Wood Element: Nurturing Liver Health and Vitality in Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Maria Chah, DOM, AP & Jennifer Troyan

Welcome back to the series of five elements in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). This month concludes our series.

Previous articles covered:

heart - fire element

lungs - metal element

stomach and spleen - earth element

kidneys - water element

This month, we are sharing about the liver–wood element. The wood element is the most human of all the elements and it's a spring element. It's a creative urge to achieve.

Think about the sapling growing from a seed and pushing its way through the heavy soil, seeking out the sun and soaking up the rain, having the need and desire to be the tree that it is meant to be.

The wood element is all about decision making, planning, and is associated with the capacity to look forward to things. The natural expression of this element is to plan, seek new ways of doing things, grow, and expand, which is our innate wisdom. The personality aspects are being fearless, warrior-driven, assertive, and charismatic.

Usually, a healthy, happy liver is displayed in people who are natural-born leaders and feel comfortable; comfortable talking to huge audiences, not minding responsibility and mentoring others. A wood element personality in Chinese medicine is that kind of person.

Liver Energy that is not expressed and remains internalized may create physical and emotional symptoms.

When we're angry/frustrated, we suppress that anger, and a lot of that energy is stored as liver heat. Sometimes we clench our jaws a lot, or we crave crunchy foods or chew on gum to release some of that built up tension. This occurs when we're frustrated, or super stressed. Chewing helps divert pinned up energy.

The liver function aids in digestion and when paired with the gallbladder, together they emulsify fat solubles into water solubles. They eliminate toxins from blood cells and rid old blood cells via the G.I. track which gives fecal matter a brown color. One good self-assessment of measuring whether or not the paired organs may be compromised at breaking down fatty solubles is to notice if your poop floats rather than sinks. If it always floats this can be an indication of cholesterol collecting in the colon.

The liver is always releasing bile assisting the gallbladder to emulsify fats into water solubles for better elimination of unhealthy fats. This is why it is crucially important to have vitamin C, dark green leafy veggies, good fiber, and certain amino acids to help assist this process. It is not uncommon when the gallbladder is removed; most individuals end up having to take lots of enzymes to minimize indigestion and oftentimes unwanted weight gain. Hence again, the importance of eating plenty of fiber and antioxidants to help flush and prevent excess fat and crystallized protein buildup in the body.

What's another sign that might show up and key you into addressing a potential liver issue?

Tight muscle cramps. If you have gallbladder stones, your chest or right shoulder usually starts to ache, and/or pain in the upper right quadrant of the stomach. Some people develop gout because the body can't break down protein crystals and they go into toes, knees, or joints. It is the liver that plays a major role in protein synthesis and sugar metabolism because the liver stores sugar and what it can't store, the excess goes to our belly and turns into belly fat. Usually, signs of a more advanced unhealthy liver would be jaundiced eyes, yellowish skin, heavy liver spots, or little red dots breakout on the skin primarily on the mid-center of the body.

The (Liver/Gallbladder) paired organs have ways of being balanced through color, smells, taste, shapes, and materials which are associated with the wood element. The colors are blues, greens, and browns. People may like or find themselves most attracted to green plants or having the color green around them. Green is the associated color for the Liver.

The energy that wood gives is unique because it's like electricity. You know when you get fired up; the liver (wood) feeds the fire (the heart).

The five elements go like this:

The kidney to wood, to fire to water, which feeds wood, wood feeds fire which is the heart and it's needed to keep this transportation sector going. Wood is the fuel source for the entire industry of the body. The kidney produces the ethereal flame and then the flame sparks the liver, fire springs it forward and it kind of heats the entire body. You know the heart is the systemic motor that makes sure all the blood flows through our bodies, every limb of our body down to our feet, to our toes, to the top of our head.

Maria Chah, Lic. Ap, summarized this by saying, “The wood is capable of ensuring that our bodies function with the least amount of ailments. That's why our Chinese medicine doctors are always working on the liver - detoxing it, removing blockages, or stagnant energy. When we say liver stagnation or liver blood deficiency, we're saying that there's not enough energy transference supporting the liver to do its job.

If the liver's not doing the job, something is being cheated out of another part, such as the heart not getting enough blood or there's too much heat and so it affects the earth element (stomach and spleen) and makes it burp and have gas and things like that, which doctors can't see on an x-ray or get in a blood lab.”

What Maria Chah describes is called rebellious chi or reverse chi. The Shen cycle, which is your usual cycle, becomes the ko-cycle. This refers to one’s energy going (counterclockwise) where/when things go awry and unbalanced. So, this reversed cycle converts into stored chemical energy that can give a false positive combusted energetic drive. Especially when we become more reliant on external energy sources, like caffeine and sugar. This type of energy would be considered a false energy ko-cycle.

Here’s something good to know:

The liver is very forgiving, yet we have to make sure we eat clean and have plenty of water so that wood transfers this energy into more combusted positive energy like springing forward. In the five-elemental theory of wood, it just represents trees, plants, and nature. Also, it symbolizes growth, development, and vitality in each person. Liken to a tree in the wild that needs to be stimulated by wind, rain, and sunshine.

Our body needs the same stimulus via movements like Qi Gong, Tai, Chi, or any kind of aerobic physical exercise. Because the liver needs constant flow, movement is a vital part of its nature. In summary, it’s very important that the liver never becomes stagnant and always keeps a steady river flow of systemic energy. When the body is in healthy movement so is the ability to grow and keep creating clean, refreshed ideas for a better energetic present and future self.

So be kind to the trees around and within you and remember that everything is connected when it comes to the natural world of the five elements.


Quotes to inspire:

Berries are the healthiest fruit, offering potential protection against cancer and heart disease, boosting the immune system and acting as a guard for the liver and brain.

~ Michael Greger (American Physician and Writer)

Body concentrates order. It continuously self-repairs. Every five days you get a new stomach lining. You get a new liver every two months. Your skin replaces itself every six weeks. Every year, 98 percent of the atoms of your body are replaced. This non-stop chemical replacement, metabolism, is a sure sign of life.

~ Lynn Margulis (American evolutionary biologist)


Be well and live your best life!


Liver image within the headline image is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.


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