Ancient medicine, modern science find connections between emotions and our organs
It’s difficult to imagine our internal organs having an influence on how we feel. Most of us see emotions as responses to external situations, or internal thoughts. But what if our organs might have some part to play in the complex world of feelings?
The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the liver was the source of our emotions and the center of the soul. Even the words we use today to describe the liver like “hepatic,” “hepatitis,” and “hepatoma” come from the ancient Greek word “hepar,” which means liver.
The ancient Greeks also knew, quite rightly, that the liver had the ability to regenerate, and they thought this was due to its divine nature. We can see this in Greek mythology with the story of the punishment of Prometheus. Zeus, angry at Prometheus, punished him by putting him in chains and sending an eagle to eat his liver.
Because he was immortal, his liver grew back every day, and the eagle returned day after day to eat it. Yipes.
The Liver As We Know It
In Western medicine, the liver is seen as a critical component of our immune system because it defends against blood-borne infection and contains numerous innate and adaptive immune cells that detect and capture pathogens from our blood.
Located on the right, in the upper part of the abdomen, the liver sits just under the ribs and on top of the stomach, intestines, and right kidney, and usually weighs around 3 pounds. It holds about one pint—or 13 percent—of the body’s entire blood supply at any given moment. There are actually more than 500 vital functions that the liver performs, including the production of bile (which helps carry away waste and breaks down fats), clearing the blood of drugs, alcohol, and other poisonous substances, and resisting infections by removing harmful bacteria from the bloodstream.
Maintaining a healthy liver can be achieved by avoiding drugs and moderating alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and being careful when traveling to places where hepatitis A and B are common, as they are the most easily transmissible.
Hepatitis, which causes liver swelling and damage, is caused by several viruses. The most common are A, B, C, D, and E. Hep A is contracted by coming into contact with contaminated food or water, or with an infected person’s stool. Hep B is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids.
The Liver From a Different Perspective
Interestingly, in Eastern medicine, the liver is associated with the emotion of anger. When we express resentment, frustration, or irritability, we are seen to be expressing our liver energies.
Eastern medicine has a different approach to what makes us sick and why. One of the main differences is that it sees the body and mind as intimately connected. For example, Eastern medicine attributes different emotions to many of the internal organs. Emotions, when felt intensely or for extended periods, according to this philosophy, can make us sick. Conversely, if an organ is not functioning properly, it can have an effect on its associated emotion.
Someone with a liver that’s out of balance might experience an excess of anger, and excessive anger that has been lingering for months or years is thought to eventually harm the liver organ. Emotions, therefore, are actually a diagnostic tool as well as a cause of disease, which is a bit of a departure for many Western people.
In this Eastern perspective, the liver also has many important functions in the body, including being responsible for the smooth flow of qi in all directions. Qi is the energy our bodies use in daily function and is created from the air we breathe and the food we eat. In Eastern philosophy, qi is the energy that animates all living things.
A liver that is in good health is also seen to allow a quick recovery after physical activity and allows for graceful movements and a flexible body. This makes sense if we compare it to the Western view of the liver because of its functions of cleansing the blood of toxins and removing potentially harmful pathogens. A healthy liver equals a healthy, vital body.
From the Eastern medicine perspective, a healthy liver also will give its owner great courage and resoluteness and the ability to plan one’s life wisely, effectively, and with a clear sense of direction. Its functions and responsibilities aren’t just physical, but encompass emotional and spiritual realms as well.
Scientific Studies Suggest a Connection
There are some interesting studies that suggest that science is exploring this connection as well. Many cultures have long believed that the connection between the emotions and the organs exists, and several studies can now prove that this in fact might be the case.
One study, conducted by Rachel Lampert at the Yale University School of Medicine titled “Anger and ventricular arrhythmias,” has found that anger does indeed have an effect on heart arrhythmias—which are a disturbance in the rhythm of the heartbeat.
The study found that psychological stress from emotionally devastating events such as natural disasters or war can increase arrhythmias and even sudden death. Diary-based studies show that anger and other negative emotions can be fatal. Their findings concluded that anger and other strong emotions can trigger “potentially life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias in vulnerable patients.”
Another study explored the connection between anger and cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are an intensely painful type of headache that occurs in cycles or “clusters.” The study, published by Marialuisa Rausa and titled “Anger and its Expression in Cluster Headaches Versus Migraines” found that patients with cluster headaches experienced anger with a higher intensity than those with migraines, demonstrating a link between the intensity of pain and intensity of emotion.
Yet another study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that anger reduction through cognitive behavioral therapy allows people to achieve more equanimity and thus be better equipped to deal with the stressors of daily life.
Emotional Awareness for The New Year
It’s interesting to explore the idea that our bodies—complex and beautiful organisms that they are—might be more than simply a mechanical apparatus that keeps us alive through its infinite array of biological processes. Perhaps instead, looking at it more holistically, we can begin to see that we are in fact so much more.
As we bring in a new year, perhaps we can expand our view of health to include not just the health of our bodies (as we do with resolutions like eating better and exercising), but that of our emotions as well. Many holistic disciplines believe there’s a vital connection between the two that science is now beginning to explore. Maybe emotional awareness and self-regulation could have a place in the complex world of human health.