A Complete Herbal Guide To Liver Health
The importance of good liver health
The liver is one of the hardest working organs in the body. It’s responsible for more than 500 vital functions that we know of, and probably many more besides. Your liver works tirelessly to keep you healthy. Just a few of the essential functions of the liver include:
- Removing bacteria, drug residues and alcohol from the bloodstream
- Producing the bile needed by the digestive system to break down fat
- Manufacturing important immune enhancing substances
- Metabolising protein and carbohydrates to provide cells with energy
- Keeping hormone levels in balance
- Storing minerals such as iron
- Processing nutrients absorbed by the intestines so they are more efficiently absorbed
- Making essential chemicals to help blood clot properly
- Producing up to 4 litres of digestive fluids each day
From a Chinese medicine point of view, the liver also has a number of important “energetic” functions. Here the liver is likened to an army general, responsible for the correct flow of blood and qi throughout the body. A sluggish liver is known as liver qi stagnation, and can manifest as feelings of anger, resentment, moodiness or depression. It’s interesting to note that many people report a release of these pent up emotions when undertaking a liver flush.
Other common symptoms associated with liver qi stagnation include “floaters” in the line of vision, frequent sighing, aching knees, hot conditions such as menopausal flashes or acne, sensitivity to light, nausea before 11 am, and other signs of stagnation such as indigestion and headaches. According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, the liver does most of its work between 1 am and 3 am. Many people with liver qi stagnation report being woken up (often with bad dreams) between these hours.
Other signs and symptoms which may indicate your liver health isn’t at an optimal level include:
- Difficulty digesting fats
- Inability to lose weight
- Painful or absent periods
- Anxiety or depression (liver qi stagnation)
- Poor elimination via the bowels
- Chronic fatigue and lethargy
- Excessive sweating
- Bruising easily
What is a detox and how can it help your liver?
Every person’s health and well-being depends on how well their body eliminates toxins. Toxins are essentially waste products. From a naturopathic point of view we can think of them as poisonous substances which if allowed to build up in our tissues can lead to illness or disease. There are two types of toxins:
Exogenous toxins – come from the environment and originate outside the body. We are all exposed to exogenous toxins on an almost constant basis. Examples of exogenous toxins include air pollution, pesticides and chemicals in hygiene products.
Endogenous toxins – come from within and are a natural by-product of a healthy functioning body. Endogenous toxins can be thought of as the “metabolic waste” or cellular debris which the body must continue to remove in order to keep us functioning at an optimal level. An example of an endogenous toxin is uric acid, which is formed whenever we digest and process protein in our diet.
Most chemicals and toxic substances are fat soluble and so can hang around in the body’s fat deposits. The liver itself can hold toxins because it stores fats such as essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins such as A, D and E. The liver neutralises these chemicals by turning them into a water soluble form which is much easier for the body to manage. We can then eliminate them via the usual routes of urine, sweat and bowel movements.
There are many people who strongly believe that liver cleansing is a myth. As the liver is in itself an organ of detoxification, it makes no sense to argue that we can actually detoxify it. To some extent I would agree, but this is really missing the point.
Toxins are everywhere in the environment and many folk today are walking around with a liver which is not functioning at optimal level. This already hard working organ is being forced into overdrive and could do with a helping hand. By supporting the work of the liver, we can give it a holiday of sorts. I like to use the following analogy:
Every day we do household chores; washing the dishes, vacuuming the carpets etc. Most of us are busy people and don’t have the time to do a deep clean every single day. However, we can only go on like this for so long until the little jobs we never get around to start to niggle. The guttering may need attention and that cupboard under the sink may start to look a little grotty and unkempt. There comes an inevitable point where we feel the urge to throw open the windows and have a good spring clean.
This is a little like the situation our liver finds itself in. Every day it dutifully gets on with the routine chores, cleaning out the rubbish and keeping on top of things. But what your liver really needs is a couple of day’s break to get around to the other tasks it never gets a chance to do. Doing a liver flush and taking herbs that are known to support liver health, allows your whole body the opportunity to have a little spring clean – and we all know what a lovely satisfying feeling that is.
Regular liver flushing and taking herbs to improve liver health helps you achieve the following:
- Reduces the occurrence of disease such as cirrhosis and fatty liver
- Helps the liver produce better quality bile, which means improved digestion
- Improves endocrine function reducing the symptoms of hormonal imbalance
- Helps with weight loss
- Improves your mood and helps to reduce anxiety
- Generally makes you feel better
Because the liver has such a vast array of essential functions, herbs which affect the liver can also indirectly affect cells in many other tissues. In sum, these powerful botanical medicines have a beneficial effect on many systems, from the endocrine system to the digestive process. In short, almost every part of the body can benefit from taking herbs which are targeted at improving your liver health. Most herbal prescriptions will therefore contain at least one carefully chosen herb to support the optimal functioning of the liver.
Herbs to support the liver:
Bitters for liver health
It’s a remarkable fact that almost all the blood in your body passes through your liver every three to four minutes. In the process of removing toxic by-products from food and environmental pollutants, some of this waste is released into the digestive tract via the bile duct. This is why bitter herbs that stimulate the flow of bile are an essential part of the detoxification process. Bile is stored in the gall bladder and can be thought of as a sort of “washing up liquid” which emulsifies fats, allowing waste material in the digestive tract to be eliminated. In short, all bitter herbs promote the flow of bile and get your digestive juices flowing.
An interesting study carried out at the University of Pavia in Italy showed that participants who took a shot of herbal bitters before eating reported weight loss, reduced cholesterol, and lower blood sugar levels than those who didn’t. This is because the bitters increased the secretion of enzymes which help us digest food, and directly affect the hormones which control appetite. Many cultures have long used bitters as an aperitif to avoid the feeling of sluggishness and indigestion after a meal. In India, bitter melon is regularly served with food, and in Venezuela, a drink made with angostura bark from which the famous angostura bitters is reputedly derived, is traditionally served with meals.
Some of the classic bitter remedies regularly dispensed in herbal clinics around the globe include Gentian (the king of bitters) Wormwood, Artichoke and Angelica. However, of special mention is a remedy whose history can be traced back to the Middle ages – Swedish bitters.
What are Swedish bitters?
The original recipe for Swedish bitters can be traced back to the middle ages. It is essentially a liquid blend of approximately 16 bitter herbs (although recipes among herbalists do vary) which can be taken to cure all manner of ailments from hay fever to shingles. Many legends abound about its miraculous powers. In fact Maria Treben (the Austrian Herbalist credited for popularising the formula in the 1980’s) lists around 200 common complaints for which swedish bitters can be successfully used. The formula is traditionally taken before food to regulate the digestive process and reduce discomfort and bloating after eating.
You can buy Swedish bitters here:
My top 6 herbs for liver health
The following is a short list of plants most commonly used by herbalists to support liver health.
Milk thistle (also known as St. Mary’s Thistle) is the herb that most people think of when it comes to looking after your liver. It’s used by herbalists to treat a wide range of chronic and acute liver and gallbladder conditions, including hepatitis, jaundice and cirrhosis. The active ingredient contained in the plant is known as silymarin which has both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Milk thistle increases the resilience of healthy liver cells and stimulates the repair of those damaged by drugs, alcohol or chemotherapy treatment. It has been known to prevent fatalities from mushroom poisoning if administered intravenously within 24 hours.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Schisandra is commonly known as the “Five Flavoured Berry” because it contains all 5 tastes of sweet, sour, pungent, bitter and salty. In theory, this means it has the ability to work on all the energy centres of the body. It is a liver protecting herb, working directly to protect, regenerate and detoxify the liver. The berry has very potent, fast acting effects and can metabolise drugs through the system very rapidly. For this reason it should be avoided by people who are taking GP prescribed medications who do not want to flush the medicine through their system too rapidly. The bitter flavour of the berry stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes, and the sour flavour helps increase saliva which is necessary for digesting carbohydrates and fats.
Rosemary is well known for its reputation as a brain enhancing memory tonic, but few people realise it also has an amazing capacity for aiding the liver to remove toxins from the system. Like shisandra, it’s action is rapid. Rosemary is a popular culinary herb which has the ability to stimulate digestion and improve absorption due to the familiar bitter components that stimulate bile flow.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is one of the best all round herbs for detoxification and is probably the most prescribed plant in my dispensary. In the spring, the young leaves of the plant were traditionally eaten as a bitter detoxifying tonic to help cleanse the body of wastes from the heavy foods consumed during the winter. Like all the other liver tonics it enhances the flow of digestive juices, improving both appetite and digestion. Energetically it is employed by herbalists for people with a “sluggish liver” who are prone to tiredness, irritability and headaches. It is equally fabulous for treating all manner of skin conditions. Its all-round detoxifying effect ramps up elimination via the liver, kidneys and bowel thereby relieving the burden from the skin.
Bupleurum (Radix bupleurum falcatum)
Chinese bupleurum or Chai hu is prescribed by herbalists for the condition known as liver qi stagnation. It is of particular use for the relief of menstrual conditions such as PMT which are caused in part by poor liver function. The herbs should be used with care as it can cause feelings of anger to arise in susceptible people, particularly those with what is termed liver yang rising. In such cases it can bring on headaches and migraines due to its nature to lift energy up towards the head. On the other hand it has a sedative action and is the main herb in the patented Chinese formula Xiao Yao Wan (Bupleurum sedative pills.)
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
Barberry is one of the most bitter herbs I stock in the dispensary. Only a small amount is needed to have a very powerful effect. It was traditionally used by the Native American Indians as a detoxifying herb for infections and skin problems. It is second to none for the liver and gallbladder and is one of the best herbs available for resolving headaches which stem from a toxic system. As a diuretic, it also helps speed the elimination of toxins via the urine. It has the ability to release stores of iron from the liver and so may also be helpful in cases of anaemia. It clears all toxins from the skin making it a fabulous supportive herb for people suffering from acne, boils, eczema and psoriasis and removes congestion from the uterus that can lead to blood clots, heavy periods and menstrual cramping.
References and further reading:
- Restoring the hardy wanderer: Hepatic herbs and liver function by Naomi Ullian
- The amazing liver cleanse by Andreas Moritz
- DIY bitters by Guido Masé and Jovial King
- Health through God’s Pharmacy by Maria Treben
- The way of Chinese herbs by Michael Tierra
- The Complete Herbal Tutor by Anne McIntyre
- Make yourself better by Philip Weeks
- The cure for all diseases by Hiulda Clarke