The Upside to Feeling Down: The Wood Element & Depression (Part 4)

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.

Just as trees grow upward toward the sky, in the body the Wood energy, or Qi, of the Liver also ascends. (From our trip to Sequoia National Park, 2017)

Just as trees grow upward toward the sky, in the body the Wood energy, or Qi, of the Liver also ascends. (From our trip to Sequoia National Park, 2017)

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.


Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.

Move Your Body, Transform Your Mood - and Life

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was an anxious young woman. Determined to perform my best in a highly competitive environment, I put constant and endless pressure on myself. 

The pressure sourced in my mind built up in my body. To relieve it, I pushed myself physically, through intense cardiovascular exercise, to release the stress.

But the stress and anxiety only seemed to worsen.

Little did I know that the harder I ran, the more heat I was accumulating, and this heat was obstructing my capacity to process my emotions (more on this later).

I continued to run myself physically and mentally from one accomplishment to the next, collapsing during my menstrual periods and spending the rest of the month trying to recover.

Then one day, my mom suggested: "why don't you try Yoga?"

She said it had helped one of her clients and was becoming really popular throughout the Bay Area. 

"Yoga?" I said as I looked over some information she'd sent me. "I can hardly sit still for a minute. How am I going to stretch for 90 minutes? Besides, I'm the stiffest person in the world."

"I think that's the point," my wise mother replied. "Yoga could probably help you get flexible and calm you down. You can't keep pushing yourself and be so anxious."

Yeah, anxious and depressed, I thought. Depends on the day.

Weeks passed and one night my roommate brought up a list of DeCal (student-organized) classes that would be available for the next semester. One of the classes jumped out at me immediately. 'Yoga for Relaxation,' it read. And then a short description of how it can help reduce your overall stress and anxiety. 

I turned to my roommate and told her that ironically, my mom had suggested I do Yoga.

"Wanna try it together?" she replied. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to say yes. Despite my initial resistance, my roommate's interest somehow sparked mine.

For the first two weeks of the twice weekly Yoga class, I spent the majority of the class asleep.

The beautiful Native American Yoga instructor (I remember this because she had a shamanic, angelic presence about her) started each class in Savasana and for at least the first couple of classes, I never got out of that posture. I laid there sleeping and the teacher didn't even bother to wake me up. Clearly, she knew something I didn't.

As weeks passed, I started to be more active in the class and I began to feel a shift in my life. I started to practice what I learned at home and soon I no longer felt my heart pounding in my chest throughout the day. Having had severe test anxiety my whole life, I found myself so calm during midterms that I hardly recognized myself. And the results were extraordinary.

Not only did I feel more calm and clear, but I also started performing better than I ever had, setting the curve in some of my most challenging classes.

The biggest shift occurred when I stepped out of Yoga class one evening. I could hear the birds singing, the wind blowing, the cool evening air on my face. Were there birds here before? Was the wind always so gentle? I'd never been aware like this before. And I noticed something remarkable within me...my mind was utterly quiet.

This was my first experience with stillness.

As my body became more flexible, I found an unprecedented sense of ease, presence and calm in my mind. Everything in my life started to change for the better, and Yoga became a regular daily practice. You might even say it became an obsession.

I practiced any time I could during the day and started taking all the on-campus Yoga classes I could fit into my schedule at Cal (at that time, Yoga studios were few and far between).

When I went to register for my last semester of classes, I was completely caught off guard - and I honestly credit my daily Yoga practice for this. My advisor reviewed my coursework, closed the book and took off her glasses. She looked up at me and said, "You're done." I couldn't believe it. Somehow I'd already completed all the classes I needed to graduate. She explained that I could either stay on another semester and work on a thesis or graduate early.

The most incredible part of this experience was that I had come this far in the absence of the anxiety and depression that had distracted me in my life for so long. I felt a sense of inner peace that grew stronger each and every day I breathed through a practice. 

I decided to graduate early and commit to Yoga fully. I registered for a one month Yoga teacher training in San Francisco and subsequently started teaching at local studios throughout the Peninsula. Within two years, I co-founded Yoga of Los Altos, the first Yoga studio in Los Altos, California. Soon thereafter I sold the business and began my studies in Chinese Medicine, which in time led me to meet my husband, Salvador, and to co-create the beautiful community at A Center for Natural Healing. To this day, the heart and soul of my work is in understanding the mind-body connection that I was introduced to through Yoga.

Now, I'm not saying that life becomes easy when you practice Yoga.

Challenges will arise whether or not you practice. But having a consistent practice provides you with tools to better deal with the natural ebbs and flows of life. And that makes life a lot more enjoyable.

I'm sharing this story to exhibit the power of a regular Yoga practice, and to empower you to make positive changes in your life.

Moving your body in the right way can transform your life.

What is the right way to move your body? In coordination with your breath. So whether it's Yoga, Qi Gong, Taiji, or any type of moving Meditation practice, activate the breath of life and your life will unfold in ways you never imagined possible. And these changes can be as simple as a more steady mental-emotional state.

The Mind-Body-Breath Connection According to Chinese Medicine

According to Chinese Medicine, the Lungs are in charge of respiration and are the organs responsible for processing grief. When the Lungs are weak, they hold grief and thus increase our experience of depression. 

The Liver governs the smooth flow of Qi and regulates the emotions, especially anger. The Liver channel runs through the diaphragm, which separates the thoracic cavity that contains the heart and lungs, from the abdominal cavity.

The diaphragm is crucial for respiration. As it contracts, the thoracic cavity expands and air is drawn into the lungs. If the diaphragm is tight or constricted, its proper contraction becomes inhibited and thus less air flows into the lungs. 

A tight diaphragm indicates Liver Qi (energy) stagnation and can cause Lung Qi (energy) deficiency. As a result, we may feel angry, anxious and depressed.

Conventional aerobic exercise pumps oxygen into the lungs temporarily but does not demand the mind-body connection of practices like Yoga, which focus on deep breathing to improve the overall health of the lungs.

Deep breathing also regulates the autonomic nervous system so it's not stuck in a hyper-sympathetic stress state. This allows for the Liver to relax so it can smooth the movement of Qi throughout the body. The result is a more calm and relaxed mental and emotional state as well as improved organ function for healthy digestion, elimination, and sleep.

Coordinating body movements with the breath cools the heat that may otherwise build up in the Liver due to excess strain during exercise. As a result, exercises such as Yoga, Taiji and Qi Gong that coordinate breath with movement can transform your mood and improve mental clarity. And since heat drives inflammation and stress, which are both major causes of disease, this transformation improves your health on all levels.

Deeper breaths. Calmer mind. Stable emotions. Better health.

That's the power of Yoga and movement practices done mindfully to coordinate the body with the breath.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is co-owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. The Silicon Valley-based health and wellness clinic specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture with a clinic and studio where Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com

 

Managing Anger & Power: Liver & the Wood Element

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Springtime brings renewal, rebirth and growth. These qualities can be seen in nature with birds nesting to bring new life, and the blossoming flowers and trees. 

According to Chinese Medicine, springtime relates to the Wood element. The central characteristic of Wood is growth and the related organs are the Liver and Gallbladder. Energetically, the Liver smooths the flow of Qi and thus allows one to create and execute change. The Gallbladder is necessary for the change to occur, as it is the organ responsible for making decisions. 

When the flow of Liver Qi is not smooth, we tend to feel angry, irritable and restless. Over time, this "Liver Qi stagnation" can lead to overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, elevated cortisol levels and therefore greater stress, all of which can compromise the immune system.

The emotional and intellectual aspects of Wood can be understood by examining a plant. Starting out as a tiny seedling, it grows and expands and its roots stretch further out. Over time, it needs more space, and thus begins to encroach on the space and feed on nutrients of the neighboring plant. This process stirs up competition and conflict. The stronger or more adaptable plant eventually survives.

The skill to be adaptable can transfer to the intellectual level related to Wood, which has to do with ingenuity, inventiveness, and the willingness to explore something new.

On an emotional level, Wood is represented by the spirit of a pioneer for which one needs to be brave and trust one's own abilities and power. This person is a leader, and leadership serves the community to grow and to expand.

Anger is an integral aspect of the Wood element.

Anger erupts most commonly as a result of two circumstances. First, if an individual violates one's boundaries, attacks one verbally or physically, one will become angry and defensive. The second circumstance that commonly arouses anger is if someone or something stands in one's way, thus hindering one's progress or expansion.

A certain amount of anger can drive one to create positive change, but excessive anger can damage one's health as is often driven by a hunger for power or control.

Wood type personalities are ambitious, focused, and driven. They can be entrepreneurial, decisive and make wonderful leaders. 

When in balance, Wood types are like knights in shining armor: brave, gallant, strong, and always on a mission. When out of balance they can be very controlling, angry, and combative.

The Liver stores the blood, which gives us the fortitude to make decisions and feel supported. Liver blood deficiency often manifests as fatigue, lack of luster and color in the hair and nails, and problems with the eyes. The vulnerability that one can experience as a result of blood deficiency can result in loss of clarity around one’s vision. When one lacks fortitude to face challenges, it’s easy to feel victimized and unable to adapt to changing circumstances.

Women, because they go through menstrual cycles, have a greater tendency to experience Liver blood deficiency. Wood types in general tend to push themselves very hard and thus it’s important that women with these personalities consciously slow down during their cycles in order to avoid burnout. 

The Liver is in charge of detoxification, ridding the body of chemicals, hormones and toxins. It also manufactures all the essential proteins necessary for the body. Wood types therefore need to especially be cautious of taking in substances that burden the Liver’s function, such as over the counter medications, alcohol and drugs. 

Alcohol in particular, which we often refer to as ‘fire water,’ creates a lot of heat in the Liver, which can stir both the heart and liver, intensifying emotions such as anxiety and anger. Ironically, alcohol is one of the main forms of relaxation to which Wood types resort, especially if they are tightly bound through accumulated stress from their hard work. It's vital, however, to be conscious of this tendency and instead turn to more natural methods with which to cope with stress and smooth the Liver Qi such as Yoga, tai chi, or even more active movement and martial arts.

During Spring, the Wood element becomes active both within us and in nature, so it's important to balance its energy.

Here are a few Wood-balancing tips:

1. Exercise daily: practicing Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi or martial arts especially help smooth the Liver Qi. 

2. Meditate or journal daily. Writing is an excellent tool with which to transfer busy thoughts from the mind onto paper so that they feel less burdening. Writing helps us to process our emotions and get clear about our goals, which is especially important for Wood types who are very goal-oriented.

3. Eat lots of leafy green vegetables and berries. Both of these foods help build Liver blood. Leafy green vegetables also help drain dampness, which can accumulate in the sinuses causing headaches and allergies.

4. Avoid alcohol, coffee and recreational drugs, which aggravate and heat up the Liver and impede its detoxification process causing more anger, irritability and restlessness.

5. Try Essential Oils to calm your mind and settle allergic reactions which can be triggered by an overheated Liver: Peppermint, Lemon, Lavender and Roman Chamomile can be very beneficial to relax irritability and nervousness and reduce allergies. You can directly inhale or diffuse these oils in your home. Peppermint is cooling, refreshing and stimulating for your mind and can be used during the day to keep you mentally alert. Lavender and Roman Chamomile are cooling and relaxing, best used in the evening to wind down and rest. Lemon soothes a tight Liver due to toxicity and helps reduce emotional frustration and irritability. As a food, lemon zest can also be put in warm water or steamed with vegetables providing the natural benefit of Lemon essential oil. 

Discipline is key to balance the Wood type personality, so it's important to commit to these habits and practices daily. You'll realize that by making this commitment to smooth the flow of Liver Qi, your life will flow more smoothly as well.


Setareh Moafi, L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com