How does our emotional wellbeing affect our physical wellbeing? Chinese medicine can explain!

I recently read on Harvard health that there is new research saying that lower back pain can be worsened by stress. Well, frankly, that is something Chinese medicine has known for thousands of years. But why is this so? How can this be explained? This can be explained by understanding the role of Liver Qi or Gan Qi in Chinese medicine theory. It is very hard to translate literally into English, however I will try my best.

Gan Qi is sometimes called Liver Qi in the English textbooks, however this is misleading as Gan Qi does not represent the actual physiological organ "Liver" as we know it in the Western world. Gan Qi has completely different functions and indications and is represented in an energetic light, which I will explain. However I will call the Gan Qi, Liver Qi in the following blog as to not make things too confusing...if I haven't confused you already!

The main functions of the Chinese medicine Liver Qi (Gan Qi) are to ensure the smooth and regular flow of Qi and Blood through the body and to store Blood. Any dysfunctions of either of these functions has ramifications which can effect the entire body or any of it's "Organs" (in Chinese medicine). Disharmonies include stagnation of Liver Qi or Blood, Excessive Heat, called Fire, in the Liver, Liver Wind, Damp Heat in the Liver, Cold in the Liver meridian, and Deficiency of Liver Blood or Yin.

The causes of Gan Qi disharmonies include pathogenic influences such as External Pernicious influences which affect the Gan Qi, such as Wind and Dampness. Although "External Wind" does not invade the Gan Qi directly, it can aggrevate an existing condition if someone is diagnosed with "Interior Wind" affecting the Gan Qi. When it does, it can cause the Gan Qi to stagnate, which can further also result in Blood Stagnation especially if left untreated. It can also cause skin rashes and hives which appear quickly and move quickly, like the characteristics of the element wind.

Emotions: Anger, frustration resentment, irritability, mood swings and depression indicate, and can cause Gan Qi imbalances such as Liver Fire Rising or Qi stagnation. Therefore it is important to discover the underlying cause of those feelings and find outlets which are constructive and beneficial like expressing oneself whether it be talking, exercise, mediation, dancing, singing, yoga, etc.

Diet: Many foods lead to a build up of Heat and Congestion in the Liver, causing the Liver patterns which have far reaching effects in the body. these include excessive consumption of fried and fatty foods, alcohol, too much spicy and hot foods, caffeinated foods and drinks such as coffee. The foods which will decongest and aid the liver include vegetables, bitter foods and dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, dandelion, mustard, beet and mustard greens. Lemons also clear heat and congestion from the liver. A good morning Gan Qi cleanse is a freshly squeezed lemon in water with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and some cayenne pepper. This can be followed by fennel seed tea to further improve your digestion.

Lifestyle habits: Excessive activity, regularly going to bed late at night after 11pm, working at jobs one doesn't like, repressing emotions and not getting enough physical activity all imbalance the Liver Qi. Creativity is also an important release for pent up Liver Qi, as is self expression in constructive and creative ways.

Stagnation of Gan (liver) Qi

This is not only the most commonly diagnosed pattern we see affecting the Liver Qi as Chinese medicine practitioners, but also one of the most common disharmonies in the body. When the Liver/Gan Qi does not flow smoothly or regularly, it becomes stagnant and heat can also result. Both stagnant Qi and heat are seen as excess in Chinese medicine. This affects not only the Liver Qi but the other "organs" and the seven emotions as well.

Signs and symptoms or indications of Gan Qi stagnation can be a few or all of the following:

distension of chest and may have hypochondriac flank pain

regular sighing

can have hiccuping


moodiness and mood swings


inappropriate anger

a feeling of a lump in the throat


feeling of difficulty swallowing

PMS tension and irritability

swollen breasts before periods

irregular periods, painful periods



abdominal pain

poor appetite

epigastric pain

alternating diarrhoea and constipation

churning feeling in the stomach

feeling of pulsation in the epigastrium (upper stomach area)

borborygmi (gurgly tummy)

lumps in the neck, breast, groin or flank

the pulse (to a highly experienced practitioner) feels wiry

Mind you, these are classic text book signs and symptoms and it doesn't mean that someone has to experience all of the above to have Gan Qi stagnation. In Chinese medicine, this is just one pattern. A person is most likely to come into a consult with many patterns, hence, we diagnose different patterns which co exist in the same person which can be deficiency or excess patterns. It is up to the trained practitioner to decide which pattern to treat first and so we use the diagnostic system of pattern of differentiation to work this out. We always treat excessive patterns first before deficiency patterns, etc. To explain what all this means is beyond the depth of this blog and proper training is required, i.e., Chinese medicine is a full time 5 year degree for that reason!

So if you experience any of those symptoms and signs and more, which seem irrelevant or not treatable when seeing a GP but you just know you feel out of whack, consulting a Chinese medicine practitioner may be worth it!

Give it a go and your prescription of acupuncture and/or herbs will be tailored to your individual symptoms and signs. That is the beauty which lies in this wonderful traditional medicine...every person is unique and the treatment is tailored to reflect that.