The Role of the Liver (Gan) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The liver plays an important role in traditional Chinese physiology. Since it is in charge of the smooth flow of qi throughout the body, any disruption in its functions usually affects another organ.

Stagnation of the flow of liver qi frequently disrupts emotional flow, producing feelings of frustration or anger. Conversely, these same emotions can lead to a dysfunction in the liver, resulting in an endless loop of cause and effect.

Associated with the storage of blood, the liver is also the primary organ involved in a woman's menstrual cycle. When the liver is out of balance, the following symptoms can occur: emotional problems, rib pain or fullness, dizziness, headache, cramping, tendon problems, menstrual problems, jaundice, weak or blurry vision, and digestive disorders.

The Functions of the Liver

The liver stores the blood. The liver is considered a storage area for blood when blood is not being used for physical activity. These periods of rest contribute to the body's restorative processes. During exercise, the blood is released to nourish the tendons and muscles.

This function is also intimately associated with the menstrual cycle; the liver maintains an adequate blood supply and regulates the timing and comfort of menstruation. Any dysfunctions in the menstrual cycle are almost always treated through the regulation of liver blood, qi, or yin.

When liver qi is stagnant (a very common condition), a person experiences irritability, tightness in the chest, and, in a woman, symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. When liver blood is deficient, symptoms such as dry eyes and skin, pallor, and lack of menstruation can occur.

The liver ensures the smooth flow of qi. The Nei Jing refers to the liver as a general in the army, coordinating the movement of the troops. When the liver functions smoothly, physical and emotional activity throughout the body also runs smoothly.

When the liver's ability to spread qi smoothly throughout the body is disrupted due to stress or lifestyle choices, however, the liver qi can become either stagnant or hyperactive, causing havoc in other organs, such as the lungs, stomach, and spleen. Often, stress-related problems such as irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion can be successfully treated by working through the "smoothing of liver qi."

The liver controls the tendons. As discussed previously, the liver stores blood during periods of rest and then releases it to the muscles and tendons in times of activity. When liver blood is deficient, tightness and inflexibility in the muscles and tendons can result. If liver qi is stagnant, muscles can go into spasm. Such muscle spasms often occur when a person drinks strong coffee. Coffee, even the decaffeinated variety, is one of the most disruptive substances in relation to the smooth flow of liver qi.

Many people experience a tightness in the shoulder muscles and neck muscles after ingesting this powerful herbal stimulant. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to resolve liver imbalances in people who drink coffee regularly.

The liver opens into the eyes. Although all the organs have some connection to the health of the eyes, the liver is connected to proper eye function. Chronic eye problems can usually be traced to a deficiency of liver yin or blood, for example. It is quite common to resolve eye disorders successfully by treating the liver.

The liver shows on the nails. When liver blood is plentiful, it spreads to the farthest areas of the body, including the fingernails and toenails. When liver blood is deficient, on the other hand, the nails can appear pale, weak, and brittle.

Go to the next page to learn about the role of the kidneys and the pericardium in traditional Chinese medicine.

For more about traditional Chinese medicine, treatment, cures, beliefs, and other interesting topics, see: