How can one….stave off allergies, lower cholesterol, improve digestion, lose a little bit of weight, calm emotional anger responses, improve eyesight, prevent tendonitis and nervous system concerns, and protect oneself from environmental toxins….all in one fell swoop? Stumped? The answer is: Take care of your liver.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the liver is connected to tendon matters, eye matters, and the nervous system, in addition to the traditionally known digestive function and enzyme releases. It also is the organ associated with anger especially, but emotions in general too. When one is weepy, irritable and when anger flairs easily, suspect liver congestion. (Think of PMS in women, or free-floating anxiety or irritability in so many of us, in our stress-filled society). This is not necessarily a sign of illness at all, in the traditional medical sense: Instead, think of a water filter which has been clogged, and which needs to be cleared. A minor matter that can easily be taken care of with herbal and dietary intervention.
It’s an amazing organ, almost with an intelligence of its own. The liver secretes bile, a bitter yellow fluid that breaks down fats and cholesterol, and other detoxifiers such as glutathione, a sulfur-like compound which breaks down many environmental toxins. (Note: Phytotherapy authority Christopher Hobbs writes that excess glutathione or liver enzymes are also not desireable, because while they convert poisonous substances to excretable ones, they also can render harmless ones into carcinogens. To think that we should necessarily always use herbs or supplements to enhance glutathione or enzyme production may be at times useful, and other times it may be a mistake. Balance is always key! Make sure your doctor oversees this).
The liver also secretes enzymes, which by definition break down foods (the function of enzymes in general), as well as fitting like a jigsaw puzzle with nutrients to render them more usable by the body. It stores glycogen, a metabolite of glucose (blood sugar). Under command of the adrenal glands, the liver releases glycogen, thus playing a sometimes overlooked role in blood sugar regulation, in partnership with the adrenal glands. It breaks down hormones, thus preventing excesses of hormones from circulating in the blood, affecting moods, regulating (indirectly and as secondary role-player) body functions as these excess hormones are broken down, and more. The liver also stores many vitamins, releasing them at times when the body needs them. And it cleanses the blood, assisting allergy control. What a powerful and seemingly knowledgeable organ, eh? To boot, it’s self-regenerating too: Cut out 75% of the liver and that remaining one-fourth of the liver will grow back, regenerating an entire new organ.
The beauty of herbalism is that it works hand-and-glove with mainstream medicine. Each discipline fills in gaps for the other. Where mainstream medicine is superb in operating on the liver, for example, and administering immuno-suppressive medications to stop the immune system from attacking a transplanted organ, it also does not have any medications to regenerate and cleanse the liver.
That is where, as master phytotherapist David Hoffman points out, the green world has lots to offer. Lots, indeed. There are liver “cooling” (anti-inflammatory and sedative) herbs, liver “warming” (stimulating) herbs, liver “protectants” (which build liver tissue), those herbs that promote bile flow and enhance cleansing, anti-viral herbs (yes, you got that right), and more. Liver cleansing and tissue regeneration are keystones in herbal therapy.
Animals administered with sylimarin and sylibin (milk thistle constituents, or chemical components) prior to being fed the poison amanita mushroom cap, which causes liver hemorrhage and death, have shown 100% protection from the poisonous fungus. People administered with those same chemical constituents up to 48 hours after eating the poison amanita mushroom show as much as a 50% reduction in fatalities. In fact, in one study, Christopher Hobbs writes that zero patients died after being given the milk thistle constituents! To boot, these patients had been exposed to the otherwise fatal amanita mushroom toxins two days prior to milk thistle administration! It is believed that the milk thistle constituents bind to receptor sites in the cells, thus blocking entry of the fatal amanita mushroom toxins. (Note: The extract is much more potent than the herb alone, as is always the case with any herb. And note that those surviving the fatal amanita mushroom were fed the isolated constituents, not the herb alone). Milk thistle promotes the growth of new liver tissue, thereby rejuvenating the liver. It promotes bile flow, is gently cleansing, and has a “neutral” thermal temperature according to TCM (meaning that it will neither stimulate an irritated liver nor slow down a sluggish one). It also promotes the flow of mother’s milk and is “perfectly safe” for nursing mothers. It has mild diuretic effects. Drug-herb interactions: Milk thistle has been proven to enhance the uptake of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in cancer patients (check with your doctor, who may need to adjust the dose). On the opposite side of the spectrum, milk thistle reduces the effectiveness of the drug Metronidazole. (Avoid co-administration).
This liver-cleansing herb stimulates bile flow, thus helping to reduce cholesterol and fatty acid deposits. It is used to break up gallstones and the demulcent (soothing) and antiseptic components of the herb may assist cystitis. The herb may also be used as an aid to slimming. Laboratory rats administered with boldine (a chemical ingredient of boldo) showed inhibited liver microsomal enzymes and many different forms of anti-oxidant protection (writes ethnopharmacist Elizabeth Williamson in “Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia”). Boldo induces the release of calcium ions from skeletal sites where muscles attach, suggesting that the herb may help to break up bone spurs. Caution: Because of volatile oils, the herb can irritate the kidneys and should be avoided by individuals with kidney disease. (Sources: Hobbs, Williamson).
Stimulates bile flow, has mild diuretic effects, cleanses the liver, and has a “cool” thermal temperature. According to TCM, to “cool” any organ means to soothe irritation, calm down hyper-activity or hyper-secretion, replenish with nurturing fluids, etc. Thus, a person with a liver that has been stressed by over-work from a heavy toxic load will benefit from dandelion root tea or extract. The herb is indicated in biliary tract obstruction although there is a risk of colic in this situation, which requires an herbal physician’s care. May cause hyperacidity in some individuals by stimulating bile secretion (Kraft, Hobbs).
Inhibits blood platelet aggregation (thins the blood) and is a vasodilator (dilates blood vessels), helps to break down fats in the blood, cleanses the liver, is mildly antiseptic and a popular food item (pesto is great for your health!) Chop it twenty minutes prior to cooking, instructs Christopher Hobbs in person, and the waiting period promotes the release of the active chemical constituents in the herb. Contra-indication: May interact with other blood-thinning medications, because garlic is itself a blood thinner.
Lemon and bitter greens:
Sour and bitter flavors promote the flow of bile, aiding digestion and cholesterol breakdown. There are conflicting theories about sweetening these tastes in herbal schools of thought. Some herbalists maintain that sweetening fresh-squeezed lemonade is just fine for stimulating bile flow, while others suggest that it’s not merely the chemistry of the bitter or sour flavors, but the sour taste itself which signals bile release from the liver. Either way, I suggest that for any therapy to be effective, it must be not only palatable but tasty. To stick with it, I suggest sweetening the lemonade if that is how you are more likely to drink it, and use a honey-sweetened salad dressing for your bitter greens.
Drink fresh-squeezed lemonade, or eat mesclun salad mix, dandelion greens, arugula or other bitter greens about twenty minutes prior to meals, says Christopher Hobbs in personal training, and bile flow will be stimulated. This, in turn, breaks down fats and cholesterols, while promoting healthier digestion and possibly helping people to slim down a bit, as part of a greater weight-loss management program. Avoid fatty and cholesterol-loaded foods while being sure to use healthy oils in cooking such as grapeseed, sunflower seed and coconut oil. These have a high smoking point and therefore are less prone to free radical formation during cooking. Olive oil and canola are best used uncooked and are very heart-healthy. Contrary to popular belief, recent studies indicate that coconut oil does not raise cholesterol levels, because it is made up of medium-chain fatty acids instead of the long-chain ones that comprise many other saturated fats. The shorter and medium-sized fat chains are more readily digested than their long-chained counterparts. Native islanders, who eat lots of coconut, show very low heart disease rates, and according to Naturopathic Doctor Michael Murray (whom I asked personally), coconut oil was also tested on Americans and other cultures, and found not to raise cholesterol levels. In contrast, crisco, lard, margarine, hydrogenated fats in baked goodies, and whipped cream substitutes are far more artery-clogging than butter, because hydrogenated oils are almost impossible to digest: “Interesting” that within ten years of margarine’s first marketing, heart disease rates soared. Some margarines are non-hydrogenated, making them desireable butter substitutes (available at most natural food stores).
Suggestions for further reading:
Hobbs, Christopher “Natural Therapy for your Liver” a superb book detailing the functions of the liver from mainstream and Chinese medical perspectives alike. Lists thermal temperatures of herbs (cooling, neutral, warm, etc), charts liver enzymes and which herbs stimulate or inhibit those enzyme productions, discusses fats and oils in the diet, and more. Very well written as a lay-friendly read with scientific depth, which will satisfy a doctor’s interests as well.
For information about healthy dietary oils, see also Linda Rector Page’s “Healthy Healing” book (in health food stores nation-wide as reference material), 11th edition. You can photocopy the article in the book and keep it at home.
A superb and in-depth look at dietary oils is in Traditional Chinese Medicine-influenced Paul Pitchford’s book, “Healing with Whole Foods”. Absolutely superb book about dietary health in general.
Elizabeth Williamson, a plant pharmacologist and ethnopharmacist with numerous degrees after her name, has written an excellent reference book about herbs called “Potters Herbal Cyclopedia”. This book lists each herb in alphabetical order in a quick-glance, one or two-page format. She lists the chemical constituents in each herb and studies (of interest to doctors and pharmacists), but writes a very lay-friendly description of how each herb is used. One of the best resources for sure.
Karin Kraft, MD is to Germany what the FDA is to America. She is one of the spearheads of Commission E, the FDA equivalent. As co-author of the book “Pocket Guide to Herbal Medicine”, Christopher Hobbs is a consultant to the health industry world-wide and a walking encyclopedia where herbal information is concerned. Without blinking or looking up a thing, Christopher Hobbs will draw molecular chains on a blackboard about any given herb, mention studies and which patients in each study had which medical vulnerability prior to participating, etc. and has more than 35 years of practicing experience as herbalist and acupuncturist, while also formulating for herbal and vitamin companies world-wide. Kraft and Hobbs have teamed up to write this wonderful little reference book, which compares mainstream medicines and their effectiveness along with herbs and their effectiveness, and is very full-disclosure. Both authors will come right out and tell you: “Use the mainstream drug in this situation, the herb is less effective” but then again, they also will say “the mainstream drug is not as effective as Herb X in this situation”. Drug-herb interactions are noted in brief, and healing modalities are discussed such as herbal wraps and baths, teas, tinctures et al. An excellent and very lay-friendly read, highly recommended.
 Hobbs, Christopher LAc, AHG “Natural Therapy For Your Liver”
 Williamson, Elizabeth BSc, PhD, FLS, MRPharmS “Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia”
 Hoffmann, David FNIMH “Medical Herbalism”
 Mitchell Bebel Stargrove,ND, LAc with JonathanTreasure, MA, MNIMH, RH (AHG) and Dwight L. McKee, MD: “Herb, Nutrient and Drug Interactions”
 Williamson, Elizabeth BSc, PhD, MRPharmS, FLS “Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia”
 Hobbs, Christopher LAc with Kraft, Karin MD “Pocket Guide to Herbal Medicine”