In order to examine the relationship of the Five Phases (Elements) and how they manifest in the body, it is best to go back to the two thousand year old source text of this cosmological and medical union of information from ancient China, the Neijing, or Inner Classic. It is considered the “bible” of Chinese medicine, as this classical medical text is still used today to help enlighten students and doctors in the art and science of Chinese medicine. In chapter four of the Inner Classic, in a discourse between the Yellow Emperor and his minister Qibo (who served him as an imperial doctor), the Yellow Emperor asks, “Each of the five zang organs correspond to a season, but do the Five Phases have other correspondences? If so, how do these affect the flow of energy?” Qibo replies, “In the east we have the color green, an energy which corresponds to the Liver. The Liver energy opens up into the eyes. The natural elements related to this are grass and trees, the flavor of sour, the animal is the chicken, the grain is wheat, the planet is Jupiter, its number is 3 or 8, its smell is rancid, its season is spring, its direction is out, its sound is shouting, its emotion is anger and it controls the ligaments and tendons.” All of these aforementioned correspondences are classified as belonging to the Wood Phase in Chinese medicine.
This dialogue tells us that the Liver has functional and physical correspondences to observable phenomena in nature which we can synthesize to better understand the role of the Liver in the body. The Liver is associated with rapid growth and movement, as observed in nature during spring. This is the time that seeds go from dormant to active, and energy changes from potential energy to kinetic energy. On Earth, the manifestations begin to appear before our eyes as we start to notice green grass growing, warm winds blowing, and all of the other changes around us that are associated with this time of year. From a biomedical perspective, the liver is like a biochemical factory. It is responsible for metabolic activities such as manufacturing proteins, processing fats, and detoxifying the body from harmful substances. The various processing and metabolic activities of the liver energetically mirror children and teens, as they rapidly metabolize food, grow rapidly like plants in the springtime, are volatile, and are quick to process and react to changes in their surrounding environment. Just as when teenagers easily anger at their parents and shout or rebel by doing foolish things, when the Liver is diseased and out of balance, we may feel compelled to act out of anger. The Liver is said to “store the emotions” in Chinese medicine. From a Chinese medicine point of view, when emotions are stored and not dealt with in the moment, this manifests on a physical level. These emotions are capable of damaging our organs and causing symptoms of disease simply because on a mental/emotional level they have not been expressed in a way that is pleasing to our soul.
Many diseases can be diagnosed and treated in Chinese medicine as diseases of the Liver. The Liver has a holographic correspondence with body parts including the eyes, the tendons, the sinews, the ligaments, tears, nails and other bodily fluids and functions, including the menstrual cycle. For example, eye problems like floaters, can be diagnosed as a problem relating to the Liver and blood. Someone who has weak ligaments or tendons and has had sprains and tears might have a deficiency problem related to the Liver and Gallbladder since those are the Wood organs in Chinese medicine, and Wood is related to movement. Without proper ligament and tendon health it is impossible to move the muscles and bones to perform our daily activities. Excellent clinical results can be achieved when treating pain and restricted movement with Chinese medicine.
As we move into the spring season from winter, it is important to start adapting our habits and diet to correspond with the changes in nature so as to prevent new symptoms and disease processes from arising, and to keep old problems at bay. It is not uncommon in this season to see a lot of allergies, flu, emotional anger and frustration, eyes conditions and Liver problems arise this time of year if the Liver Organ system is out of balance and not adapting well to the change of seasons. For many of these issues, we can treat them with acupuncture and herbs to minimize symptoms and keep old problems from resurfacing. Something you can do for yourself is to start modifying your diet to eat more seasonally. Chinese medicine theory often suggests reducing sour flavored food and increasing the sweet and pungent flavors this time of year, as this helps to protect some of the other organ systems that are often negatively affected by Liver problems, according to Chinese medicine. Generally speaking, organic, local and in season food are a great general guideline to follow for eating the freshest and most nutritious ingredients. In the spring, foods like leafy greens are readily available- kale, spinach, lettuce, swiss chard and mustard greens are often abundant and great for us. Many members of the onions family can be harvested now if grown over winter. This includes, onions, leeks and scallions, for example. Sprouts and seeds are also growing this time of year and are full of nutrients, so add them to your salads, smoothies and garnishes for meals. Soups, salads, and seasonal herbs like basil, peppermint, and whatever else you can find in your garden are also great additions to spring meals. In general, food that are cooling, heat clearing and ones that promote circulation of blood and energy are the best general recommendations for this time of year. Of course, if you come in for acupuncture this spring you can ask your acupuncturist if there are any other specific food suggestions for you based on your conditions and constitution.