The liver is a truly remarkable organ that most of us fail to appreciate, considering the many vital functions it performs. But medical doctors and natural health-care practitioners both understand the importance of keeping the liver healthy, open and functioning smoothly. The liver is the major organ of digestion and assimilation, helping to provide the nutrients that maintain health and repair diseased or damaged tissue. It also plays a crucial role in helping to eliminate toxic wastes from the body.
An Enormous Job Description
The liver’s job is to make sure the body absorbs everything it needs and dumps everything it doesn’t. If one were to write a job description for the liver, its list of major duties would look like this:
WANTED: Highly functioning, multitasking major organ that works well under pressure, eliminates toxins and can function in a high-paced environment. Duties may include:
• Metabolizing proteins, fats and carbohydrates, thus providing energy and nutrients
• Storing vitamins, minerals and sugar
• Filtering the blood and helping remove harmful chemicals and bacteria
• Creating bile, which breaks down fats
• Helping assimilate and store fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D, K)
• Storing extra blood, which can be quickly released when needed
• Creating serum proteins, which maintain fluid balance and act as carriers
• Helping maintain electrolyte and water balance
• Creating immune substances, such as gamma globulin
• Breaking down and eliminating excess hormones, drugs and exogenous chemicals
As you can see, that is a lot of work for a single organ to do, even under the best of conditions. Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle burdens the liver with many stresses, making its job even more difficult. Adding to the insult of oily, processed foods that the liver must contend with today are human-made chemicals, such as lead from gasoline, countless food additives, preservatives, pesticides, herbicides and many other compounds.
Other common liver stressors are alcohol and recreational drugs. Furthermore, drugs administered for therapeutic purposes affect the liver as do excess hormones, such as adrenaline, which our bodies create constantly in response to our fast-paced lifestyle. When stressed, the liver can store hormones for up to a year, which increases the odds for emotional imbalances, such as depression and anger, as well as stress-related imbalances, such as immune-system depression.
The Chinese Medicine Connection
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the liver’s functions include regulating the blood and emotions. Because the liver controls the blood, if the menses are irregular, that points to an imbalance in the liver. Therefore, liver balance is necessary for good fertility and regular and smooth menstrual cycles, and it also plays a great role in cancer prevention. Additionally, the liver regulates bile flow, digestion and the flow of qi, or vital essence. It also is thought to harmonize the emotions and help maintain a relaxed inner environment and an even-tempered disposition. TCM practitioners consider that the liver also “rules” the tendons and is manifested in the nails, so if the tendons are stiff, painful or weak — or if the nails are pale and brittle, then it could mean the liver is failing to nourish them properly.
Significant diseases associated with the hepatic system include hepatitis, jaundice, cirrhosis, bile stagnation and gallbladder inflammation. Liver distress calls may include the following:
• Temporal headaches (ones that occur on the side of the head around the temples) — especially if chronic
• Emotional turbulence, including irritability for no reason, anger, depression, moodiness and an inability to express emotions
• Poor digestion from bile stagnation
• Dry or red eyes
• Tenderness or pain in the liver area
• Acne or psoriasis
Relating again to TCM theory, symptoms of liver distress are divided into liver syndromes, the first of which is liver stagnation. When the liver is not producing enough enzymes and bile, liver stagnation results. After the liver produces bile, it goes to the gallbladder where it is concentrated, and then it is squirted into the small intestine to help emulsify fats. If the bile is not moving properly, you get bile stagnation, which can create a lot of health problems.
There is an entire class of herbs called cholagogues (bile stimulants) that addresses liver stagnation. Cholagogues include mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Of the group, we consider these two closely related herbs to be the most effective. Other useful herbs in this category are milk thistle (Silybum marianum), Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus) and boldo (Peumus boldo). These herbs are available in powdered form, tinctures and capsules.
A member of the citrus family, boldo is considered the most important digestive liver herb in all of Mexico and South America. You can make a tea of the leaves or use it as a tincture for a week or 10 days for many of the symptoms associated with liver stagnation. One other herb to try is fringetree bark (Chionanthus virginicus), which makes one of the very best tinctures for liver stagnation. You also can purchase it in powdered form and take it in capsules, if you prefer.
Bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense) is a Chinese herb that is particularly effective for counteracting liver stagnation. It is an ingredient in a well-known patent formula called Shao Yao Wan that is a classic for menstrual imbalances or difficulties. It comes as little pills, and you swallow 6 pills three times daily around mealtimes. Taking Shao Yao Wan for 10 days may be adequate, but if you have temporal headaches or menstrual imbalances, it may be necessary to take it for two to three months.
Liver heat is another common syndrome in the liver, and it involves liver inflammation or liver infection. Hepatitis is extremely common these days; not only can viral pathogens like hepatitis A, B, C and D lead to liver inflammation, but so can bacterial and other infections. Taking certain types of toxic drugs and drinking alcohol excessively overheats the liver and can promote liver inflammation. If liver heat gets carried away, it can lead to sclerosis or scarring (cirrhosis of the liver). Symptoms of liver heat include severe temporal headaches, pain under the right ribcage, anger and irritability, itchy red eyes and reddish color on the sides of the tongue.
To rid the body of liver heat, it is important to start using herbs as teas consistently — maybe for months or even several years — with fall-harvested dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), fall- harvested burdock root (Arctium lappa) or gentian (Gentiana lutea). Gentian is one of the best cooling and regulating herbs for the liver used in both Chinese and Western medicine. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is one of the most important herbs for people who have chronic liver conditions — cirrhosis, hepatitis or liver heat. American ginseng is cooling and nourishing to the liver. One nice way to use American ginseng is to take a little slice of the root and put it under your tongue, suck on it, chew it and swallow it. Because of overharvesting, don’t use the wild root — use an organically cultivated variety. The ideal way to use it is to grow your own if you have some woodland space available to you.
More Liver- Loving Herbs
Other cooling herbs to use for liver heat conditions include all the berberine-containing herbs. Berberine is a yellow alkaloid that has a strong cooling and bile-promoting effect on the liver. The berberbine family is a fantastic group of herbs used worldwide for various conditions. Herbs that contain berberine include Oregon grape root, which is used for skin conditions related to an overheated liver; and barberry (Berberis vulgaris), which grows commonly as a shrub in the eastern United States. A Chinese cousin to these plants, coptis (Coptis chinensis), is widely used to cool the liver. The root and bark contain the medicinal properties.
When the liver is overheated and working too hard, it starts losing its ability to produce enzymes and bile, and this is called liver yin deficiency. Yin, according to TCM, is related to substances like hormones, bile and enzymes, and when the liver is overheated and working too hard, it starts losing its ability to produce these. One of the key signs and symptoms of liver yin deficiency is dry eyes. Often if you can moisten, calm and cool the liver, the problem with dry eyes will go away. This will result in more lasting improvement than putting eye drops in the eyes. Another common sign is when the sides of the tongue have no thin white coating.
The most commonly used herb for liver yin deficiency is the Chinese herb rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa). It is an ingredient in the well-known patent remedy Rehmannia 6, which commonly is used to counteract liver yin deficiency.
Creating Liver Health
While it is good to be aware of liver-related symptoms, it is crucial to work on a deeper level to bring the entire system back into balance. Here are some other things you can do to maintain optimal liver health.
Eat liver-friendly foods. Eating foods high in antioxidants can help build and protect your liver. These include spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomatoes, cantaloupes, peaches, citrus fruit and juices (oranges, grapefruit), strawberries, kiwi, green peppers, raw cabbage, spinach, kale, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Eating raw beets and beet greens also is good for nourishing the liver.
Graze on bitter herbs. Try nibbling bitter herbs — mugwort, wormwood, gentian, centaury (Centaurium spp.) — from the garden before meals. This is one of the finest ways of using herbs to stimulate digestion, because all the energy, vitality and healing power of the herb is right there — fresh from the garden.
Try these appetizers. Unripe fruits, like plums or apples, are sour and bitter, and that supposedly helps your liver digest fats. Eating a few bites before meals will have a nice cleansing and cooling action on your liver.
Sip a liver tonic tea. Make a liver tonic tea and drink a quart a day for three days. Make the tea by simmering the following herbs in a gallon of water for 20 to 30 minutes, and then strain them: 3 ounces dandelion root; 3 ounces burdock root; 2 ounces schisandra fruit; 2 ounces yellow dock root; and 3 ounces orange peel. Store the tea in the refrigerator, and heat each dose before taking. Drink 1 cup in the morning and 1 in the evening. This is a good thing to do a few times a year.
Makes about 2 cups
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon fenugreek seed
1 teaspoon flax seed
1/2 teaspoon burdock root
1/4 teaspoon licorice root
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon peppermint leaf
Simmer fennel seed, fenugreek, flaxseed, burdock and licorice in water for 20 minutes. Add peppermint and let the tea steep for an additional 10 minutes. Strain and drink.
“Flush” Your Liver Twice a Year
Liver flushes are used to stimulate elimination of wastes from the body, open and cool the liver, increase bile flow and improve overall liver functioning. They also help purify the blood and the lymph. We recommend doing liver flushes for 10 days in the spring and again in the fall. Here’s how to make a liver flush, which tastes much better than it sounds:
Mix any fresh-squeezed citrus juices together to make 1 cup of liquid. Orange and grapefruit juices are good, but always mix in some lemon or lime. The final mix should have a sour taste — the more sour, the more cleansing and activating. This mixture can be watered down to taste with spring or distilled water.
Add 1 to 2 cloves of fresh-squeezed garlic, plus a small amount of fresh ginger, which you also can squeeze through a garlic press. Garlic contains strong antioxidant properties and provides important sulfur compounds that the liver uses to build certain helpful enzymes.
Mix in 1 tablespoon high-quality olive oil. Blend in a blender (or shake well in a glass container) and drink.
Follow the liver flush with 2 cups of cleansing herbal tea. We like “Polari-Tea.” We make plenty of this tea and keep it in quart jars, so it is readily available.
Note: Drink the liver flush first thing in the morning. Do not eat any other food for one hour.
Beth Baugh has been the managing editor for 10 books on botanical medicine and has been involved in the herb industry for 30 years. Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., is the author of Herbal Remedies for Dummies (IDG, 1998) and many other books. Together, Beth and Christopher offer an herbal correspondence course called Foundations of Herbalism; visit www.FoundationsOfHerbalism.com or call (541) 929-5307 for more information about the course.