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 Gallbladder Meridian.
What Are The Meridians?
In East Asian Medicine, there are twelve main Meridians (also known as Jing-Luo “channels”) that carry vital substances such as energy (aka Qi pronounced “chee”), Body Fluids (Jin-Ye), Essence (Jing) and Shen (Spirit), and Blood (Xue) to provide nourishment throughout the body.
In a healthy person, these vital substances freely move in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Yet when their flow 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, Earth), climate, seasonal shifts and more. After all, we are just as dynamic as these cosmic changes: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always seeking a return to harmony.
Every meridian’s unique function also conveys a timeless wisdom regarding the inseparable connection between the mind, body, and spirit. As you will find, every channel influences more than just the physiology of the organ it’s named after. Beyond the surface level, the meridians are reservoirs that rule over distinct emotions and traits in someone’s disposition. Through reading the Meridian Series, my hope is for you to harness a deeper understanding of the capacity for comprehensive, holistic healing contained in each of these ancient vessels.
The Gallbladder: An Extraordinary Organ
In East Asian Medicine, “Zang Fu” is the concept that describes how organ systems create, store, and regulate the body’s vital substances described above. Rather than Western medicine’s emphasis on the mechanisms of an organ’s anatomy, each system is regarded for its effects on the entire body — how they communicate with other systems to ensure one’s health. Organs are categorized into pairs that are either relatively solid (Zang) or hollow (Fu).
Zang Organs are Yin in nature: they govern the body’s interior (from its physical, mental, and emotional regulation). Since they are mostly solid structures, they are in charge of storage and transformation of pure substances–acting as reservoirs for the Qi, blood, essence, and body’s fluids. The Lungs, Spleen, Kidney, Liver, and Heart comprise the five Zang Organs.
Fu Organs Yang in nature: they influence the body’s exterior. As hollow structures, they are responsible for allowing the vital substances to move through them. Fu organs are entrusted with transporting and disposing of impure substances (food/waste) created by the Zang organs. The Stomach, Small and Large Intestines, Gallbladder, and Bladder makeup the six Fu organs.
Some organs however, such as the Gallbladder, have both Yin (Zang) and Yang (Fu) qualities making them what’s known as “Curious” or Extraordinary Organs. When you take a closer look at the structure and functions of the Gallbladder, you can see why.
For instance, although it is categorized as a Fu Organ for its hollow appearance and capacity to secrete bile, the Gallbladder also stores the bile, a Zang quality. Secondly, the Gallbladder is the only Fu Organ that receives a pure substance (bile) from the Liver unlike other Fu which receive impure by-products of food and waste. Along this note — unlike the Stomach, Intestines, or Bladder — the Gallbladder is the only Fu that does not come in direct contact with the exterior of the body in order to transport these impure substances.
As you will find, the Gallbladder’s possession of Yin and Yang qualities are mirrored not only in its location but its functional and energetic qualities too.
Location: A Pivoting Pathway
The Gallbladder Meridian is made up of 44 acupuncture points which traverse across a lengthy head-to-toe route embellished with several diagonal pivots along the body’s borders. Starting at the temples, it contours the sides of the head along the hairline and ears several times before descending to the shoulders. From there it begins a downward trajectory containing additional diagonal pivots that trace the torso and hips as well as the sides of the legs. It crosses the front of the ankle before reaching its final destination at the corner of the fourth toenail.
Given its distribution over major hinge joints, an injury or chronic tension along this meridian negatively impacts one’s stability, capacity to move/bend freely, as well as their strength. Likewise, its pathway over the sides of the head, ears, and upper body make temporal headaches, neck/shoulder tension, dizziness, and issues with equilibrium such as vertigo potential indications of a disorder with this channel as well.
Bile Production: The Gallbladder stores and secretes the “central essence” known as bile to help metabolize fats and oils. In ancient texts this organ system is characterized as the “Honorable Minister” in charge of the “Central Clearing Department.” This description is analogous to its role from a Western perspective given how the Gallbladder orchestrates the breakdown of fatty acids along with the pancreas, small intestine, and liver. Across paradigms, its role is in fact both central and important to maintaining digestive harmony.
Sinews & Physical Recovery: Physically, the Gallbladder rules the sinews, a term used in East Asian Medicine to describe the body’s tendons, ligaments, muscles, etc. Compared to the Liver (its paired Yin organ) which nourishes the sinews by providing adequate, nutrient-dense blood, the Gallbladder provides the sinews with energy (Qi) to move and exert their full potential. Physical strength, agility, and defined muscle tone derives from a healthy Gallbladder.
Restful & Restorative Sleep: This organ’s relationship to the sinews is also tied to its role in helping the body repair during sleep. According to the Chinese Medicine Body Clock, 10pm-1am is when the Gallbladder is at its peak functioning since it becomes flooded with an abundance of Qi and Blood. During these hours is when the Gallbladder retracts blood from the sinews and sends it to the Liver to be detoxified of metabolites (waste byproducts like lactic acid) produced during the day. Whether this process is interrupted by staying up late or unintentional insomnia, the Gallbladder will not be able to fulfill this role as effectively resulting in poor recovery and muscle soreness.
Supports Immune Function: When the connections between individual sinews are looked at holistically, they create what’s called the Sinew Channels: a network that follows the Zang-Fu meridians superficially. You can think of Sinew Channels as trains of connective tissue, a nearly-identical predecessor to what’s known as myofascial “anatomy trains” in Western medicine. However in East Asian Medicine, the Sinew Channels are not just for functional movement, they support one’s immunity by circulating Defensive (Wei) Qi.
Through its governance of the sinews, the Gallbladder assists the Defensive Qi in the presence of an external pathogen, namely the Cold (in EAM there are six pathogens: Cold, Heat/Fire, Summer Heat Wind, Dampness, Dryness). When Cold lingers on the body’s surface but cannot travel deeper, it is located at the Shaoyang Level: in-between the interior and exterior.
With a Shaoyang Disorder, the Gallbladder’s dualistic nature appears as conflict between the body’s yin (cooling) and yang (warming) energies such as: having alternating fever and chills or a dry throat yet no desire to drink. A robust Gallbladder will activate the Defensive Qi in the Sinew Channels to help ward the pathogen off while a deficient Gallbladder will leave the Sinew Channels weakened, enabling the pathogen to enter the interior leading to illness.
Although the sinew-immune system connection might not be easily accepted from an allopathic lens, it is interesting to note that ancient practitioners of East Asian Medicine even referenced the Gallbladder when it came to pathogens. Coincidentally, or not, bile is antimicrobial! It serves to prevent the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO) while keeping its lining clean.
As research grows on the importance of the microbiome and its influence on everything from our immune system to mental health, the Gallbladder’s role should not be discredited.
The Courageous Taskmaster
The Gallbladder’s metaphysical qualities are an extension of its functional roles as a source of stability and strength for the body. Energetically, the Gallbladder rules the emotion of courage, which is needed to not just live according to one’s values, but to be able to “pivot” during transitional life periods — to adapt in the face of adversity.
From the wisdom of Brene Brown: Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor — the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant, “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.“ It’s no wonder why someone with a strong Gallbladder will be confident, have strong convictions, and tenacious in the pursuit of their passions. In their case, risk-taking is a virtue when done with calculation. Others can see people of this disposition as having “the audacity,” or “the gall” to live so boldly.
It’s from a secure sense of self that the emotional/mental stability afforded by the Gallbladder can be experienced so that decisions are made with good judgment. When the Gallbladder is in a state of harmony, there will be decisiveness and initiative to work towards the course of action chosen.
If you have been following our Meridian Series, you know that the Liver is the visionary when it comes to someone’s goals and dreams; you can think of it like the architect that designs the master plan for what it wants to create. Likewise, the Kidneys provide our willpower. Well, a robust Gallbladder is needed to execute and materialize. It’s the taskmaster, who, like a contract manager that takes the input from (and directs) other systems, is ultimately in charge of making the decisions so the job gets done.
A Highly Sensitive Organ
Emotionally, the Gallbladder is a highly sensitive system. It thrives on having a sense of safety and stability not just in one’s self — but in one’s environment. This is why it is easily susceptible to fright when in a weakened state — as seen when someone startles easily. Likewise, shocking and traumatic situations can quickly destabilize it, leading to a deficiency in itself that affects one’s spirit and emotional health in corrosive ways.
When the Gallbladder is impacted by shock, it can lead to a pattern known as Gallbladder Qi Timidity. Due to the scattering effect shock has on the Qi, it can make someone feel insecure and mentally scattered, unable to make a decision — even small ones. Chronic indecision erodes one’s confidence further, creating a vicious cycle of perseverating behavior in their daily life.
Due to the Gallbladder’s physical connection to the Heart via an internal branch (as well as it’s link via courage) other psychosomatic symptoms of a weak Gallbladder can show as: dizziness, blurry vision due to floaters (black specs that appear at random), waking too early due to restless sleep, and palpitations.
Emotionally, someone with Gallbladder Qi Timidity can be shy, get easily stressed, suffer from poor self-image, and will keep to themself by withholding their opinions. They can be leery of the unknown — or any situation that is new, even if it’s a necessary life transition. Initiative can be lacking which can cause issues with procrastination. When decision-making is not just difficult or agonizing, there can alternatively be poor, hasty choices made due to a lack of judgment. In the face of uncertainty, they are easily discouraged. Rather than pivoting from their current circumstance to move forward in life, they can feel perpetually stuck and resentful of others.
When working with clients where this pattern is present, I approach collaborations with just as much sensitivity to the experiences and trauma responses that lead to its manifestations. Acupuncture can be wonderful for treating the spirit of this organ by helping to cultivate safety in the body after shock and smooth the flow of scattered Qi. In turn, clients can reclaim a sense of hope and self-confidence to live with courage and adaptability in the face of life’s challenges.
Constraint, Stones, and Stasis
Just as a weakened Gallbladder can make someone’s digestive system intolerant of high-fat, greasy foods, these foods can very well contribute to a state of excess and constraint in the Gallbladder. This is where Western medical diagnoses like Gallstones and Cholecystitis (inflammation of the Gallbladder) become apparent. In East Asian Medicine, these tend to fall under a pattern known as Damp Heat in the Gallbladder: a combination of Dampness in the Spleen (often from eating too many cold/raw foods) and Heat in the Liver (usually from too much hot/spicy foods, alcohol, or repressed anger). When Damp-Heat lodges in the Gallbladder, the flow of Qi and bile is slowed, leading to stones or inflammation.
Physical symptoms of this pattern can vary from nausea after consuming fatty foods to loss of appetite, rib-side pain, low-grade-fever and jaundice with a bitter taste in the mouth. There can also be diarrhea or floating stools which shows that fat was not metabolized completely. Since dampness tends to settle in the lower regions of the body there can also be distension in the lower abdomen or even burning/itching (a key sign of Dampness) in the genitals.
Clinically, I am always wary when someone has right-sided shoulder pain — specifically deep to their shoulder blade — that does not go away with soft-tissue therapies, Acupuncture, or dietary changes alone. This pain can feel like a persistent knot that can’t be “worked out” and if it gets worse after a fatty meal it could be Referral Pain indicating the Gallbladder is inflamed.
How to Harmonize Your Gallbladder Qi
1. Prioritize Agility, Mobility, and Flexibility
Feeling a little stiff? How much intentional movement are you able to incorporate into your day-to-day? If you resonate with any of the symptoms mentioned earlier that affect the Gallbladder Meridian itself, adding more stretching and active mobility into your workout routine can benefit your sinew channels (and by default as you read: the strength of your physical body and immune system via your Defensive Qi). Or if you are feeling like you can benefit from adding some strength training into your routine, the Gallbladder will respond favorably. To combat nagging muscular aches and pains, you can also seek out Acupuncture amongst somatic modalities from massage therapy, rolfing, and (of course) yoga. A pearl of East Asian medical wisdom to inspire you: “where there is free flow, there is no pain – where there is pain, there is no free flow.”
2. Moderate Intake Of Greasy Foods
Fat is essential for your health and in East Asian Medicine, it’s not only moistening to the sinews and tissues, but anchoring to the spirit (for example, an unsettled spirit can show up as anxiety from blood-sugar chaos resulting from a high-carb diet without fat to balance it out). However, if you’re someone who enjoys fried foods on a fairly regular basis (or even follows a Keto Diet – an association I’ve seen clinically), consider reducing your intake especially if you notice symptoms of Gallbladder stagnation or referral pain described above. To lessen the burden on the Gallbladder, sip on a watered-down glass of apple cider vinegar before and after your meals. The malic acid can help break down fatty acids, lessening the burden on the Gallbladder, and relatively soften stones that have already formed. **Note: Do not rely on supplementation if you suspect you are having any medical issues with your Gallbladder, see your doctor.**
3. Re-Cultivate Your Confidence
Shocking events, the impending arrival of a life transition, or a palpable instability in your outer world (home-work-relationships) can destabilize your Gallbladder and Heart Qi. Your intuition can feel hard to access or trust, leaving you unsure of your next move or how to move forward in ways that will best serve you. To strengthen your decision-making prowess and courage (which both derive from intuition), start with your self-confidence. When you can trust yourself, you can believe in your capacity to do hard things when life gets overwhelming–and choose what’s best for you.
Here are some of my favorite ways to begin re-cultivating self-confidence:
- Write a list of your strengths and best qualities. How have those helped you in the past or recently? Include everything about you: personality, values, quirks, physical traits, etc. Keep it somewhere visible for when you need a reminder.
- In the presence of something that makes you question your self-confidence, ask what it is about that thing or person you actually (potentially) admire…is there a way for you to allow yourself to embody, express, or experience what you perceive they are/have? If not, return to your list to remind you of what makes you unique or _____ (insert that “something” here).
- When faced with a decision, instead of choosing out urgency (or facing yet another bout of indecision), get embodied: sit with it the feelings coming up? Envision making one choice and see what that elicits – where in your body becomes active? Do you feel jittery and scared? Or centered, even excited…your intuition will feel like what the Gallbladder is to the Heart: the calm judge and steady anchor who allows it to remain true to its wishes and convictions. Practice by allowing yourself to make one small decision a day with ease using this method – like what you want to wear the next day. When you can trust your body’s cues on a daily basis, you can learn to trust it at pivotal moments too.
- What makes you feel confident? In other words, what are you not just good at (like your job, per say) but what do you actually enjoy? Kudos if it’s also your line of work–but if not, then what? Find that thing and build it into your schedule. Returning to what makes you feel good restores your self-confidence while re-invigorating your spirit. Watch how much your initiative shifts when you feel a sense of passion and have the audacity to prioritize your joy.
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.