Remember Chinese medicine has a different way of explaining the body compared to western views. When we discuss the Liver in the TCM system, we are not talking about the "anatomical" liver you may remember in biology class. The main function of the Liver in TCM is to as move Blood and Qi (energy) and so that all the other organs and muscles are energized and nourished. Mentally the Liver gives us motivation to accomplish goals and move forward in life. On the negative side a stagnant Liver gives feelings of anger and frustration in life events, especially in small day to day tasks (ex. road rage, impatience when waiting in cues). The Liver is the organ system most affected by suppressed emotions. Therefore not dealing with your triggers and emotions for a long time can lead to "Liver stagnation" and eventually pathologies of other body organs.
I like to use TCM in my practice because it explains the cause of many symptoms that may seem unrelated. For example, irritability, migraines and mood swings especially around your period may indicate Liver Qi "stagnation". Or a person who is overweight, and feels angry and trapped at work due to limited options. They would rather watch TV than exercise, and eventually there is a loss of motivation.
Remember anger and irritability causes physical changes in the body; increased blood pressure and heart rate, inflammation, blood clots, decreases thyroid function, lack of circulation and tight muscles. In Liver stagnation, spicy and hot foods are discouraged since they increase heat in the body (you can imagine adding a warm compress to a recent burn... too much heat!) Rich fatty meals also increase stagnation. Some drugs such as caffeine, marijuana, and sugar may temporarily decrease the tension felt in the body, however it comes back later in the day with increased strength.
Lucky these symptoms respond really well to simple dietary and lifestyle changes. Cooling and sour raw vegetables help the Liver function better such as cucumber, celery, lemon, and chickweed. If you have poor digestion (bloating, difficulty eating certain foods, irregular bowels), you may want to lightly steam foods, or eat soups and stews instead of raw foods. Small meals are encouraged, and eating before 8 pm allows the digestion to be optimal.
Green algae powders and spirulina are considered cooling and also detoxifying to the liver.
Also bitter and sour flavors are decongesting and cleansing for the liver. Herbal teas like dandelion root tea or burdock root, and bitter lettuce greens such as endive and raddiccio are good suggestions. Tangerine or orange peel added to dishes or teas will increase the bitter flavor. Adding lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to water as a beverage, or sprinkling over vegetables will increase the sour flavor.
Here is a table I found that will help:
Foods helpful for Liver Qi Stagnation
Foods that cause Liver Qi Stagnation
Lightly cooked or steamed vegetables Cucumber salad
Deep ocean fish, poached or steamed Water with lemon
Raw fruit salad
Cooking foods in broth or water rather than
sautéing or frying in oil.
Bitter greens: dandelion, escarole, radicchio
Mung beans, fermented soy products
Swiss chard, Spinach
Apple Cider Vinegar
Thick creamy or cheesy sauces
Coffee, black tea, soda with caffeine
Hot spices: chilies, cayenne, pepper
French fries, onion rings
Heavy, complicated meals
Activities to Free the Liver
Activities to Stagnate the Liver
Biking, swimming, jogging, dancing
Creative outlets – journaling, Painting, Sculpting,
Sharing your feelings
Punching pillows Martial Arts
Comparing oneself to others in a negative way
Pranayama, or conscious breathing exercises
Sitting in traffic jams
No creative outlet, Excessive work
Spending a long time in a situation where you feel