My liver needs some support, so lately I’ve been researching herbs that effect the liver, gallbladder, and upper GI tract. These organs tend to function as a system, meaning their functions interrelate so changes in one create changes in all the others.
Liver cleanses and detoxification generally seem to be very popular in natural health circles, and indeed, detoxing goes all the way back to Hippocrates. The method of the Hippocratic school was to put the patient on a very bland, limited diet. It was believed that under these conditions, the root cause of the disease would reveal itself. Sometimes multiple symptoms can make it difficult to diagnose where the problem really lies, so I guess you could say that what the ancient Greek doctors were doing was removing as many potentially complicating factors as possible. Makes sense. Anyway, once the actual disease revealed itself, there would be a “healing crisis,” where the disease would flare up and basically burn itself out. So here we are 2000 years later and detoxing is still popular! (Sidebar: It is my personal opinion that part of the popularity of detoxing is due to the idea that the body and its processes are dirty or impure. This concept is very pervasive–at least in America–and the message is constantly reinforced by advertising, though it’s usually implicit. Consequently most people aren’t consciously aware that they’re absorbing the message. We all need to do a periodic check to make sure we’re not harboring or endorsing negative body beliefs like this.)
If you are considering a liver cleanse or are looking for herbal support for an overtaxed liver, you need to know that not all herbs are going to affect your liver in the same way. So how do you find the best one(s) for you? Without enrolling yourself in an herbal medicine course, here are some things a layperson/family herbalist needs to consider: how the liver system functions; whether there is really a problem with your liver system; keeping a balance between cleansing and nourishing; your liver system’s temperature, moisture level, and tissue state. So without further ado…
The liver system – a quickie refresher course*
You can track this info down on the internet, but just to save you some time, here’s my summary. The portal vein picks up blood from the GI tract and spleen and carries it to the liver. This blood is full of whatever toxins you may have ingested along with your food, plus dead blood cells and other nastiness collected in the spleen (which acts much like a large lymph node). The portal vein accounts for 75% of the blood coming in to the liver, and unlike other veins, which drain into the heart so that the blood can be re-oxygenated, this one drains into the liver to be cleansed of toxins. The portal vein also brings the basic materials the liver needs for its metabolic duties.
Then the liver does its thing: it removes toxins before releasing the blood back out to the general circulation, it makes chemicals needed for digestion (like bile), it makes hormones, and it makes blood plasma proteins that are necessary for transporting hormones and nutrients around the body. When you eat too much sugar (and almost everyone in the modern Western world does), the liver sequesters some of it and stores it for later, and transforms some of it into fat which is stored…well, practically everywhere.
The gallbladder is about the size and shape of a lightbulb and is nestled underneath the liver. It’s job is to store and concentrate bile (= gall). Bile dissolves fats, and when you eat the gallbladder squirts a little concentrated bile into the small intestine. You can live without a gallbladder (I speak from experience), but without it you won’t digest all the fats you eat. That means that the liver may not get all the fats it needs, which is important because some nutrients (e.g., certain vitamins) are stored in fat, and fats are necessary for the creation of some hormones. It seems ironic but bile is actually made with cholesterol, so you need some cholesterol in your system (gallstones are basically little nuggets of
searing agony cholesterol); without the gallbladder you don’t efficiently use the cholesterol you eat. Also, those without a gallbladder tend to suffer from diarrhea, because (1) there is undigested fat in the stools and (2) the liver constantly drips relatively dilute bile into the small intestine, which irritates the lining of the intestines.
Also emptying into the small intestine is the chyme, a slurry made in your stomach from the food you ate (are we grossed out yet?). The emptying of the chyme is what signals the gallbladder to release the
kraken bile, as well as signaling the pancreas to release digestive enzymes.
So from this we can take the following lessons:
- the liver, gallbladder, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine are linked in the digestion process;
- your liver has a lot of intricately-coordinated jobs that are absolutely essential to life;
- anything preventing the liver from doing its job is going to affect your body in many ways.
*I’m not a medical professional but this is how I understand it from my research.
Does your liver system need support?
My off-the-cuff response to this is to say that everyone living in the modern industrialized world needs liver support. We are exposed to all kinds of industrial pollutants and we take a lot of medications which have toxic side effects. Plus we don’t get enough nutrition. But there are specific indicators that you need extra support, which can include:
- skin eruptions (acne, psoriasis, boils, etc.);
- chronic diarrhea or constipation, or alternating diarrhea and constipation;
- alcohol intolerance;
- overindulging in food (especially fatty foods) or alcohol;
- having a red face and irritable temper;
- “fatty liver”;
- chronic inflammatory disease;
- taking birth control pills or other medications;
- menstrual irregularity, excessive or scanty bleeding, and/or clots;
- diabetes and obesity, although these are complicated issues with multiple interrelated causes
- anger, stress, insomnia, depression, lethargy.
There are more indicators, but these should give you an idea.
Aggravation of the liver is also traditionally associated with anger, though this is kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. In medieval times, a choleric (= bilious) personality was an irritable, angry, and ambitious type. It has similarities with the pitta type in Ayurveda. (Matthew Wood discusses this in greater detail in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism.)
Balancing cleansing and nourishing
As Lucinda Warner discusses in this excellent post, it’s important to balance detoxing with nourishing. There’s something appealing about the concept of cleaning out the system, but over-detoxing stresses the system. It’s no coincidence that in early spring, when our bodies need some help clearing out junk that has accumulated due to overindulgence at winter feasts and a tendency to stay sedentary inside, cleansing herbs begin to appear–but so do nourishing ones. As Warner says, “it’s about having a balanced and sensible approach to what is healthy and seeking always to support the body rather than force it to cleanse which can result in over-burdening the organs of elimination and creating stress.”
Therefore, any detoxing program should be gentle and should be accompanied by nourishing herbs and foods. In fact, Warner suggests that even better than attempting to rid your body of already-ingested toxins, a more sensible plan is to avoid introducing new ones into your system. The amazing liver will then be fully capable of purging whatever nastiness is already in there.
Probably the two most popular liver-supporting or cleansing herbs are dandelion and milk thistle. They are easily obtainable from mass-market capsule companies (or your backyard, in the case of dandelions), as well as in bulk from reputable herb suppliers such as Mountain Rose Herbs. I can’t discuss these two herbs in great detail here, but will try to summarize their specific actions.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)
Dandelion cleanses the system in multiple ways. It is a diuretic (one of their folk names is “Pissabed”), but unlike most diuretics it doesn’t strip your body of potassium nor does it raise the blood pressure. It helps rid the body of excess fluids but like many herbs, it operates on the entire “excess fluid” axis, meaning that while it gets rid of the extra, it also helps prevent bedwetting and urinary incontinence (in spite of its folk name). You might say it eliminates excess while keeping it under control. Along similar lines, it is also a mild laxative.
Like bitter herbs generally, dandelion stimulates the liver to produce more bile (the yellow color is considered a signature for bile), and stimulates the gallbladder to secrete it. Lucinda Warner suggests (personal communication) that it may be especially important for those without gallbladders, since they are unable to concentrate bile post-cholecystectomy. It also stimulates the pancreas to release insulin and digestive enzymes. Another liquid stimulated by dandelion is breast milk (the milky latex sap in the stem is a signature for this).
Dandelion contains high concentrations of vitamins such as A, B complex, and C, as well as iron and calcium, and so helps to nourish the body. They’re not just medicine, but food. Culpeper, an astrologer as well as herbalist, says that dandelion is ruled by Jupiter, the planet of good luck, abundance, and generosity. This makes perfect sense to me because there may not be as generous a plant on the face of the earth.
In terms of the lessons dandelion can teach us, there are many, but among the most important are resilience, joyfulness, generosity, and positive ego strength.
According to Wood, a need for dandelion is specifically indicated by a yellow or white coating on the tongue which comes off in patches, leaving sore red spots.
So to summarize, dandelion:
- nourishes with vitamins and minerals;
- stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes and fluids to promote better absorption of nutrients;
- helps eliminate toxins and excess fluids through the organs of elimination, in a controlled manner;
- helps to release pent-up anger, stress, and resentment and encourages joy and clarity.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum, or in older and homeopathic sources, Carduus marianum)
Milk thistle, like dandelion, belongs to the Compositae or Asteraceae family (the daisies), is said to be ruled by Jupiter, has milky sap which indicates that it stimulates the production of breast milk, and helps stimulate the bile as well. It is another plant that traditionally has been as much food as medicine, probably even more so than dandelion.
However, it is more famous as a liver medicine, and here it is remarkable. Its special power is that it simultaneously helps protect the liver from being damaged by toxins and helps it generate new cells to heal old damage (up to four times faster than normal). It is anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Milk thistle is especially helpful in protecting and repairing damage caused by alcohol use. In one study, milk thistle significantly reduced the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer tumors in mice.
Whereas dandelion is indicated where there are feelings of anger and irritability, Wood suggests milk thistle is more appropriate where there are feelings of despondency and heavy-headedness. Also, dandelion is often regarded as “drying,” although in my opinion it would be more accurate to say that it helps to control the proper balance of fluids as opposed to just drying them up; milk thistle on the other hand is more moistening and oily.
In addition, milk thistle helps to support the spleen, which means it has a positive impact on the immune system overall. To summarize, milk thistle:
- stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes and fluids to promote better absorption of nutrients;
- protects liver cells from damage and helps to repair damage already done;
- supports the spleen and immune system;
- is well suited to atrophic (dried up) tissues states, helping to moisten and rebuild them.
(Sources: The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, The Book of Herbal Wisdom,A Modern Herbal, Culpeper’s Herbal, “The Marvellous Milk Thistle” and “Dandelion Medicine” at Whispering Earth, The Earthwise Herbal, Medical Herbalism.)
There are many herbs that can be useful in supporting the liver; I have only discussed the two best-known plants here. As it happens, dandelion and milk-thistle are well suited to be used together, because dandelion’s action is more catabolic (cleansing, removing) while milk thistle is more anabolic (building up). However, each person should do their own research to figure out which herbs are best suited to their particular situation, and ideally see a clinical herbalist for a consultation. From my own experience I know that, while a Google search will net you a bazillion websites claiming to explain the uses, benefits, and side-effects of these herbs, trying to find in depth information is
totally maddening very difficult. And sometimes you just have to figure out what works for you through good old trial and error. Fortunately, dandelion and milk thistle are generally safe and gentle.