About the Liver…
The liver is an amazing organ that holds about 13% of the body’s blood supply. It’s the only organ that can regenerate itself. The liver essentially acts like a huge filter and it regulates the body’s chemistry; it also produces bile which helps break down fats. In addition, it produces and breaks down proteins, plays a role in immune function, hormone regulation, energy metabolism, blood clotting, detoxification, and more.
Some of the liver’s jobs are closely related to the body’s circadian rhythms, so the liver is very tied to sleep and sleep routines. Disrupted sleep may negatively affect the liver, but also may be a symptom of liver disease. When the liver isn’t well, a myriad of symptoms can arise, because it plays a hand in so many important bodily functions and processes. Some symptoms of liver disease are insomnia, jaundiced skin, yellowing eyes, itchy rashes, acne, arthritis pain, fatigue, nausea, headaches, digestive problems, and abdominal pain.
The links below are good summaries of the liver’s anatomy and role in the body.
Brief Background on Chinese Medicine
Since Chinese medicine is thousands of years old, the theories behind it reflect a very different perspective on the body. Some of the fundamental principles were derived from observations of patterns in the natural world and in human health and behavior. One of the main concepts is the idea that qi (pronounced “chi”) is a vital force that innervates all living things. Qi circulates continuously throughout the body and both qi and blood nourish the organs and tissues internally. If there is a blockage in its flow, symptoms arise. Any symptom- a muscle injury, cancer, even emotional issues like depression- is a result of some imbalance. Serious illnesses usually take awhile to develop and reflect more deeply embedded imbalances. There is a strong emphasis on moderation in all things; for instance, extremes like binge eating, sleep deprivation, emotional volatility and so on, are all seen as potential threats to the relative harmony of a person’s being. Healthy lifestyle improvements facilitate recovery and may help prevent or ward off disease.
The qi and blood flow through a network of pathways called “Meridians.” Acupuncture is a way of accessing these pathways and manipulating the flow of qi with small needles. Some of the meridians connect with specific organs and are named after them. The Liver Channel, for instance, physically connects with the liver and its section of the pathway begins on the big toe of each foot and ends on the trunk.
Even though Chinese medicine developed well before we knew anything about biochemistry or modern medicine, there was an understanding of each organ’s function and importance. The liver is a pivotal organ in Chinese medicine, but its roles are somewhat different than what we think of in western medicine. Because it has such a crucial influence on the flow of qi, most health issues involve the liver in some way. The liver does the following:
-stores blood and regulates the volume of blood in circulation
-maintains the free flow of qi in the body (this has a major impact on things like digestion, circulation of qi and blood, as well and emotional well-being)
-relates to the tendons, nails, and eyes
Since Chinese medicine is a truly wholistic approach to healing, body and mind are fully integrated. Each organ is associated with a specific emotion, and the liver is linked to anger. If the liver is unwell, it affects the harmonious flow of qi in the rest of the body, therefore all kinds of things can go wrong, including mental health. Liver disharmonies can manifest as irritability, rage, depression or even a disconnection/lack of feeling altogether. (People with poor interpersonal boundaries might be considered to have liver qi imbalances.) Mental health issues can contribute to liver dysfunction, or they can manifest as a result of liver disease. Physical manifestations might be bowel irregularities, indigestion, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, menstrual problems in women, abdominal pains, hypertension, tendonitis, blurry vision, etc.
There are many foods, herbs, and supplements that benefit the liver. My personal feeling is that a whole foods diet is the safest, most fundamental approach to healing. Any herbs or supplements must be cleared with a physician first, as there might be contraindications. Sleep and stress reduction are also super important, especially while a diseased liver is healing. Maintaining a healthy weight and staying hydrated are good ongoing habits. Also, note that seemingly harmless over the counter meds like Tylenol can be injurious to the liver, so avoid if possible. I also believe minimizing exposure to toxins is good practice- like chemicals in some household cleaners, and so forth.
The worst diet for the liver is one of sugary, processed, fatty, rich foods, and alcohol; the best is one with small amounts of lean, high quality protein (wild caught fish, grass fed beef, organic chicken… the less hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and crap added to the food, the better), lots of (steamed) veggies and fruits, and whole grains. Chinese medicine associates the liver with sour flavor, and lemons are especially beneficial. Also are: artichokes, dandelion, cabbage (and other cole crops), bitter greens (like arugula, watercress, chicory), beets, sprouts, asparagus, green or red peppers, garlic, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, herbs (like oregano, sage, rosemary), millet, almonds, pumpkin and sesame seeds, lemon, grapefruit, grapes, cranberries, blueberries, eggs, fatty fish (like salmon), healthy oils- like olive oil, avocadoes. Coffee is great for the liver, as it turns out (thank God!). Dark leafy greens are always good, as are raw vegetable juices and green tea. These foods are antioxidants, cleansers, liver builders, protectors, and promoters of healthy enzymes. Daily it is good to drink warm water and fresh lemon juice, as it promotes bile flow. If you drink fresh juices, try this combo: carrot, celery, parsley, ginger, cabbage.
Herbs & Supplements
Like liver healthy foods, there are a lot of herbs and supplements on the market that are allegedly good for liver health. Again, check with your physicians first. Most of these help the liver by protecting against toxic damage, reducing inflammation, and increasing bile flow. Some are also said to promote regeneration (milk thistle) or open blocked ducts. Here are some to consider: milk thistle, turmeric, schisandra, gastrodia*,dandelion, mugwort, licorice, spirulina, peppermint, artichoke, alpha lipoic acid, n-acetyl cysteine (NAC), selenium, zinc. In general, antioxidants and omega three fatty acids are also beneficial. If you do take any supplements, use caution with fillers and with how they are processed.
*In Chinese medicine, most herbs are prescribed in a formula for a specific ailment. This herb (among many others) is helpful to the liver, but it might be better suited in a formula with a specific selection of other herbs.
Sleep is necessary for recovery and some of the liver’s functions are tied into the body’s sleep cycle, as I mentioned above. Insomnia may be a symptom of liver disease- and insomnia may be caused by other harsh therapies like chemotherapy or other drugs. Naps are a great alternative if you can’t get a full night’s sleep or if you have liver disease and insomnia/fatigue.
Emotions / Stress
Stress is hard to avoid, but it makes all symptoms worse and it challenges the healing process. Minimizing stress is always a great idea, and there are tools to help with this. Refrain from too many commitments if you feel drained. Avoid news if it clutters your mind with negative thoughts. Also feel free to avoid people who stress you out! Headspace and Calm are two decent meditation apps you can download. If you have no meditation experience, I recommend starting with these or following guided imagery. Everyone has trouble concentrating, so when you find your mind drifting elsewhere, just take note of it and return to your meditation, without judging yourself. A few minutes each day of meditation goes a very long way.