By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.
When evaluating chronic depression, it’s important to assess the status of the Liver system which relates to the Wood element in Five Element Theory.
The Liver is considered “The General” in Chinese Medicine as it’s said to control the “coursing” of Qi throughout the body. I like to call it the “Great Conductor” because a smooth functioning Liver system conducts a smooth flow of Qi throughout the body.
Just as trees grow upward toward the sky, in the body, the Wood energy, or Qi, of the Liver ascends and protects us from feeling vulnerable in our lives.
The ascension of the Liver Qi moves blood into the face and head to support the sensory organs and maintain the health of the brain.
If the Liver does not properly circulate Qi, psychological symptoms including frustration, irritability, anger, anxiety, and depression can arise.
As the General, the Liver organ coordinates many functions within the body including detoxification as well as blood storage. The blood reserve within the Liver provides nourishment specifically to the eyes, brain, nails, hair and the tendons to allow for strength in the lower back and the four limbs.
The Liver’s many responsibilities can easily become disrupted by a multitude of stressors that can lead to stagnation within this organ. Liver toxicity is the main culprit for poor liver function. Toxins can come from chemicals used in the farming of food, as well as in the creation of processed foods and pharmaceutical medications, and simply through the air we breathe and water we drink.
Chinese Medicine also recognizes that endogenous chemicals released within the body during periods of mental-emotional stress can lead to toxicity in the Liver, and stagnate the Liver Qi.
Liver Qi Stagnation Generates Heat
As Qi flow becomes stagnant within the Liver due to any type of stress, conditions of pain and excessive heat begin to develop.
Since the nature of heat is to spread, heat can move anywhere throughout the body and contribute to systemic inflammation.
Through its infinite wisdom, the body will attempt to vent this heat out of the system by transferring it into the more external aspects of the body’s energetic systems—the Stomach, Gall Bladder and Urinary Bladder Meridians—making these systems especially vulnerable to inflammation due to Liver Qi stagnation.
Furthermore, the more inflamed our mental and emotional states become, the more internal heat is generated within the Liver and this heat over time will exhaust the body’s Qi and dry up the Blood.
The resulting exhaustion of Qi and Blood combined with excessive internal heat can impact brain function and become an underlying condition that leads to anxiety and chronic depression.
The Liver Can Insult the Lungs
Stagnant Liver function can burden the Lungs and cause shortness of breath. Since the Lungs relate to sadness, grief and depression, as the Lungs get suppressed with Liver stress, the propensity for depression increases.
Since Qi is an aspect of one’s vitality, if Qi is suppressed and weakened, this will be reflected in one’s emotional state as well.
A person who’s depressed will often reach for substances such as coffee and cigarettes for stimulation, or marijuana, CBD products and alcohol to numb out and avoid feeling so bad inside.
Craving these types of substances can also be a sign that the body is trying to relax the Liver Qi stagnation.
However, while the use of drugs to manage one’s depressed state can offer short-term relief, it contributes to toxic congestion of the liver, which further weakens the Lungs, inducing a greater state of depression in body and mind.
You can read more about how to use Essential Oils for dealing with symptoms of depression relating to the condition of the Liver insulting the function of your Lungs here.
Liver Qi Stagnation Can Lead to Liver Blood Stagnation
Just as warming up blood causes thickening and coagulation, long term Qi stagnation with the accumulation of heat may create blood stagnation within the Liver and make the condition of depression more intractable.
Additionally, as the heat consumes the body’s Qi, internal cold can develop.
Very chronic conditions of depression will commonly present with Liver Blood stagnation with an underlying internal cold pattern, often from the use of pharmaceutical medications.
Medications used to manage anxiety and depression can easily lead to Liver Blood stagnation due to Cold since the nature of these medications tends to be cooling and their side effects often result in stagnation of Liver Qi flow.
Generally, the longer you depend on these types of drugs to manage your depression, the more difficult it will be resolve.
It’s also common for the side effects of long-term substance use, including marijuana, alcohol and other types of prescription medications such as anti-inflammatory and statin drugs to create Liver Blood stagnation.
Statin drugs prescribed for lowering elevated cholesterol levels have a particularly profound impact on brain function.
As these drugs reduce cholesterol production in the liver, they also reduce cholesterol production in the brain, which is necessary for healthy neuron function. It is my suspicion that statin drugs may be a major reason why we see a trend of dementia developing at relatively young ages the past couple of decades.
Cholesterol makes up a large part of the myelin sheath that protects the brain’s nerve cells, called neurons, and it’s the myelin that conducts the electrical activity of the brain. Therefore, reduced levels of brain cholesterol from the use of statins can compromise brain function and contribute to conditions of depression.
What You Can Do to Balance Your Liver Energy
Keeping the Liver function healthy is imperative to prevent and resolve depression.
A major way to support your liver function is to find alternative ways to manage your inflammation, pain and cholesterol levels without the use of harsh pharmaceutical medications. Chinese Medicine offers solutions through the use of Acupuncture and herbal medicine.
From a psychological perspective, Wood energy needs to be balanced for healthy Liver function and since Wood energy ascends, you can support this energy by being more active and adventurous in your life.
Activities such as taking on leadership roles, exercising and especially playing competitive sports will help ascend and support your Wood energy.
For those of you who are overly active and competitive, it may instead be necessary to settle down your Wood energy by calming your nervous system to relax your Liver Qi. If you feel you’re taking on too much in life, try to step back, meditate and make time to go within yourself to quiet your mind and settle your elevated cortisol levels.
Also, create time to have fun and do more creative activities to counter the stress that may be overheating your Wood energy.
Fun is adaptogenic and bio-regulates your body and mind, so it’s good for all conditions.
The Liver also sets the rhythms in your life, so be on time and maintain a regular rhythm with your daily schedule. Getting more organized in general will use the energy of your Metal element to manage and control your Wood energy.
As you begin implementing these ideas you can, day by day, support a healthy flow of Qi through your Liver and throughout your life, thereby reducing patterns of frustration, irritability and depression.