肝 Gān / Liver

This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine.

The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of the Liver organ system podcast, but can of course be used on its own to understand your treatment at Watershed Wellness more deeply.

Liver organ system overview

This is the first time in the series that we’re working with one of the more well known, frequently referenced, organs in Chinese medicine. Anyone who has visited an acupuncturist has probably heard them going on about the Liver!

  • Biomedically, the Liver is hugely important. It’s the largest solid organ in the body, filters the blood, breaks down toxins, produces bile which is later stored in the Gallbladder, regulates blood clotting, stores vitamins, regulates amino acides, processes glucose and has important immune functions. It’s a highly regenerative organ, capable of taking significant damage and recovering.
  • Liver is responsible for moving and regulating qi in the body, storing blood, influencing the strength of the tendons and sinews, has major impacts on the eyes, and also has diverse impacts to sexual and reproductive function.
  • Major problems associated with the Liver in CM include problems in any of those systems, but commonly in clinic we see gynecological issues, headaches & dizziness, mental-emotional distress of various types and to some extent, digestive difficulties.

Let’s dig in a bit more….

The Liver acupuncture channel

The Liver channel is quite frequently needled in modern clinic, despite being fairly short with only 14 points.

The channel starts at the outside edge of the big toe, goes up between the big toe and the next one over (1st & 2nd toes), goes up to the inner ankle, follows the big bone in the leg / the shin on the lower leg, then over the inside of the knee, up the inside of the thigh, it then crosses into the groin area ascends to the abdomen and finally terminates on the upper abdomen on the ribs.

Phase Element – Wood

The five phases, also known as the five elements or five phase elements, is one of the most common symbolic systems used in Chinese medicine. The five phases are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each phase has its own basic character and series of associations, all of which can be used to understand human health, as well as other aspects of reality.

This is another Wood organ system, like the Gallbladder. So, it is associated with all those wood things : springtime, tendons, the color green, anger / irritation. Springtime is particularly interesting, because that’s when everything is growing & regenerating – a commonly referenced power of the Liver in biomedicine.

Six Conformations – Juéyīn

The six conformations is a system of diagnosis that divides the twelve organ systems into six synergistic pairs. There are a variety of ways to parse the information contained in this system, which is chiefly used when diagnosing and treating infectious conditions such as colds and flus, but has utility beyond that use. Jueyin can be translated as “reverting yin” or “returning yin,” and it combines both the Liver organ system and the Pericardium organ system.

Jueyin is the deepest of the conformations, the one most hidden within the body. Blood borne pathogens & many parasitic infections are treated through this layer in Chinese medicine. Jueyin is the storehouse of the blood, including the hormones, and as such is often called upon in treating gynecological conditions.

Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – The General

One of the most important books in Chinese medicine is the Huángdì Nèijīng or Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. In Chapter 8 of that text, all of the organ systems are described using language that relates to the operation of a country or state. This is a common way of symbolically discussing physiology and pathology in ancient Chinese texts.

In this chapter, it is said of the Liver:

“The liver is the official functioning as general. Planning and deliberation originate in it.”

Paul Unschuld translation

When discussing the Gallbladder, I mentioned that we sometimes think of it as the “field general” who takes the instructions from the General and then adapts them to current conditions. Here, we’re talking about the General – the one who makes the big plans based on strategic considerations. The Liver is one of the biggest actors in the body in Chinese medicine, with an astonishing array of functions and a limitless capacity for impact on nearly every organ system. When all else fails – treat the Liver.

A general in this context, Unschuld says, would generally command a large body of troops. And without the General’s guidance, there is much disorder. The general looks at all the resources & takes into account the goals and situation and then creates a plan for the efficient and effective use of those resources.

Organ clock – 1am-3am

This bit of information, the connection between this time and the Liver organ system, is one of the few things the average person knows about the Chinese organ clock. Between 1 and 3am is a very common time for people to have mid-sleep wakeups, and so folks find themselves asking their practitioner or, let’s be honest, checking the Internet to see what it means.

Ultimately, because most people go to bed around 10-11pm, often this wakeup has to do with either blood sugar or hormone level fluctuations, which indeed can relate to the Liver organ system. That said, it is not then necessarily true that your primary diagnosis would be Liver related from a Chinese medicine point of view, nor that working on the Liver would have the appropriate impact on your sleep.

This is deep into sleep, deep into the night. Few people are awake during this time period (unless they have insomnia or have a terrible work schedule). It’s interesting because the Liver is a very active organ system, responsible for a lot, I believe the lesson here is that to do that great work, one has to be rested, one has to be still in the depth of the night.

Organ clock – January

Note : The lunisolar Chinese calendar doesn’t match up perfectly with the months of the Gregorian calendar. I’m using the closest month on the Gregorian calendar that makes sense.

The Liver rules over the time of many New Year celebrations. Wood renewal! In the Northern Hemisphere, this is generally a time of deep cold, intense weather, and the frustration and even depression that can come from the post-holiday period. In some areas, such as here on the North Coast, we will get a period of unseasonably sunny and dry weather – the February fakeout. This is probably the only reason many of us are able to stick around these parts long term!

In more temperate areas, you may start to see the very first hints of spring during this time period – which makes sense given the wood nature of the Liver.

Organ clock – The Ox

Every organ system is related to an “Earthly Branch” which is one of the pieces of the ancient Chinese calendar system. To make those symbols easier to relate to, the Chinese associated each with one of the 12 zodiac animals from Chinese astrology.

The Liver is related to the earthly branch 丑 chǒu, which is in turn related to the Ox. The ox was an important animal for field work, and is commonly associated with power, diligence and the ability to keep going even when energy is at a minimum. This seems a very fitting animal representative for this powerful, regenerative organ system that does so much for us – both in biomedical and Chinese medicine contexts.

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