The liver in traditional Chinese medicine

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Abstract

Medical thinkers in China visualized the liver in microcosmal and macrocosmal terms. An anatomical tradition did not exist, hence the liver was described grossly in broad outline. It was recognized as being functionally important in the movement of qi (vital energy) and storage of xue ('blood'). The liver corresponded to various phenomena in both the natural and social orders, according to the scheme of yin-yang and five phases. These interrelationships provided the basis for the diagnosis and treatment of liver dysfunctions. The disorders fell into three general groups: (i) hepatic qi stasis; (ii) hepatic yang excess with yin deficiency; and (iii) hepatic yin insufficiency. The signs and symptoms represented the logical outcomes of the disturbed physiology. Acupuncture, moxibustion and herbal drugs were used to redress the imbalance of hepatic qi and yin-yang. The impact of Western medicine led traditional authors to recognize the hepatobiliary role in bile secretion and in jaundice. The exchange between the Western and Chinese medical traditions revealed that active agents were included in the Chinese formulary, such as glycyrrhizin, which has recently been shown to be beneficial in chronic viral hepatitis.

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