, and Earth), climate, shift of seasons, and more. After all, we are just as dynamic as these cosmic changes: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always shifting towards homeostasis.
As we immerse ourselves at the cusp of spring and summer, nature’s instinctual shedding occurs so renewal is imbued in the virtues of the Liver Meridian. By eliminating that which does not serve its physical functioning, this meridian esoterically imbues one with the capacity for planning and execution needed to experience growth in their own life.
The Liver Meridian begins at the inner corner of the big toe and runs between the first and second toe before ascending along the shin (tibia) of the lower leg. It continues to rise medially to the knee and trace the inner aspect of the thigh until it encircles the reproductive organs. From there it makes its last stretch along the abdomen (along the mamillary line) before finally terminating at the ribside in the 6th intercostal space. The internal pathway connects to the liver, gallbladder, stomach, and lungs — making its way up the neck, to the eyes, and vertex (top) of the head. Because of these internal connections, the Liver Meridian and the liver points are often used to relieve eye strain, headaches, and digestive complaints.
The Liver’s Roles
The liver is well-known for its detoxifying role in our body. It relentlessly filters the blood while breaking-down any chemicals ingested from not only food, supplements, and drugs, but also those absorbed from the air, plastics, household cleaners, toiletries, and cosmetics. For this reason, the liver’s integrity is essential for regulating our sex, thyroid, and adrenal hormones.
In East Asian Medicine, the liver’s primary function is referred to broadly as ensuring the free flow of qi and blood throughout the body’s meridians, organs, and tissues. When the liver fails to provide smooth circulation of these vital substances, this can be caused by: an excessive accumulation of a qi/blood called a blockage/stagnation, a diminished presence or generation of those substances called a vacuity/deficiency, or a mixed pattern of the two.
Given this integral role, you can archetypally compare the liver to the body’s commander.
In the clinic, I endearingly refer to the commander as having a type A personality that thrives on planning, organization, and structure to help us get things done from everyday demands to reaching our goals. On a physical level, this looks like delegating the right amounts of qi and blood to the organs/tissues on schedule so they can function optimally. Emotionally when the liver is met with figurative roadblocks such as chronic stress or other frustrations that get in the way of relating to one’s self, others or work, the commander can become angry or abrasive. Metaphysically, the liver’s spirit, the “Hun,” gives us our creativity and the capacity to visualize the steps to materialize our ideas into reality (more on that to come). When the liver is balanced, one’s character is easily inspired, optimistic, flexible, and diligent.
When distilled down to the essential role in “clearing” stagnation and delivering nourishment in the forms of qi/blood where needed, the liver becomes overburdened, health issues characterized by pain, poor circulation, and emotional strain aka feeling “stuck” occur.
To understand the most common symptoms associated with an imbalanced liver, it’s helpful to understand them in the context of the organ’s other functions.
Liver Functions & Common Symptoms
1: It opens the eyes & controls the tears
The liver expresses itself through the eyes not only in the sinews of the iris but the color of the sclera when yellow (indicating jaundice). Blurred vision, excess teariness, red eyes, and eye strain all point to an imbalance in this organ, especially when exposure to environmental irritants, age-related degeneration, and chronic screen time are involved.
2: It governs the sinews (muscles, tendons, ligaments) and provides blood for their nourishment to maintain proper movement
According to the 5 Element Theory, the liver’s relationship to the body’s sinews is mirrored in its association with the Wood Element. Consider the duality of a tree’s structure, when alive it’s sturdy as a whole yet each fiber allows it to bend with the wind. Like our sinews, when they have adequate flow of nutrient-dense, oxygenated blood, they retain their flexibility. When deprived of either of these (in the case of anemia, an injury, or hypertonicity), the sinews become stiff which can manifest in issues like tendonitis, myalgias, and an increased risk of injury because they are deprived of the blood flow needed to move freely.
3: It’s health manifests in the nails as well as the thickness and luster in one’s hair
Much like the sinews, adequate liver blood is also needed for the nails to maintain their integrity and the hair to retain their shine. A liver blood deficiency can manifest in dry, brittle nails/hair. However an excess pathogen (like fungus) or metabolic disorder affecting the liver can result in abnormal growth or yellowing of the nail beds.
4: It stores the blood for menstruation
For example, given its function for storing the menstrual blood, the liver controls the blood used to build the endometrial lining each month so clinically when a patient presents with a light or non-existent period (amenorrhea), this can point to what is known as a liver blood deficiency. This pattern can sometimes be implicated in fertility cases where poor implantation and/or miscarriage is suspected because there is not enough blood to sustain a fertilized egg.
5: It’s responsible for emotions related to anger
In East Asian Medicine, every organ rules over an emotion, meaning it is the source of where that emotion is stored when experienced. Because emotions are embodied forms of energy, their presence can manifest in physical symptoms associated with the organ it’s related to.
When it comes to the liver, it rules over not just anger but also related feelings of frustration, irritability, jealousy, resentment, and animosity.
The effect anger has on the body depends on how it is processed – whether it is bottled up or expressed outward by yelling, for example. Overall, anger causes the liver qi to stagnate and fester, leading to poor or depressed circulation (as seen in mental depression, cold hands/feet, migraines, stiff shoulders, etc.) and/or the generation of internal “heat” (think redness in the eyes/face, a rising dynamic, yelling outbursts, agitated disposition). Liver qi stagnation of this type can also be a key culprit (or contributor) to skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and shingles where the heat (and repressed frustration) tries to vent through the skin.
In East Asian Medicine, the emotions of the liver (alone or along with chronic exposure to toxic substances like drugs, alcohol, and chemicals) can be linked to the generation of gynecological conditions such as PMS, fibroids, endometriosis, breast tenderness, and painful periods.
6: It houses the “Hun” aka the Ethereal Soul for planning and envisioning
The Hun or the Ethereal Soul is in charge of bringing one’s inner world and dreams into awareness and fruition. Much like the liver’s connection with free movement, the Ethereal Soul provides the psyche with movement in several ways:
- Out-of-body experiences during sleep and dreaming
- Moving beyond everyday life circumstances through the pursuit of life goals
- Planning projects and the paths needed to accomplish them
- Moving beyond the self to also focus on others and fostering or maintaining relationships
The balanced personality of the liver — and animation of the Ethereal Soul — can be seen in those who excel at self-leadership, management, structure, and routine.
When the liver is healthy, the liver blood is abundant, and circulation of liver qi is smooth, the Hun is content — it can come and go freely. There will be a healthy flow of ideas and creativity for the mind to receive and integrate. A person will be connected to their intuition, able to envision a goal, and feel like they have a direction for their life. In essence, a rooted Hun provides the courage to pursue one’s potential and regulate emotional ups/downs. With a balanced Hun, roadblocks can be faced with flexibility and frustrations met with resolve.
A disembodied Hun is implicated in involuntary dissociation (such as in PTSD), conscious escapism (excessive daydreaming, procrastination, substance use, etc.) and nightmares.
How to Strengthen Your Liver Qi:
1: Clean Up Your Cosmetic & Household Cleaning Game
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a non-profit, non-partisan group—on average, women use 12 personal care products a day, exposing themselves to 168 chemical ingredients. Men use six, exposing themselves to 85 unique chemicals. Not only do these compounds mimic and disrupt one’s hormones, once absorbed by your skin, they inundate the liver which ends up creating more stagnation and symptoms down the road. Empowering yourself with knowledge about the everyday products you use (from make-up and skin-care to toiletries and household cleaning agents), you can make informed choices about what you use to lessen your liver’s toxic load. If you don’t know where to start, consider apps that let you look up your go-to products and their ingredients! You can even scan items through your phone and compare safety ratings before you buy. Some apps I recommend are Think Dirty, GoodGuide, and Healthy Living.
2: Support the Liver with Food From an Eastern Dietary Perspective
Consider incorporating the following foods into your diet to balance the liver qi:
- Leafy green vegetables such as escarole, spinach, kale, broccoli rabe, broccolini, dandelion, etc.
- Add pungent herbs such as basil, rosemary, and caraway seeds to your cooking
- Cook foods for a shorter duration with light heat (steaming, saute, or stir-fry)
- Avoid or limit alcohol when possible
3: Acupressure for Stagnation Relief with Acupuncture Point Liver 3
Taichong aka Great Rushing is the most popular and well-known point on the liver channel and for good reason. Liver 3 is a key point for mobilizing the liver qi when it is backed-up in the case of PMS, irritability, headaches, eye strain, and much more.
To find it: look at the top of your foot and trace upwards from your big toe until you feel a depression in between the first and second metatarsal bones. Press with firm pressure for a series of deep breaths to instill a self-paced release with this point. As you press, you can envision a floodgate opening, allowing your pain and frustrations to rush free, transmuting as they reach your conscious awareness, no longer festering within the walls of your mind and heart.
Dr. Lauren Favreau is the Founder of Rune Acupuncture in New Gloucester, Maine where her approach to care can best be described as a merging of medicine and mysticism. Dr. Favreau addresses her client’s needs with a holistic and integrative approach. Her specialty lies in offering Acupuncture for emotional health and pain management, guiding patients towards a state where the body and mind are re-integrated, allowing one to reclaim the essence of who they are, as well as a more harmonized state of health. Book a session with Dr. Lauren through Rune Acupuncture or follow her on the ’gram for daily inspiration and wisdom.