Stress and the Liver

Stress. Everybody’s got it. We all know it’s bad for us… now what?

Some people feel stress about completing their never ending to-do list. Some people are buried under worry about their bills. Some people totally hate their job. Or their spouse. Or their kids seem hellbent on destruction. Or their aging parents are falling apart. These aren’t the kinds of things we can just change, or turn off, or set aside… or what is it exactly we’re supposed to be doing about this stuff?

Step 1: Get acupuncture.

According to Chinese medicine, stress weakens the body in various ways, but the first place to take the hit is the liver. Energetically, the liver is in charge of making sure your energy, your qi (pronounced chee), is circulating smoothly and freely throughout the body.

When everything is flowing like it should you feel good—really good. You’re sleeping well, your digestion is humming along, your mind is calm, your sex drive is alive and kicking, and your mood is stable and upbeat. But when the liver gets jammed up from a lot of unprocessed emotion, you can kiss all that goodbye.

Notice I say “unprocessed” emotion… that’s the key. I’m talking about repressed emotion, the things you don’t say, but bite back instead. Feelings of frustration. Feeling stuck, or trapped. Anger, resentment, blame, jealousy, rage. You know… the dark stuff that everybody feels but has no appropriate outlet for. It all bogs down the liver, and left untreated, it can lead to a lot of serious health concerns.

If this is you, you have got a case of liver qi stagnation. But don’t worry: there’s help.

As an integrative acupuncturist, I take a multi-faceted approach to treating liver qi stagnation, which is probably the most common health pattern of all. First, I like to give my patients a safe place to vent. I don’t want you to tell me everything is fine through gritted teeth… I want to know what’s really going on. Go ahead…lay it on me. It feels really, really good to get it all out. I won’t repeat it, and I won’t judge. I’m on your side, rooting for you, and my goal is to help you move past it.

Most likely, if you’ve got this kind of stuff going on in your emotional life, you are probably living with some degree of pain as well. Your shoulders might be tense, or your neck is stiff, and you can’t breathe down into your belly, and your low back aches, and maybe you’ve got a headache. See? Cramped qi. You need a massage.

Tui na is the Chinese form of massage. It translates as “push pull.” Have you ever gotten an oriental massage at the mall? That’s tui na. It uses the foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to determine where to press and which techniques to use. After 15 minutes, your muscles are a lot looser, you’re breathing deep and easy, and mentally you are relaxed.

Next is the actual acupuncture. I select a combination of points that will detoxify the liver, circulate energy, relax tension, and calm the mind. It takes about 10 minutes to place the needles. Although many people have anxiety about the needles, they quickly see that it is not painful, and once the needles are in you don’t really feel them at all. Most patients fall asleep shortly after their insertion. Typically you will rest quietly with the needles in for about 30 minutes. When you’re done, you might feel what I like to call “acu-stoned,” where your body is so relaxed and your mind is so quiet you feel like you’re floating in a little bubble of bliss.

Next we will discuss what kinds of stretches you can be doing to benefit the liver. The energy of the liver travels in a path up the insides of the legs to the groin, up to the ribs, to the eyes and the top of the head, then descends all the way down the sides of the body. It’s great to do stretches that have you twisting, stretching, and compressing the waist, to wring toxins out of the liver and loosen the tension at the diaphragm. Practice breathing deeply all the way down into the belly. Do this twice daily, 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at bedtime.

And finally we must address how you’re eating. Obviously, alcohol is not a friend to the liver. It adds heat to an already hot condition. It is toxic in large amounts, so an already stressed liver is now having to work extra hard when it really can’t afford to. Also it often brings out all those feelings you were shoving way down there in an explosion you might live to regret. Best to lay off for a while.

The best foods to eat to support your liver are green, the darker green the better. Think spinach, kale and broccoli. If you made an effort, you could have spinach in your eggs in the morning, on your sandwich at lunch, and in your salad at dinner, without much difficulty.

If you are not a vegetable lover, and even if you are, it’s really important to take a good multivitamin. All vitamins are not created equal. You pretty much get what you pay for. Vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so the suppliers could be putting whatever they want in there and you wouldn’t know the difference. The best vitamin manufacturers, who make what are called pharmacy-grade products, will actually hire a third party to randomly test their products in order to prove they really have in them what they claim to have. You can skip Walgreen’s and Costco, their product lines are too low-grade. Try Whole Foods or Sprouts, or better yet, get them from your acupuncturist. Read the ingredients: it should list one or two vegetable based ingredients that make up the capsule. If there’s a long list of chemical-sounding words, these are binders that hold the pill together, and they usually don’t break down very well in the body.

The truth is, life can be really difficult sometimes. Do yourself a favor and acknowledge to yourself that you are struggling. It’s ok, there’s no shame in it. Admit to your feelings, and get yourself some support. Regular acupuncture can keep your energy moving, your organs clean, and your emotions settled as you cope with a tough situation. You will be amazed to find that when you move your energy internally, the energy of your life will usually shift as well. You will be feeling much, much better, very soon.

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