Headaches, PMS & Hormone Imbalance: Why Chinese Medicine’s Liver Qi Stagnation is a Nationwide Problem
- Published on: 11 February, 2017
- Last update: 03 November, 2020
Today’s post is all about how “liver stagnation” (which leads to ‘liver fire’) can cause PMS symptoms, hormone imbalance, and headaches – and what you can do about it! I have a YouTube video about this already (click here) but it’s so important that I wanted to elaborate on my blog.
If you suffer from PMS, cramps, hormone imbalance, PCOS, cysts, headaches (especially around your cycle) and/or anxiety & depression: this post is for you!
And no, there’s nothing physically ‘wrong’ with your liver itself. There’s simply an interruption or imbalance (“stagnation”) in the flow of energy throughout your “liver meridian” according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
This is the most common diagnosis Westerners receive from their TCM practitioners because of our on-the-go modern lifestyle. Men deal with this too, especially those in stressful jobs who don’t have time to eat healthy meals! Since men don’t have a monthly cycle, they’ll feel the effects in other ways. They may experience emotional stagnation (such as built up anger), headaches, neck and shoulder pain, digestive difficulties that worsen with stress, and high blood pressure.
What is the liver’s job in the eyes of TCM?
Western medicine sees the liver as the physical organ itself – a meaty mass that sits on the right side of the belly.
But in TCM, the word “liver” refers to an entire meridian; a diverse organ system (including the liver & gallbladder) that governs everything from digestion and the breakdown of fats, to the smooth flow and balance of hormones. This makes perfect sense, because when we go back to Western biology, hormones are indeed metabolized by the liver!
Think of the liver meridian as the commanding officer of the body’s “Qi.” Qi is the energy that flows through the body. It is said to aid in the movement of blood and lymph as well as nutrients and toxins that come in and out of the cells. Nerve conduction, energy production, and cognitive awareness all depend on the presence of Qi. The liver meridian makes sure that Qi, and hormones, are delivered to the right place at the right time.
- A healthy liver ensures you have strong mental focus and firm decision making skills in your career (whereas brain fog & frustration would be a sign of liver stagnation).
- An unobstructed, healthy liver meridian will also balance your hormone levels as they ebb and flow throughout your monthly cycle.
- When liver stagnation is present, your hormones will be off, you may experience PMS (and all the emotions that come with it), and you may also have cramps. This is because the body doesn’t have enough Qi (energy) and has to literally work harder (the contractions that create cramping) to produce a smooth flow of blood.
The liver meridian is also the cleansing laboratory of the body. Over-consumption of fatty, greasy, and high cholesterol foods slows down its normal detoxification responsibilities. According to TCM, long-term blockage and stagnation leads to the generation of heat or “liver fire.”
How does liver Qi stagnation begin? What are the causes?
Imagine you are stuck in traffic. Even if you are a patient person, you will eventually get irritated. Your face will turn red, you will start feeling hot, even start to sweat. Your pent up frustration and energy has no outlet to escape; you can’t move around and let it out!
That’s what liver stagnation feels like to your body — except instead of being stuck in traffic, the triggers could be any one of these (or a combination):
- poor diet (lack of plant fiber, fried or processed foods)
- overeating at meal time
- chronic prolonged stress (perhaps a difficult job, stressful relationship)
- unresolved anger
- childhood trauma that hasn’t been talked about or dealt with
- over-consumption of alcohol or exposure to other toxins (such as environmental toxins in the workplace, heavy metals in tap water, etc.)
- lack of exercise
Due to our fast-paced lifestyles, poor diets, environmental toxins, poor sleeping patterns, and excessive sitting all day, our Qi as a society has become stagnant. Our livers are overwhelmed by emotions and worries, unfulfilled desires (“keeping up wit the joneses”), and physical stagnation.
How does this affect our menstrual cycle?
Here’s how it works:
The liver’s job is to spread the Qi…
so if there is congestion in the liver,
there is congestion of Qi.
The Qi’s job is to move the blood,
so when the Qi becomes stagnant, the blood also stagnates.
Over time, congested or ‘stuck’ blood will do exactly as it sounds: clot and stick in places it shouldn’t. This leads to ovarian cysts, fibroids, endometriosis, myomas, and painful menstrual periods because the body is cramping up to expel your blood. There is a lack of Qi to assist in moving the blood out. In such cases, the menstrual discharge is often dark or clotted.
Cyclical headaches associated with your period become a problem when liver stagnation goes unresolved for too long. Over time, like friction, stagnation turns to heat – or what TCM calls “liver fire.” This may manifest as burning eyes, irritability, angry outbursts, tinnitus, throbbing headaches, red face, bitter taste in the mouth, or constipation.
Emotions / Anxiety & Depression / PMS
Liver Qi Stagnation is responsible for many emotional troubles that come with or without PMS! In TCM, the liver stores the “Hun,” which represents the spirit or psyche. When the liver becomes congested, the Hun becomes agitated due to the abundance of heat with no way to disperse it. This leads to anger, feeling ‘stuck,’ crying easily, and having a hard time letting go of thoughts or worries.
How to Resolve Liver Qi Stagnation & Balance Your Hormones
Stagnation in any part of the body is not something that gets resolved overnight. It takes slow and steady changes that happen little by little. Because this is a condition that builds up over time (and can be triggered so easily due to stress), you want to come at this from several angles: diet, stress management techniques, targeted exercise and stretches, etc.
- Cut out (or cut down on) coffee and energy drinks or soda that contain caffeine. Exogenous stimulants put stress on the body and the liver to has to overcompensate/work harder.
- Cut out (or cut down on) creamy, cheesy sauces. Any pasteurized dairy, especially cheese, is best to avoid completely. The thickness and richness of milk and cheese gives us a clue as to how it may slow us down (including our liver meridian).
- Cut out (or cut down on) refined sugar. Fruit is excellent.
- Nix the fried and oily food completely. Only consume a moderate amount of fat. The closer the fat is to its whole form (avocado, olives, coconut) the better.
- Don’t consume too much in one sitting, and keep your meals simple. Over-complicating flavors and ingredients creates congestion as your body tries to identify all the components.
- Don’t eat too late; leave at least 3 hours before bed.
- Do eat: green foods. Green is the color associated with the liver meridian and green vegetables have an astringent quality that helps to tonify the liver.
- Do eat: cruciferous vegetables. Try to eat these at least twice a day (i.e. with lunch and dinner). Cabbage and broccoli are excellent. These contain sulfur and activate liver phase II detoxification.
- Eat one large raw carrot each day. Carrots contain a special indigestible fiber that binds to excess hormones/toxins and helps remove them from your body. This takes a huge burden off your liver and moves your bowels/Qi.
- If you consume meat, limit to small servings (especially animal fat). Fish is more ideal for this condition.
- Other helpful foods include apples, applesauce, radishes, garlic, cayenne, grapefruit, lemon, salad greens, and apple cider vinegar.
- Turn off the electronics. Technology has become like a body part to most of us. In some ways, it’s nice to be so connected to people you never get to see and be able to get information from all around the world. However, spending a lot of time on the internet, playing video games, and constantly checking email via our smartphones creates an agitation in our bodies that quickly leads to Liver Qi stagnation.
- You must let out your emotions! Writing a letter of forgiveness to someone you hold a grudge towards is so important in long term healing. Keeping a journal can absolutely change your life and health.
- Exercise. Stagnation is exactly what is sounds like – being stuck, lack of movement – so the best way to deal with it is to move your body! Moderate exercise is the best thing to get your Qi moving. Overtraining will only create more stress and stagnation.
- Breathe (+ breath exercises). One of the reasons why exercise is so helpful for Liver Qi stagnation is that you have to breathe harder and you get more oxygen into the body. Deep breathing is essential to bring Qi into the lungs before it is dispersed by the liver. Try lying in bed and breathing deeply 10 times before you fall asleep each night.
- Deep relaxation and meditation. What will get at the root of the stagnated liver Qi is deep relaxation. There is nothing that will do for your liver what meditation will do, if it’s done the right way. It must include the entire body: muscular relaxation – not just cerebral relaxation.
- Spend time relaxing with activities or people you like. Whether you’re talking through the things that are bothering you or letting go of the cares of the day, relaxing and laughing with people you enjoy spending time with is a great way to release stagnation.
c. Liver acupuncture points
Press these points off and on all throughout your day. You can use them when you wake up in the morning and especially whenever you are stressed or angry. Pressing on these points can also provide relief of menstrual cramps in the moment.
d. Qigong tapping exercises
Basically, what I want you to do is hit yourself – just like the photo above. Seriously, haha! They shouldn’t be hard hits of course, but make a fist and firmly ‘tap’ these areas.
Start by tapping your right hand as a loose fist, gently yet firmly directly into your left armpit. This tends to be very tender so start gently and build the force as you adjust to the sensations. This stimulates the heart and lymph glands and ducts, promoting flow of blood, lymph and nerve conduction to all of your internal organs.
Also tap all around the armpit area, in front of it, below it and behind it. Then after at least one minute of tapping in and around the armpit, tap straight down from the armpit, across the rib cage and down to the side of your abdomen right in front of the hip bone to the midline in your lower abdomen.
Tap gently directly up the midline from your lower abdomen up through the center of your chest, tapping on the sternum, across your left clavicle to your left shoulder. Tap down the lateral or outside aspect of your left arm to your hand. Rotate your left arm so that you are now tapping on the palm of your left hand. Tap up the medial or inner aspect of your left arm back to the very top of your left shoulder. Tap on this tight and sensitive point on the very top of your left shoulder for aboout 15 to 20 seconds.
Now repeat everything on your right side, using your left fist. Be very careful as you tap across your ribs on the right since this is directly over the Liver.
Proper magnesium levels are vital for liver detoxification (and thus, releasing liver stagnation). Magnesium deficiency plays a role in many cases of Qi Stagnation, because the your muscles (and your mind!) need magnesium in order to be able to relax.
Studies done on the menstrual cycles of women who displayed low levels of magnesium showed a correlation between symptoms such as abdominal bloating, breast tenderness, anxiety, fatigue, and premenstrual depression.
Our new anti-stress magnesium kit is something to consider as part of your plan if you deal with painful menstrual periods and PMS. Magnesium is excellent for headaches as well.