Covid Times and Your Liver: Do You Have Liver Qi Stagnation?
Are you one of many suffering not from symptoms of Covid-19, but the side effects of long-term quarantine and social distancing? Are you experiencing feelings of isolation, and/or a feeling of social or psychological suffocation, not unlike "spring fever" after a long winter shut indoors? Here at DCA we are seeing many patients expressing these feelings. We are seeing a lot of neck and shoulder pain and tension from long hours sitting in front of the computer at home, in people who normally commute to work. We are seeing some patients developing deep depression.
This is the revival of an article I wrote several years ago on American culture and the many symptoms we frequently see in clinic of "Liver Qi Stagnation" in our patients. These symptoms have only been wildly compounded by the events of 2020, with months of Covid quarantine and the roller coaster of preelection politics. So let me ask you: Are you feeling emotionally, physically, and/or mentally STUCK? Take the following quiz to find out if you have the classical Chinese medical condition known as Liver Qi Stagnation:
1. Do you suffer from depression?
2. Do you suffer from migraines or frequent headaches, particularly at the temple region?
3. Do you have a tendency to anger or irritability?
4. Do you carry a lot of tension in your neck and shoulders?
5. Do you have TMJ, or grind your teeth at night?
6. Do you often wake between 1-3am, and/or have difficulty sleeping during that time?
7. Do you suffer from frequent ribside pain or get "side cramps" when running?
8. Do you often get hiccups, sigh a lot, or experience a "lump" sensation in the throat?
9. Do you have mild to severe PMS symptoms, including breast tenderness, irritability and emotional sensitivity, premenstrual migraines or headaches, or menstrual cramping and clots?
10. Do you have allergies that include itchy, red, or tearing eyes?
11. Have you ever been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism?
If you answered yes to one or most of the above symptoms, you are suffering from varying degrees of Liver Qi Stagnation. Before "Covid times", Liver Qi Stagnation was usually caused by too much activity: the typical American life-style includes busy schedules and exhaustive to-do lists, with not enough time in the day to ever feel complete. We are all well-trained to push aside the simple pleasures of life in favor of perfecting our commitments, which can leave us frequently feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Fast forward to 2020, and we are experiencing almost the opposite: travel and social restrictions that make us feel we have been placed in a straitjacket! Interestingly, both too much and too little movement of Liver Qi can cause the same effects: stagnation, and symptoms.
According to Chinese medicine, the Liver is the storehouse as well as the regulator of the flow of Blood and Qi in the body. The Liver's job is to absorb and assimilate all toxins, provide and transport pure Blood, and cleanse the body of blockages so energy can move freely. When the Liver's function is disrupted, we are forced to take on more toxic burden than we can handle emotionally and physically. Without proper detoxification, our reactions towards our external environment are transformed either into external emotional outbursts of frustration and irritability, or internalized depression. We become prone to allergies, autoimmune illness, mood swings, and subject to chronic obstructive tension in the body that may manifest as headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and jaw tension.
With prolonged periods of Liver stagnation and malfunction, Liver Blood is said to be consumed. This can lead to short term memory loss and mental fatigue. The eyes are directly connected with the Liver, resulting in vision impairment, blurred vision, dryness, and light sensitivity. Significant in "Covid times", these eye symptoms are only exaggerated by long periods of time in front of screens. (We hope you are making use of blue light blocking glasses!)
The Liver governs the reproductive system in Chinese medicine. This ties in closely with the Western medical understanding of the liver and its critical role in processing hormones. PMS symptoms that point to Liver dysfunction include breast swelling and tenderness, irritability, cramping, blood clotting, migraines or headaches before, during, and after menstrual bleeding. Light periods or even lack of a period (amenorrhea) are indicative of the long-term consumption of Liver Blood.
So what can we do to help Liver Qi Stagnation? Chinese herbal formulas and regular acupuncture are particularly effective for treating Liver Qi Stagnation and Liver Blood deficiency symptoms. Taking herbs for a few months and/or receiving weekly acupuncture treatments will resolve most PMS symptoms and menstrual discomfort, as well as headaches or migraines, depression, neck and shoulder tension, irritability and insomnia, and even "plum pit qi" (sensation of a lump in the throat).
A four point protocol referred to as the Four Gates in Chinese medicine, using points Large Intestine 4 and Liver 3, are said to strongly regulate the flow of Qi in the body. There are a number of Chinese herbal remedies that are remarkable for regulating Liver Qi, but the most well known is Xiao Yao San, or "Free and Easy Wanderer" (don't we love that name in these times). Also referred to as a "woman's best friend", Xiao Yao San contains a magical combination of herbs that are said to "dredge" or regulate the Liver Qi, while simultaneously boosting Liver Blood--powerfully regulating and normalizing the menstrual cycle.
Apart from Chinese herbs and acupuncture, diet and lifestyle can make a significant difference. Certain foods and spices can help eliminate stagnation in the Liver, and produce a clear flow of energy. Milk thistle, dandelion greens and root, garlic, onions, turmeric, and common kitchen spices such as oregano, thyme and basil assist the Liver in it's moving and regulating function. Used in moderation, coffee can also be a potent Liver Qi regulator: patients often report their symptoms helped with a little caffeine. Careful though--too much can easily aggravate! Xiao Yao San can be an excellent substitute.
Other foods, such as squash, sweet potatoes, dates, beets, and dark leafy greens help to nourish Liver Blood. In fact, the best food for the liver IS liver: raw or cooked liver several times a month is the most common way traditional people supported liver health, and especially reproductive health.
Exercise is very important for moving Liver Qi, and facilitating flow in the body. Chinese medicine recommends moderate exercise such as tai chi, yoga, biking and hiking. More extreme forms of exercise can lead to a loss of Liver blood. Liver Blood is said to nourish the tendons, and a deficiency will lead to weak and brittle tendons prone to injury. This Liver Blood loss with excessive exercise is seen most graphically in female athletes who typically will either stop having a monthly period, or have a very light period.
For those of you who are "Type A", you have to work extra hard to find balance. It's true that those with a healthy Liver function can be extremely successful, innovative, and pioneers at their passions in life. However without proper care, and taken to excess, this lifestyle quickly leads to burn-out, and many of the physiological symptoms listed above start to manifest. Our advice for these individuals is to meet the challenges of Life with enthusiasm, while at the same time being willing to carve out time for rest, relaxation, and "smelling the roses" along the way.
And for now, as we continue into the tail end of 2020, in times of both extreme chaos and socially imposed immobility? We are all going to have to work extra hard to love our Livers, and get through the year together! Deep breaths, your chosen exercise that mindfully connects you with your body, mindful eating, acupuncture, restful sleep, and annual or seasonal liver detoxification cleanses should carry you down the road quite a way toward being one of the few with a healthy Liver.