After skin, the liver is our largest organ, and it’s a busy factory where carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are metabolized and carbohydrates are stored as glycogen. Every day, the liver manufactures about a liter of bile, a greenish to brownish yellow liquid that is secreted by the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and released into the duodenum to aid in digestion, particularly of fats.
The liver is also a filter that removes toxins from the blood, destroys old blood cells, and supports the immune system. Herbs that help improve or increase liver function include milk thistle, dandelion root and artichoke leaves.
Milk thistle has been used for more than 2,000 years for liver disease. Since the late 1960s, nearly 400 scientific studies—chemical, pharmacological and clinical—have been published on its use in treating liver disease.
Silymarin, the active component of the seed extract, has been shown to alter the cell structure of the outer liver membrane to prevent toxic chemicals from entering the liver. It stimulates the liver’s own capacity to generate new liver cells and is a powerful liver-specific antioxidant. German health authorities allow milk thistle preparations to be used in supportive treatment of chronic inflammatory liver disorders such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and fatty infiltration caused by alcohol or other toxins.
How to take it: Commercial forms are preferred. One of the best-documented forms on the market is a single dose of 140 mg of silymarin in 175 mg of milk thistle seed extract, taken two to three times a day.
Dandelion is a traditional herb, but its use is not backed by modern clinical studies. Over the centuries, dandelion root has been used to promote bile secretion in liver, gallbladder, and kidney ailments, and as a tonic for weak or impaired digestion. Alcohol extracts of the root increase bile secretion in animal models by more than 40 percent.
How to take it: The root is used in tea, with one to two teaspoons (2 to 8 g) of the cut-and-sifted dried root steeped in a cup of hot water for about fifteen minutes. Take one cup in the morning and one in the evening. In Germany the root is approved as a digestive stimulant for dyspepsia, loss of appetite, and conditions of the liver and bile ducts. However, it is contraindicated in obstruction of bile ducts, gallbladder conditions, and may be used for supportive treatment of gallstones only under a physician’s supervision.
Artichoke leaf—the same artichoke that produces the flowerbuds that are eaten as a vegetable—is used in European herbal traditions to stimulate bile secretion and movement of the bile tract. It has also been shown to protect the liver from toxins and reduce cholesterol.
How to take it: The leaf extracts are used in phytomedicine for various dyspeptic complaints. Research shows the best daily dose is 6 g of the dried leaves. Look for commercial products that are equivalent to this. Don’t use in cases of bile duct obstruction or gallbladder conditions.
Steven Foster is an authority on medicinal herbs and the author of many books, including Steven Foster’s Guide to Herbal Dosages (Interweave Press, 1999).
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