Your liver is one of the hardest working organs in your body. It’s responsible for more than 500 vital functions that we know of, and probably many more besides.
Here are just a few of the incredible jobs this amazing organ performs.
- Removes bacteria, drug residues and alcohol from the bloodstream
- Stores essential minerals such as iron
- Produces the bile needed by the digestive system to break down fats
- Manufactures important immune enhancing substances
- Metabolises protein and carbohydrates to provide cells with energy
- Keeps hormone levels in balance
- Processes nutrients absorbed by the intestines
- Makes essential chemicals that help blood clot properly
- Produces up to 4 litres of digestive fluids each and every day
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver also has a number of important “energetic” functions. We can think of the liver as a sort of army general, in charge of keeping blood and qi flowing smoothly and evenly throughout the body. In Chinese Medicine, 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 often 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 hot flushes or acne rosacea, sensitivity to light, feeling nauseous before 11 am, 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 isn’t performing at optimal level include:
- Painful or absent periods
- Chronic fatigue and lethargy
- Excessive sweating
- Bruising easily
- Difficulty digesting fats
- An inability to lose weight
- Anxiety or depression (liver qi stagnation)
- Poor elimination via the bowels
What is a detox, and how can it help your liver?
Toxins are essentially waste products. From a herbalist’s 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. Every person’s health and well-being depends on how well their body processes and eliminates these toxins.
There are essentially two types of toxins:
Exogenous toxins – come from the environment and originate outside the body. We’re all exposed to exogenous toxins on an almost constant basis. Examples of exogenous toxins include air pollution, pesticides and chemicals contained 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. 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 holds toxins. This is 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. At the end of this process, they’re eliminated via urine, sweat and bowel movements.
Can you really detox your liver?
Many people strongly believe that liver cleansing is a myth. To some extent this is true. As the liver is itself an organ of detoxification, it makes no sense to argue we can actually detoxify it. However, this is really missing the point.
Each and every day your liver is bombarded with toxins from many different sources (much more than it had to cope with even 30 years ago.) Toxins are literally everywhere and are impossible to avoid. Your liver works hard to keep up, but it’s a relentless job. This already hard working organ is gradually forced into overdrive.
Supporting the work of the liver gives it a sort of “holiday.” Herbal medicines provide a welcome helping hand, avoiding the need for the other organs of elimination (such as the skin and kidneys) to take up the slack.
I like to use the following analogy:
Every day we do household chores; washing the dishes, vacuuming the carpets, wiping down surfaces 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. Inevitably there comes a point where we feel the urge to throw open the windows and have a really 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 has to do in a hurry or never gets around to doing at all.
Doing a liver flush and taking herbs that are known to support liver health gives your whole body the opportunity for a little spring clean – and we all know what a lovely satisfying feeling that is.
Regular liver flushing and taking herbs to support liver health helps you achieve the following:
- Reduces the occurrence of diseases such as cirrhosis and fatty liver
- Helps the liver produce better quality bile. In simple terms, this means improved digestion
- Helps with weight loss
- Improves endocrine function reducing the symptoms of hormonal imbalances such as PMT or hot flushes
- Lifts your mood and helps to reduce anxiety
- Generally makes you feel better
Because your liver does so many jobs, (many of which have a wide-reaching effect throughout the whole body,) herbs which support the liver have an indirect effect on many other bodily systems. In short, almost every part of you can benefit from taking herbs which improve liver health. Most herbal prescriptions will, therefore, contain at least one carefully chosen plant extract to support the optimal functioning of the liver.
Which herbs are best for supporting 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 bitters increase 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. Essentially it’s a liquid blend of bitter herbs which have been reputed 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 1980s) lists around 200 common complaints for which Swedish bitters can be successfully used. My personal favourite being “poor school reports in children!” The formula is traditionally taken before food to regulate the digestive process and reduce discomfort and bloating after eating.
Swedish Bitters is a stock remedy here in the dispensary. Our formula is carefully handcrafted, using a blend of seventeen different organic herbs grown within the walls of a Georgian kitchen garden. Our preparation is made from fresh (not dried) herbs, which have been gathered at their peak. Once picked, the plant material is immediately macerated in naturally fermented alcohol and stored in glass vessels to avoid contamination from plastics. The plants from which this remedy is manufactured have never been exposed to modern pesticides or herbicides. The soil in which the plants are grown is fertilised by natural leaf mould collected from the makers’ own woodlands. Our Swedish Bitters are certified by the British Soil Association.
My personal top 6 herbs for liver health
The following is a short list of plants most commonly used by herbalists to support liver health. All are currently stocked here in the herbal dispensary and can be posted out on request.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Milk thistle is the herb that most people think of when it comes to looking after your liver. It has been studied extensively by scientists and is, therefore, one of the most well-researched plants in the herbal materia medica. It’s used by herbalists to treat a wide range of chronic and acute liver and gallbladder conditions, including hepatitis, jaundice and cirrhosis. It has been used since antiquity for all manner of digestive and liver complaints. The active ingredient contained in the plant is known as silymarin which has both 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.” This is 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 for whom it may be dangerous 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. Modern research has shown that Schisandra berries act as adaptogens (herbal remedies which help to increase stamina and endurance under times of stress.) For this reason, this plant is a boon for people whose liver and digestive functions are impaired because of stress.
*Shisandra should be avoided in pregnancy, and is not suitable for people with epilepsy.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary is well known for its reputation as a brain-enhancing memory tonic, but few people realise it has an amazing capacity for helping the liver remove toxins from the system. Like Schisandra, its action is rapid. Rosemary is a popular culinary herb which has the ability to stimulate digestion and improve absorption. This is attributed to its bitter components which stimulate bile flow.
*Because of its warming, pungent and moving energy, Rosemary should be avoided during pregnancy.
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. In fact, the humble side salad was originally made up of these bitter leaves, the purpose of which was to aid digestion by stimulating the liver and enhancing the flow of digestive juices. It’s traditionally employed by herbalists to help people with a “sluggish liver” who are prone to tiredness, irritability and headaches. It’s equally fabulous for treating all manner of skin conditions. Its all-round detoxifying effect ramps up elimination via the liver, kidneys and bowel, thereby reducing the need to excrete toxins through the skin.
Bupleurum (Radix bupleurum falcatum)
Chinese bupleurum or Chai hu is prescribed by herbalists for the energetic symptom picture 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. This herb should be used with care as it can cause feelings of anger to arise in susceptible people, particularly those with “liver yang rising.” In such cases, it can bring on headaches and migraines due to its nature of lifting 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 (beautifully translated as “The Free and Easy Wanderer.”) Taken as a tea it is very helpful for relieving symptoms such as dizziness and emotional overload which is specifically caused by poor liver function.
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 to counteract infections and clear up skin problems. In India, it’s a popular digestive tonic and is a staple in many homes. 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. Combined with milk thistle, I have found it to be excellent at clearing toxins from the skin, making it one of the best remedies for acne and psoriasis. Because it is a diuretic, (a plant that makes you pee!) it 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 is also excellent for removing congestion from the uterus that can lead to blood clots, heavy periods and menstrual cramping.
Want to explore the topic of liver health further? Herbs for liver health is my full colour pocket guide to the best herbs for liver health and how to use them in your daily life. It contains monographs of ten classic liver herbs commonly used by herbalists, with instructions on how to use them in everyday life. This handy pocket reference guide also includes which foods best support optimal liver health, along with step by step instructions for carrying out a gentle, yet effective liver flush at home. It is an ideal reference guide for students of herbal medicine, healthcare practitioners as well as the budding home herbalist.
Also watch out for an upcoming interactive online training course for herbal practitioners and students on Teachable very soon…
Watch and listen:
Click here to watch a summary of this blog post in video format.
- How to use Schisandra for the liver
- How to use dandelion greens for a healthy liver
- The spring cleanse; How to use herbs to support the body’s detoxification process
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
- Foundations of Health – Healing with Herbs & Foods by Christopher Hobbs