When you consider all of the incredible functions the liver performs in the body, you can begin to understand why taking good care of this important organ can have a positive effect on overall health and vitality. A healthy liver clears much of the bacteria and toxins from the body. It plays a vital role in digestion and fat regulation, hormonal balance, detoxification, and circulation. Below is a breakdown of some of its many duties. (And you thought you were busy!)
- Metabolizes proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, thus providing nutrients and energy
- Creates bile, which breaks down fats
- Stores fuel for the body in the form of glycogen, which readily converts to glucose (quick energy)
- Metabolizes drugs and breaks down alcohol
- Stores vitamins, minerals, and sugars
- Filters the blood and helps remove harmful chemicals and bacteria (more than 2 quarts of blood are filtered by the liver each minute)
- Regulates the body’s ability to clot
- Governs the transport of fat stores
- Helps assimilate and store fat-soluble vitamins such as A, E, D, and K (it can store enough vitamin A to supply an adult’s needs for up to four years and enough vitamin D and vitamin B12 to last for four months!); stores copper and iron
- Stores extra blood, which can be quickly released when needed
- Creates serum proteins, which maintain fluid balance and act as carriers for hormones such as estrogen and other substances
- Helps maintain electrolyte and water balance
- Creates immune substances, such as gamma globulin
- Regulates levels of sexual hormones; manufactures estrogen and testosterone; breaks down and eliminates excess sexual hormones
The liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the liver’s primary jobs, besides regulating bile flow (also a primary job in Western medicine’s view), are considered to be regulating digestion and the flow of qi (vital essence). Additionally, it is thought to harmonize the emotions and hold the responsibility for maintaining a relaxed inner environment and an even-tempered disposition. In Chinese medicine theory, the liver regulates the blood, which is not surprising, since the blood and qi work together in the body. TCM texts state that the liver also “rules” the tendons and is manifested in the nails. This can provide helpful diagnostic information. For example, if the tendons are stiff, hard, and painful; or if they’re weak, with increased susceptibility to injury; or if the nails are pale and brittle, then it could mean that the liver is failing to nourish the tendons and nails properly.
Unfortunately, the liver’s important work is thwarted by a number of factors in our modern, often stressful society. Besides having to contend with the digestion of too many oily, processed foods, the liver also has to deal with chemicals such as lead from gasoline, food additives and preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, and more. Other liver stressors include alcohol and recreational drugs, which are prevalent in the United States. Additionally, our livers must contend with excess hormones, such as adrenaline, which are constantly being created in our bodies in response to our fast-paced modern lifestyles. Under some circumstances, hormones can be stored by the liver for up to a year, adding fuel to emotional imbalances such as depression and anger, as well as to stress-related imbalances such as immune-system depression.
All of these factors can cause the liver to malfunction and become overburdened, contributing to various health problems. An overworked and undernourished liver is known to be the root cause of many diseases. Liver disease is currently the third most common cause of death for people between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-nine. Each year, more than 27,000 people in the United States die of cirrhosis of the liver, and it is estimated that almost 5 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus. With improved dietary habits and natural therapies for the liver, this unfortunate situation could be prevented.
The following lists signs and symptoms of potential liver system stress or dysfunction.
- Acne, psoriasis and other skin problems
- Bitter taste in the mouth
- Blurring of vision or red eyes
- Emotional excess, especially anger and depression; moodiness
- Frequent headaches not related to tension and stress in the neck and shoulders (from poor posture when sitting and studying, for instance) or from eyestrain
- Ongoing menstrual problems
- Tenderness or pain in the liver area
- Weak tendons, ligaments and muscles
Foods and herbs for the liver
Fortunately there are many foods and herbs, as well as a few nutritional supplements, to help keep your liver functioning optimally. 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, kale, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Herbalists have a long history of recommending various herbs to help clear, calm, protect, and strengthen the liver. Here is an overview of some of the most respected ones.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). The best-studied herb for its excellent liver-protectant properties, milk thistle has proven effective in scientific studies for hepatitis, cirrhosis, and jaundice. It has strong antioxidant properties and stimulates the growth of new liver cells. Milk thistle seeds contain a bioflavonoid complex known as silymarin, which is responsible for the health benefits of the plant. Take milk thistle to remove toxins from liver cells and enhance liver regeneration after exposure to heavy metals, radiation, or toxic chemicals. Milk thistle is a must for rebuilding the liver when it has been compromised or weakened in any way.
Milk thistle is available as a tincture and as a tablet in concentrated, powdered extract form. An average therapeutic dose of the 75 or 80 percent standardized extract is 1 tablet three or four times daily. Taking it in tincture or tablet form is recommended as the primary protective compounds in the seeds are not water-soluble.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis). Because they contain all five flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, acrid, and salty), schisandra fruits are recommended for mild digestive or liver disorders, especially when caused by stress or overwork (TCM practitioners recommend the herb to improve one’s capacity for dealing with stress and provide greater endurance). Schisandra has been used to successfully treat infectious hepatitis with no side effects reported. Scientific studies have shown the herb to be effective for lowering liver enzymes that may be elevated during liver stress.
Fringe tree bark (Chionanthus virginicus). Herbalists recommend the bark of fringe tree to regulate liver function and increase the flow of bile. Extracts of the herb are taken for cirrhosis of the liver, jaundice, and hepatitis. The dose for fringe tree bark as a tincture is 10 to 30 drops two to three times daily; as a decoction, 1 cup two to three times daily.
Boldo (Peumus boldus). This sour-tasting herb is used to stimulate and decongest the liver. Indications for the herb include hepatitis, gallbladder problems, and painful digestion. Boldo is the most popular herb in Mexico and South America for easing liver problems and improving digestion. The herb is a member of the citrus family. Drink 1 cup of the tea two to three times daily, or take 1 dropperful of the tincture three times daily.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa). This popular spice is replete with medicinal attributes. Not only has it shown strong anti-inflammatory activity, but it is used for jaundice, liver enlargement, and poor digestion as well. You can use the herb liberally in cooking; take it as a tincture in a dose of 1 to 3 droppersful two to three times daily; have 1 cup of the tea two to three times daily; or take it as a standardized extract, following label instructions.
Note that there are several excellent liver formulas combining these liver herbs that you can find in natural food and herb stores. If you enjoy making your own herbal formulas, check out the combinations for the liver, at left.
Nutritional supplements for the liver
Antioxidants such as milk thistle, vitamin E (400 to 800 IU per day), vitamin C (1 to 3 g per day), grapeseed extract (150 to 200 mg per day), selenium (400 mcg per day) and alpha lipoic acid (600 mg per day).
Essential fatty acids. Be sure there are enough in your diet. Use 1 or 2 teaspoons of organic flaxseed oil a day on salads or steamed vegetables; or grind up 2 tablespoons of seed and use fresh on cereal or salad; or take capsules.
B vitamins are important for liver health. Take a B-vitamin complex supplement that contains thiamine, choline, riboflavin, and niacin.
Beth Baugh has been the managing editor for ten books on botanical medicine and has been involved in the herb industry for almost thirty years. Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., is the author of Herbal Remedies for Dummies (IDG, 1998) and many other books. Together, Christopher and Beth have an herbal correspondence course called Foundations of Herbalism; visit www.christopherhobbs.com for more information.