As nail biting is so common I thought I would share a case of how Chinese medicine can treat even such a seemingly benign habit by understanding and reframing the situation in terms of bodymind energetics. As is always the case in Chinese medicine, everything is related and should be considered a window into the complexities of our pathophysiology.
J has been a nail biter every since he can remember. Now 34 years old, he has been a slave to this habit for three decades. Upon inspection, his nails are chewed down half way to the root and have prominent vertical ridges. His past medical history is “insignificant” except for having his gall bladder removed at age 26 at the recommendation of his doctor due to a blocked duct resulting in 2 severe gall bladder attacks.
J has a high stress job in the financial industry which he believes is taking a toll on his health. He suffers from fatigue and difficulty sleeping in which he feels fidgety for most of the night. While he is generally a mild mannered person, he admits to suppressing difficult personal and emotional issues. He suffers from headaches which are localized to the lateral aspect of the eye at the acupuncture point Gall Bladder 1. Floaters are confirmed in his left eye. He has constant nasal congestion with yellow discharge.
His tongue is deep red, thick, tender with severely deep cracks throughout (horizontal and vertical). His tongue is slightly quivering and dry with a slight patch of dry yellow fur on the left side of the root. His pulse is irregular with variations in the rate, markedly thin and forceless with wide changes in intensity on the left side. The right side is tight and slippery with a reduced pounding quality.
J was diagnosed with extreme exhaustion of his heart and liver yin and blood, complicated by kidney yin and yang deficiency, and liver qi stagnation (with excess heat damaging the yin) and spleen qi deficiency. His main symptom of nail biting can be seen as a defense mechanism by which he subconsciously attempts to stimulate the liver to produce more blood and invigorate qi. The nails, in Chinese medicine, is seen as the outward representation of the liver. Suppression of emotions causes a bottling of liver energies causing a wide array of symptoms (anxiety, stress, frustration, irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, headaches). By biting the nails, the liver is called into action. It serves as a kickstart for the liver to activate its dominion over the qi circulation dynamic.
Often times, a deficiency in an organ will lead to an apparent excess in its interiorly-exteriorly related pair. Here the gall bladder evidences signs of excess (gall stones, headaches at GB 1). The heart will also receive the heat being created from the liver stagnation causing restlessness with sleep and arrhythmias. The lungs are able to become excessive across the control cycle and chronic nasal congestion results. This is contributed to by the spleen’s increased demand to produce blood and provide nourishment to this chronically depleted individual. This increased workload further damages the spleen and produces the dampness which gets stored in the lungs as phlegm and nasal congestion. Because this process is one which has spanned decades, the kidneys are implicated as a possible root and are further depleted in the process.
In this case, there are many factors at play, but I present it to demonstrate how even such a common habit of nail biting can be a very relevant fact/symptom in the diagnosis and treatment of complex health patterns. Also, to show the body’s infinite defensive mechanisms in attempting to heal itself.