Spring seems like it’s a long way off in Minnesota. Just last month we hit a record for snow fall in February. But cold and snow notwithstanding, the wood energy of spring is still flowing.
Now that I’ve covered how to live in accordance to each season, I thought it would be a good time to move to talking about the elements in Chinese medicine.
Just like the elements of the periodic table, the elements of Chinese medicine represent the basic components. You’ll recognize a lot of the movement and terminology in this post from the spring living blog, but this one will take it to another level.
I’m going to break down how the wood element is represented in our bodies, minds and spirits. We’re going to look at these elements from a physiological and psychological perspective. For health nerds, this is where it gets fun.
The Wood Element
Just as a quick review, wood represents rising and growing yang. It’s upward movement, the sunrise, spring, generation, growth, and spread. It’s the air that rustles the leaves of the trees. And it’s ephemeral.
So when we see these things in our bodies and personalities, we put them in the wood category.
The organ pair associated with wood is the liver and gallbladder. The liver is the yin organ and the gallbladder is the yang bowel.
Our liver, as a physical organ is located in the upper right quadrant of our abdomen, under the rib cage. It’s main function is to produce bile, a critical component of our digestive system.
But it helps break down things we ingest, too. It breaks down fat and sugar, storing it as glucose until we need it. It metabolizes medications, toxins from our environment, and breaks down hormones and proteins that our body produces but doesn’t need any more.
The gallbladder stores bile, which will eventually help us digest fats.
What’s awesome about Chinese medicine is that through thousands of years of observation, they came to the exact same conclusions as modern science. They understood that the liver secreted bile and the gallbladder stored it. They understood that the liver processed blood.
They even understood that food received by the stomach sent its essence to the liver, which is our modern understanding of vitamins and minerals. But the liver has other jobs in Chinese Medicine, too.
The liver governs free coursing
Wood is constantly moving and the liver falls into this category because it’s supposed to move things. We’ll get more into this in the mind section, but the liver helps our muscles stay loose and flexible as well as keeping them oxygenated and full of nutrients.
The liver stores blood
In Chinese Medicine the heart, as the emperor, governs the blood – it has the overall picture of where it wants the blood to go and how fast to do so in the “empire” of your body.
But the liver, being the general, makes a lot of the day to day decisions. Oh you’re sleeping? Let’s keep the blood in the liver so we’re not moving channels while we’re trying to sleep. You’re going for a run? Let’s send it to the legs so they move. You just ovulated? Let’s send it to the uterus and build that endometrial lining.
The liver governs the sinews
I alluded to this in the spring post but the liver is in charge of all the tendons and muscles in the body. When its stagnant or dry, we get muscle tension and cramps.
Hormones in Chinese Medicine
The endocrine system is a relatively new discovery. In 1905, an English doctor named E.H. Starling discovered the hormone secretin and from there the study of hormones grew.
But just because the ancient Chinese doesn’t have a category specifically for hormones doesn’t mean they didn’t observe their effects. While all of the Chinese organ systems can contribute to physiological processes of the endocrine system, there are two main focuses: the liver and kidney systems.
These two organ systems are deeply tied to reproductive health, so much so that in school my gynecology teacher once said, “When in doubt, treat the liver.”
The liver sends blood to the kidneys to support kidney yin and anchor kidney yang. In return, the kidney’s jing supports liver blood which anchors liver yang. The liver governs free coursing and the kidney governs storage; the balance of these two functions is crucial to menstruation, pregnancy and the emission of semen in men.
But it all comes down to the liver, because the liver governs free coursing. If the liver is stagnant or not moving, hormonal cascades aren’t triggered. The liver needs to course for our endocrine system to function.
Other physiological associations
The liver is also associated with the peripheral nervous system, our fingernails, tears, our external sexual organs, the conversion and expulsion of poisons, the iris of the eye, vision in general, and the sphincters of the body (specifically meaning their ability to open).
Emotions in Chinese medicine are a funny and complicated thing. They’re all created in the heart, but associated with different organs. And then there can be too much or too little of any emotion, which is meant to be balanced by other emotions.
It becomes a prescriptive mess. Feel this to stop feeling that. I think we all know that that’s not quite how emotions work.
There are seven emotions in Chinese medicine: joy, anger, anxiety, overthinking, sorrow, fear and fright (which are two different things). The liver is responsible to making sure our emotions flow and cycle so we don’t spend too much time in one emotion and damage the organ it is associated with.
The emotion of the liver is anger, which is why when liver qi stagnates we see tempers flare. (There will be more on this in a couple of weeks when I discuss disorders of the liver system).
The other emotions
But the liver is associated with other emotions and mental states too.
Liver personalities are competitive personalities – type A go-getters who never seem to stop. This desire to seek out challenge and conquer difficulty makes them innovative people – CEOS, entrepreneurs, inventors. The type of people to grow and expand.
But because of this, they tend to be judgmental of themselves and others, and constantly get themselves stuck in the comparison trap.
Or if for some reason a livery person is unable to meet goals, they are liable to fall into a depression. The perfect example of this is the type of person who gets thrown off by the hurry up and wait cycles of life.
Liver personalities are also incredibly stubborn, leaning into discomfort with a stoicism that would make any Midwestern grandparent proud. Everything is “Fine.” They’re “fine”. The family is “fine”. The job is “fine”.
But the second they feel they have the opportunity to freely express themselves, oh the drama. If given the latitude, livery people will be the most violent complainers you know.
There is an emotional balance to these patterns of aggression, repression and depression. Cultivating compassion and goodwill has been shown to help with feelings of aggression and depression. And redirecting the harsh edge of competition into passion lowers the hostility and judgement that wood dominant people can develop towards others.
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It’s difficult to separate psychology and spirituality in Chinese medicine because of its holistic nature. Much of what is attributed to spirit is what we would treat within the psychological model today. And much of what I discussed above – cultivating compassion and goodwill towards fellow humans – falls in the realm of spiritual development.
But I wanted to talk about spirit because we can’t talk about the wood element without talking about the hun. Way back in Novemember I did a post on natural approaches to mental health by treating the outer shu points.
Each of these points allow an acupuncturist and their patient to directly impact the spirit associated with an organ.
Hun Men is the “Gate of the Ethreal Soul”. This is one of five parts of our soul, and it enters our body on our third day of life and leaves upon death.
The hun is our ethereal soul, the yang part of our spirit that survives death and returns “back to a world of subtle, non-material energies.” (Maciocia). It’s the part of our spirit that belongs to the Divine, Source or God – however we think of it.
Because of this connection to the Universe, our hun is the source of our life dreams, our vision and aims, creative endeavors, inventions, projects, our inspiration, and more. The connection it has to The Bigger Picture helps steer our lives into the direction we should go (so long as we listen to that inner voice.)
It’s also our connection to the collective unconscious – the archetypes, themes and stories that play themselves out in our creative ventures, our dreams and even our psychology. The hun collects all the experiences we have in this life and all other possible lives, bringing it back to the collective unconscious to add some stories to the pot.
Stepping outside of the model of Chinese Medicine for a second, and looking at the chakra system we know that the energy of the upper chakras tends to flow upward to connect with the unconscious and it is through this model that we can see the upward yang movement of the wood element in the soul.
I frequently reference a glossary post I created a year ago as “Acupuncture 101” because all the information there is critical to talking about Chinese Medicine. Consider this and the future element posts “Acupuncture 102”.
As patients or holistically minded individuals, it’s important to have information available to you to make informed decisions. I hope with these types of posts I’m providing that for you so that you can craft your own care plans and take charge of your health.
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Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul, at Naturally Well in White Bear Lake, and and doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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