The liver system is very important in TCM and it does include the typical liver function as recognized by conventional medicine. However, a patient may have hypochondriac pain and stiffness, but when they go to get an ultrasound, the size of the liver seems okay, and the blood work doesn’t show any elevation in liver enzymes. From our point of view, if you have been under a lot of stress and you are having a lot of emotional issues, we may say you have liver depression. Your liver is not functioning well. This most closely relates to a nerve system imbalance according to Conventional Medicine. That includes nerve irritation, a lack of communication between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, along with other imbalances. These issues can all point to a liver system problem from our point of view.
In Chinese Medicine, each organ is affected by a different emotion. Long term anger and suppressed emotion will affect the liver first. By the same token, if someone has a liver issue, such as liver cancer, they may have been the nicest person before the disease and then, all of sudden, they will become aggravated and very angry. This is because the liver is under stress and is being negatively affected. Therefore, emotions can be a part of the problem and can also be a result of the problem. It is important to manage our emotions and keep them even. To get angry every once in awhile is actually good for the liver, but not all the time. If you drink a lot, the liver probably won’t show up much. If it is always soaked with alcohol, the liver will always be depressed.
Problems with the eyes also point to the liver system. We see patients during radiation therapy who often have dry eyes. Even with eye drops, their eyes still feel dry. There might be decreased vision as well. What we do is we give the patient what we call liver tonics which increase the moisture in the eyes. Breast cancer patients, after treatment, start taking tamoxifen. Post-treatment, a lot of these patients have tendon and connective tissue stiffness. The shoulders, elbows and fingers all become stiff. When you go to see the doctor, they will diagnose you with tendonitis. This tendonitis has a lot to do with the liver. Tamoxifen and all these medications basically block estrogen. Estrogen is processed in the liver and it provides a very important layer of moisture for the tendons and ligaments. So, when the estrogen is blocked, that layer of moisture is taken away. If you go exercise, those tendons and ligaments, they can easily get injured. What we do is we focus on the liver. There are different approaches, acupuncture, herbal treatment and food to help solve the problem. So, how do we know if your liver function is getting better? It is simple: your finger nails. The change of shape from smooth to rigid, along with changes in color, all point to changes in the liver system. After chemotherapy, the fingernails often become fragile and break easily. We know then that the liver blood has been effected. Just because the liver function and liver enzymes are okay, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your liver is fine. The other parts, such as the hypochondriac pain, dry eyes, decreased vision, brittle fingernails and stiff tendons can all still point to issues in the liver system.