I remember reading books by legendary Australian herbalist Dorothy Hall years ago and recalling how she used to talk about how your thoughts and emotions affect your organs, primarily your liver function and its' influence on the bodies ability to function from anything including digesting food, allergies, headaches, etc. Just the thoughts you had whilst eating that particular food can influence how much your liver was burdened and robbed of it's duty by that negative emotion, compromising its function, for example, its ability to detoxify and help regulate digestion and appetite.
If you experienced trauma eating broccoli as a child, your body would hold onto that and Dorothy would say your liver would be burdened by the emotions of trauma which would in turn affect how well your liver would function..in other words, don't blame the broccoli for the indigestion or allergies it would cause every time you ate it, its the emotion you have attached to the food which is causing your physical ailments! And whilst I was reading this I remember thinking..wow thats really interesting!
It was not till I started reading and studying Chinese medicine in my mid teens that I realised that this was not just a theory confined to herbalists from the Western world but the link between emotional health and physical health was well known and documented in many cultures and in Eastern philosophy for thousands of years! And our unhealthy or negative thoughts/emotions are a major contributor to THE most underestimated cause of disease in the world today. I see it on a daily basis. I've even recently experienced it myself with having to put down one of my beloved rescue ponies. Whilst he was in pain in the last week of his life here on earth I was literally sick in the stomach, watching him suffering, I had lost my appetite and lost a bit of weight. I also couldn't sleep well..and I thought, wow, it takes ALOT for me to loose my appetite..and that was one week. Imagine what people under unhealthy stress/trauma experience if they carry these emotions with them long term!
Which lead me to write this blog because I think it's just fascinating how we don't usually make the link between our emotional health and physical health in everyday life.
And given that I spend so much of consult time with patients talking about the relationship between one's mental state and physical state, sometimes met with glaring eyes, but it's so important! And most of the time those glaring eyes turn to tears of relief when they find out that a good percentage of their autoimmune symptoms is due to prolonged unhealthy stress. Half of the time, the person doesn't even know they're had ongoing stress, it doesn't even register until they have an episode such as a cardiac arrest only to find that the doctor is scratching their head given that the patient before them eats lots of veggies, no processed food, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, no genetic link and is a personal trainer!
"Oh but I didn't think I was THAT stressed" they'd say afterwards..
Me "How's your sleep"
Patient "It's not too bad, i just wake up at 3am and can't get back to sleep but otherwise it's good!"
Me. "How long has that been going on for?"
Patient "Not that long..10 years??"
Me. "10 YEARS!! Oh my goodness!"
Believe it or not but ongoing interrupted sleep is an example of ongoing or unresolved unhealthy stress. Whether it is caused by animals jumping on you at night or a partner snoring..otherwise nearly all of it is emotional in origin, usually entails worrying...about dead lines at work, an argument with the wife, toxic relationships, etc, in other words..stress!
Stress presents itself in different ways and forms in different people. One doesn't have to be coming through the door of the clinic tearing their hair out to be stressed (although sometimes, I wish more people would as they're actually allowing themselves to express it at least!). And it is a fair enough statement to make that everyone will respond to stress differently and also how much stress they can cope with or put up with is also different in everyone.
This is called allostatic load.
Allostatic load is defined as the cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful. (1)
Everyones allostatic load is different and it is true that long-term exposure to allostatic load can lead to disease and bodily breakdown.
Which bring me to define stress..what is stress?
The following statement below is probably the best definition I can find which describes what stress is in laymen's terms:
Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action. (2)
A small amount of stress is actually beneficial to the body and our health. Hormesis is the term coined when the body is exposed to small amounts of stress, i.e., things that put the body out of it's comfort zone physically and emotionally, and the body then has to adapt and in this adaption is where the body releases hormones and other endogenous chemicals involved in healing and repair. It is why fasting is seen as beneficial to the body and also exercise in a short burst and not the repetitive type is also good for the body.
By scientific definition:
Hormesis refers to adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges. (3)
So am I allowed to have emotions you ask?
Of course! But there are healthy emotional expressions and pathological ones meaning harmful ones. Getting angry and expressing it is healthy, provided it is done in a constructive non harmful manner, such as having a very firm voice and getting the message across, after all, anger arises to protect you from harm, it's your consciousness or inner gut feeling saying "this isn't right, something doesn't feel right"
However getting angry by shouting and hurling abuse at someone and hitting them is pathological, so is storing anger so it is unresolved and therefore, still holding onto that argument you had with someone two years ago..and you're repressing it..that is also pathological and that's when your liver gets burdened with carrying that negative emotional load which starts to eat away at your physical health.
Dorothy Hall also mentions in one of her books the acid and toxic build up accumulates around joints in the body causing arthritis from patients she has seen that have harboured and repressed these negative emotions for years. Of course other factors such as lifestyle, genetics and diet come into play but it all plays a part doesn't it! And remember, the more research that has been conducted with epigenetics, the more we are discovering that genetics only contributes to ONE THIRD of your disease and its prognosis/outcome.
In Chinese medicine we would say resentment, anger affects your "Liver Qi"
Stagnation of Qi (vital force/energy) causes disease and the Liver Qi (Gan Qi) is the organ responsible (in Chinese medicine) for moving the Qi. If one is stressed (feeling like they cannot control something or repressing anger, frustration, resentment) that then causes the Liver Qi to stagnate. This then causes disharmony with the other organs affecting digestion, muscles and a whole lot more. Hence the pattern of Liver Qi stagnation signs and symptoms in an individual is seen as teeth clenching, tight neck and shoulders, digestive upsets such as irritable bowel, generalised anxiety or highly strung type, irregular cycle and more!
Hence sometimes with women who suffer PMT (premenstrual tension) I like to work at Liver Qi first because of the emotional burden thats presented, rather than throw them herbs to help balance the hormones. From a naturopath/Western herbalist perspective, if the liver is congested then this has to be addressed first and foremost as the main detoxification centre of oestrogen is the liver. How would you know? ALWAYS consult a trained herbalist, naturopath, Chinese medicine practitioner for this reason! I wrote a blog on Liver Qi stagnation years ago, feel free to look it up on the blog page.
Emotions are an integral part of one's wellbeing across many cultures around the world, not just Chinese medicine. Emotions are chemical reactions just like everything else going in every cell of your body, they're energy transactions and so should be respected a whole lot more than we give them credit for. Interestingly the Egyptians were known to bottle tears of joy and give it to someone they wanted to lift their spirits and visa versa, bottle tears of sadness and give it to someone they wanted to calm down and sedate.
In English if someone was in a foul mood, one would say "have you got shit on your liver??" or "vent the spleen" for someone wanting to air their grievances and feel better for it..trust me, you always do and its good for you! It's good for your health! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Repressing emotions and not dealing with them and letting them go stagnates our vital energy which then impacts our physical health in a negative way..if that's the only thing you take from this blog, i will be happy, my job is done!
Moral of the story is..pay just as much attention to your emotional/spiritual wellbeing as well as your physical wellbeing. Hence mediation, talking and venting to a good friend, gardening, a stroll on the beach, patting your pet, time away from your phone and laptop, reading a good book, are ways you can look after your mental health. Be emotionally honest with yourself, be true to yourself and what you are feeling. Acknowledge those feelings and emotions..like the clouds, let them pass, in, over and out..don't hide or suppress them if you want good health!