According to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, spring is the season of the liver. This means that the liver is most active in the spring, waking and stretching from winter hibernation. At this time the liver is called upon to circulate the body's energy up and out, in concert with the upward and outward movement of plants and animals.
The growth energy of spring, and the liver's role in it, are made possible by the rest and recuperation afforded by the preceding winter. In winter, the heavy blanket of snow, cold and darkness elicit a curling up, a hoarding of energy deep in the body's core. Ideally we eat warming stews, sleep longer, work less, and by so doing nourish and recharge the roots of our life energy. This energy will nourish all the organs in the active spring, but most particularly, it will nourish the liver.
If, on the other hand, we have burned ourselves out by overwork and stress in the winter, we may find that spring will showcase our liver's imbalance, and typical liver symptoms may worsen. It's important to note that TCM assigns different functions to the liver than we are familiar with in western physiology. These will be explained in the discussion of symptoms below.
One common manifestation of liver imbalance is “Liver Fire.” It is more likely to flare in people with a strong constitution, who have a lot of hot Yang energy already. Such people have a red tongue, red complexion, red eyes, thirst, and often a bitter taste in the mouth. The active, upward moving impetus of spring heats their system even more, resulting in acute inflammations and infections. These include pink eye, styes, ear infections and cold sores. People who are prone to these in the spring should make every effort to cool their body internally by drinking and eating cooling herbs and foods when the seasons change.
Some examples from the kitchen are green tea, green leafy vegetables, raw food and tofu. Spicy-hot, rich, heavy foods should be avoided. The patent formula Long Dan Xie Gan is very useful for any of the above named infections, but specific advice from a practitioner is recommended. In general, bitter herbs from the Eastern or Western pharmacy (ie dandelion, gentian) are quite cold in energy and will bring down inflammation.
HEAD, NECK, AND SHOULDERS
Headaches, migraines, high blood pressure, tremors and spasms, Bells palsy (sudden paralysis of half of the face), dizziness – these are all symptoms of Liver Yang Excess and Wind, and may worsen in spring. Liver Yang Excess is one step below Liver Fire, in terms of degree of heat.
However, where Liver Fire is largely a constitutional predisposition, Liver Yang Excess can develop from lifestyle or dietary factors that consume the body's fluids. Such factors include poor diet, overwork and stress (especially during the winter), chronic worry and anxiety. When fluids (yin) are low, they cannot restrain yang, so it floats up to the upper extremities and begins to flicker, as a flame does when it gets high enough. This is internal Wind, producing the fluctuating, fitful, unpredictable symptoms of the above conditions.
Honey, celery, basil, fennel, oats, kudzu root and flax are wind quelling kitchen remedies. Celery juice is especially effective for lowering Excess Yang, especially when there is high blood pressure. Eggs and buckwheat aggravate wind and need to be avoided. Herbal treatment for Internal Wind conditions should be prescribed by a qualified practitioner.
Modern Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners increasingly draw a connection between allergies, especially in the spring, and liver stagnation/heat. An undue toxic burden on the liver is a fact of contemporary life which did not exist in ancient China. A congested liver was thought to result from insufficient blood, rich and spicy food, and repressed anger and resentment. All of these causes are easily corroborated in clinical practice. But it is also apparent that the combination of man made chemical toxins from pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, cleaning products etc, together with diets abundant in rich food and stimulants are creating the TCM pattern of liver stagnation/heat, and that this in turn is contributing to allergies.
In fact, TCM theory can support this connection. When the liver is hot and stagnant, ie when it cannot cope with the myriad of substances it needs to process, this heat will rise and impair the proper functioning of the lungs and respiratory tract. This is called "Liver insulting the Lungs." The liver and lungs are now in a hypersensitive state, reactive to pollens, scents and atmospheric pollutants.
Light and pungent foods and herbs which scatter these allergens are used for this condition. Kitchen remedies include marjoram, mint, fresh ginger, scallions, cinnamon bark, rosemary and sage. If itchy eyes are prominent, mulberry leaf and crysanthemum flower can be purchased in Chinese herbal pharmacies and taken daily as a combined infusion, for a very good effect.
If the allergies are severe, a herbal practitioner should be consulted, and herbal treatment should be commenced at least a month before the usual onset of symptoms in order to gain the upper hand early.
Even if no particular liver imbalance is apparent, it is wise to help the liver disperse the heaviness of winter so that we may have ample resources for the growth and activity of the warmer seasons. We can do this by consuming more raw food, waking earlier, doing brisk excercise, and increasing intake of pungent and bitter foods to disperse liver congestion and clear heat, respectively.
The sweet taste is also said to soothe an aggravated liver. A TCM saying counsels eating something sweet when the liver is in an urgent state. This refers mainly to the emotional manifestations of a congested liver, which are anger, impatience, frustration, rudeness, and irritability. These are certainly common in our society, as are sugar cravings...hmm!
However, the sweet flavour that is beneficial to the liver is not that of refined white sugar, but rather small amounts of honey, maple syrup, honey-fried licorice or dates. Any of these can be added to an infusion of the pungent and bitter herbs already discussed and taken liberally in the spring. The effect is immediately soothing and beneficial.
Those that wish to delve more deeply into the energetics of the seasons and food as medicine should refer to Paul Pitchford's excellent book, Healing with Whole Foods.