You probably know that the heart pumps blood through the body, the lungs breathe in air and the stomach receives and begins to digest food. But what would you say about the liver? You might be surprised to know what a wide range of jobs this organ performs, from detoxification to making immune substances and helping regulate sexual hormones such as estrogen. The liver is the body’s great chemist, an overseer of its internal health, our own personal version of the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a major organ of digestion and much more.
Because the liver performs so many vital functions and its workings are extremely complex, you might think you’d notice when it’s not functioning properly. However, this isn’t always so — the liver is also an extremely durable organ that can compensate and adapt to a wide range of conditions. That’s why it sometimes takes a practitioner with extensive training in natural medicine to determine the nature of a liver imbalance and then apply an effective herbal and natural program.
During my years of clinical practice, I’ve specialized in liver ailments because of personal experience: I had infectious hepatitis (hepatitis A) twice in my 20s. I’ve seen many hepatitis patients and know from experience that the symptoms are not enjoyable — the loss of appetite, low energy and lack of well-being can be profound, leaving one devoid of enthusiasm to even face the day.
Other symptoms include severe headaches, fever, muscle aches and pain in the liver area. These symptoms continue for several weeks and then start to subside, but the recovery period can last up to two or three months. And though the liver is durable, the infection can weaken it, sometimes considerably.
Ron was a typical patient in many ways. He came to see me because he was unsure whether he wanted to continue the medical treatments his doctor had prescribed. He had visited the doctor because his energy had been low for several weeks and he was experiencing intermittent headaches. After his doctor told him his antibody tests were positive for the hepatitis C virus and that his viral load was more than 1 million (see explanation at left), Ron read widely on the ailment. He knew the success rate with drug therapy for hepatitis C was not particularly good. Ron’s liver enzymes (measures of liver stress and inflammation) were also elevated beyond the normal range.
With his physician’s prescription, Ron had been injecting himself with an interferon-based antiviral drug, and while his viral load was declining, he felt increasingly worse. He started having bouts of depression and felt like he had “a bad case of the flu,” with achy joints. This had gone on for a number of months, and he was actively looking for alternatives.
In the examination room, I found that Ron had a thick, yellow coating toward the back of his tongue and that his pulse was strong but very “wiry.” A wiry pulse means the vessel (the radial artery, where the pulse is felt) feels like it’s stretched out taut, like a wire. These signs let me know that Ron had an “excess” form of hepatitis (rather than a “deficient” form) and that we needed to help his body eliminate some of the pathogenic heat and dampness that had accumulated in his lower abdomen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, heat and dampness are thought to promote inflammation.
Herbal Hepatitis Help
In Ron’s case, I recommended a formula to help relieve some of the heat and dampness, while regulating his liver function and removing the stagnation. When the liver becomes inflamed and has to fight a viral infection, it can experience a kind of stasis that hampers its efforts to produce bile and perform some of its other vital functions. This can lead to headaches and emotional swings, especially irritability.
I don’t like to give hepatitis patients alcoholic tinctures, so Ron agreed to make a tea with the following herbs and drink a cup morning and evening. We both hoped it wouldn’t taste too bad. Unfortunately, heat-clearing herbs are often bitter. As a backup, I gave Ron some capsules containing powders of the same herbs.
Other Helpful Herbs
Unlike many pharmaceutical drugs known to be toxic to the liver, herbs generally promote liver health and tend to be mild in nature.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is responsible for maintaining a smooth and harmonious internal environment, and conversely, it’s easily disrupted when it has to detoxify and eliminate harmful substances each day. That’s why I stress to my liver patients above all to be gentle with their liver. It has enough problems trying to deal with all the chemical additives in our food and water.
Two other herbs are indispensable in a total program for liver health, and I often recommend various preparations of them to my patients.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is entirely safe and does not seem to interfere with the action of life-preserving medications, like coumadin, antiviral drugs or anti-rejection drugs. The standardized extract of milk thistle, available in capsules at health-food stores, can be taken daily to help protect the liver against the harmful effects of long-term inflammation due to the viral infection. Milk thistle also promotes regeneration of the liver cells. I’ve recommended the herb to many and have used it myself for years — in my experience, it’s a beneficial herb that’s truly safe and effective. I recommend a large dose (about 480 mg to 1 gram) daily for months, even years, if it’s needed in severe cases. A good maintenance dose is 240 mg daily.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms are clearly beneficial for anyone who wants to enhance immune function, reduce the risk of some kinds of cancers and as part of a total program for liver health. Studies show the mushroom extract has an antiviral effect and seems to be effective against viruses associated with hepatitis.
Eating one or two shiitake mushrooms is a good way to get a daily dose of the medicine, according to discussions at the First International Conference on Medicinal Mushrooms I attended in 2001. This is good news: Why not enjoy our medicine? Try adding sliced shiitakes to soups and stews, or simply cook the caps whole in a little olive oil and garlic, which makes a tasty appetizer. Sautéed shiitakes are a delicious addition to a hamburger or veggie burger.
Ron began the herbal program and also improved his diet by eating more fresh foods, fewer fried foods and less refined sugar. He couldn’t believe he could do it, but he even stopped drinking coffee and alcoholic drinks. He agreed to stop for three months along with implementing the herbal and dietary program — then he’d have his liver rechecked and see how he was feeling.
I have a lot of confidence in this program because of all the patients who have reported clearly positive results. Ron was definitely feeling better after two weeks, and after two months, he told me he was feeling better than he had in many months.
After three months, Ron’s viral load was below 500,000 (a moderate viral load) and he felt significantly better. Some of the hepatitis patients I’ve worked with maintain good health and are symptom-free after 10 years. Modern medicine tends to focus on medical tests as a way of evaluating a treatment, but I have to say it’s not about the numbers — it’s about feeling good, creative and excited about life — creating the best health possible.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.