During the fall and winter months when the days are shorter, we tend to stay indoors and be more sedentary. Our bodies begin to build up layers of insulating fatty tissue to protect us from the cold. When spring arrives, a shift occurs and our natural tendency is to burn off the excess fat and lighten up as we go through a cleansing process.
When we accumulate fat, we also tend to amass toxins. Increasing our activity level and burning off fat in the spring helps us to eliminate some of that toxic burden. This natural cleansing process that occurs in the spring is essential to maintenance of long-term health. When toxins accumulate in our body’s tissues and fluids, it will remove them via our circulatory system (blood and lymph), as well as our eliminatory organs and systems (kidneys, colon, skin, and lungs). The key organ that is central to the entire detox process is our liver.
The liver is one of the most complex and diverse organs in our body. Directly or indirectly it is involved in virtually every physiological process. This organ is so important that it gets first choice to absorb nutrients from the blood flowing from our digestive tract – even before our brain!
Some of the processes performed by the liver include:
- digestion and metabolism of fats;
- conversion of nutrients into forms that can be utilized by the rest of our body;
- synthesizing proteins that carry nutrients in body fluids;
- metabolism of carbohydrates and maintenance of blood sugar levels;
- synthesizing cholesterol, an essential component of membranes and necessary for the manufacturing of all steroids;
- maintenance of blood fluid volume;
- removing excess hormones from the blood;
- destroying worn-out red blood cells;
- manufacturing proteins necessary for blood clotting;
- filtering the blood.
Our liver also contains large populations of immune cells and is a major site of immune activity.
The Liver’s Role in Detoxification
When it comes to detoxification, the liver has many important functions:
- it manufactures lipoproteins which help to transport fat-soluble toxins that don’t dissolve well in water (i.e. in our blood and lymph);
- breaks toxins down into their less toxic components;
- converts some fat-soluble toxins into water soluble molecules that can more easily be eliminated in urine and to some degree in sweat;
- dissolves fat-soluble toxins (that cannot be converted) to a water-soluble form in bile, and secretes them into the digestive tract so that they can be eliminated in feces.
In addition, bile produced by the liver has a natural laxative effect that facilitates elimination of toxins and waste products via the colon.
Maintaining low levels of tissue toxicity is essential to health, and a liver performing at its best is essential for this. But excessive stress involving any of the abovementioned processes will have a negative effect on all of the liver’s functions, including detoxification. It is therefore important that we make diet and lifestyle choices that support the health of our liver.
Liver Stressors to Avoid
For improved liver health, reduce consumption of bad fats and oils (trans fats/oils, rancid fats/oils, and saturated animal fats). Also try to avoid high glycemic-load foods (sweets, white flour products, whole grain flours that are not stone ground, polished grains, puffed grains, excessively sweet fruit and vegetable juices, and dried fruits), harmful hormones (found in water and food stored in plastic, animal agriculture, pesticides and herbicides, steroid drugs, oral contraceptives, and synthetic HRT). Also hard on the liver are prescription medications, recreational drugs, agricultural chemicals, and other sources of toxins in cosmetics, cleaning products, home furnishings, building materials, and chemicals used in the workplace.
I also recommend avoidance of the high protein / low carb diets that have been in vogue over the last decade. In general, it is best to consume fresh, whole, unprocessed natural foods, and avoid consumption of processed, denatured food products like convenience foods and drinks, and dairy and meat imitation products.”
Fruits and vegetables are key to liver health. Of special importance are lemons and green leafy vegetables, particularly those that tend to be bitter such as rapini, mustard greens, Belgian endive, escarole, dandelion leaves, and chicory leaves. (North Americans have an aversion to bitter flavours, so bitters are generally lacking in our diet. Yet bitterness has a valuable medicinal effect on organs.)
Also important are quality essential fatty acids, especially omega-3; in my opinion, the best source is flax seed oil. Only use brands that are organically grown and manufactured using a process that minimizes exposure to heat, light, and oxygen. Extra virgin olive oil, though not a source of omega-3, is also beneficial for the liver.
I recommend eating an organic diet to reduce exposure to agricultural chemicals. And from a lifestyle perspective, try to be as active as possible, including regular aerobic exercise (at least three times per week).
Good quality organic fruit and vegetable juices, fresh squeezed when possible, and organic dried fruits are healthy sources of important nutrients, but they should be consumed in small quantities; and it’s a good idea to drink water afterwards to dilute the concentration of sugar in the digestive system. This will slow down the absorption of sugar a little.
In terms of nutrients, ensuring adequate intake of all nutrients is important for the health of our liver, just like any other organ. Of particular importance for liver function are the antioxidants, as well as vitamins B12, folic acid and K, and the minerals selenium, zinc, copper, and manganese.
Liver Loving Herbs
There are many herbs that can help improve liver function and assist this organ’s role in detoxification. In particular, there are three therapeutic categories of herbs that should be included in formulations intended for this purpose.
Cholagogues: These are herbs that increase secretion of bile by the liver. This produces a mild laxative effect, thereby improving elimination via the colon, and also improves the digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients. Cholagogue herbs have a cleansing and decongesting effect on the liver and improve overall liver function. They also improve elimination of fat-soluble waste products and toxins.
Some of the better cholagogue herbs include yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), celery seed (Apium graveolens), burdock root (Arctium spp.), wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium), white sagebrush herb (Artemisia ludoviciana), centaury herb (Centaurea erythraea), turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa), yellow gentian root (Gentiana lutea), elecampane root (Inula helenium), white horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), spearmint herb (Mentha spicata), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), and ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale).
Bitter herbs: are also important for liver function. Although all bitter herbs are cholagogue, not all cholagogue herbs are bitter. When we create a formulation to support liver function, it should be moderately bitter. Therefore, in choosing cholagogue herbs we should include at least one herb that is a strong bitter or two herbs that are moderately bitter. We don’t want all of our herbs to be moderately to strongly bitter because it will tend to make the formulation too stimulating for the liver, gallbladder, and digestive system as a whole, and also unpalatable.
I have included many of the important bitter herbs among the cholagogues listed above. Herbs that are strongly bitter include wormwood, white sagebrush, centaury, yellow gentian, and white horehound. Those that are moderately bitter include yarrow, celery, elecampane and yellow dock. Burdock, turmeric, and dandelion are mildly bitter.
Liver Protective Herbs: Another therapeutic category of herbs important for the liver is the hepatoprotectives. These herbs contain antioxidant constituents that have a strong affinity for the liver. They protect it from the harmful effects of toxins, help to prevent scar tissue formation (sclerosis), and have an overall healing effect on the liver. Some of the better antihepatotoxic herbs include garlic bulb (Allium sativum), celery seed, turmeric rhizome, rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalis), milk thistle seed, and ginger rhizome. Burdock, elecampane, and dandelion are also mildly antihepatotoxic, while garlic and rosemary are mildly cholagogue.
Carminatives: A fourth category of herbs are the carminatives – aromatic herbs that help improve general digestion, reduce gas and bloating, and reduce spasms and cramping in the digestive tract. They also have a balancing effect on the liver and digestive tract when combined with bitters. It is therefore best, when creating a formulation with some degree of bitterness, to include one or two carminative herbs in the formulation. Of the herbs mentioned above, carminatives include yarrow, garlic, celery, wormwood, white sagebrush, turmeric, elecampane, peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, and ginger.
Finally, a good liver formulation requires at least one pungent or heating herb to help improve blood flow to this organ. Of the herbs indicated above, elecampane and rosemary are mildly heating; garlic and ginger are moderately heating. We don’t want our formulation to be too hot. It is best to include one of the mildly heating herbs at a proportion of 20-30%, one of the moderately heating herbs at 10-15%, or a combination of one mildly heating herb at 10-15% with one moderately heating herb at 5-10%. A good liver formulation will usually contain four or five herbs.
Creating and Using a Liver-Loving Formula
It is best if all of the herbs are certified organically grown or wild harvested. When using wild harvested herbs it is important that they come from a reputable source that harvests them in an ecologically sustainable manner. Only common herbs should be wild harvested.
Your formulation can be used as an infusion. In this case, the total amount of all herbs collectively per dose should be about two teaspoons, steeped in 250-300 ml (8 to10 ounces) of water. Steep them in a covered mug or pot for 15 to 20 minutes then strain and drink.
My preference is to use tinctures that have been manufactured using fresh herbs. In this case, the total amount of your formulation per dose should be a bit more than the recommended dose for any of the herbs individually. The dose will depend on the potency. I usually use 1:5 tinctures. In this case the dose is 4 to 6 droppers or 3 to 4.5 ml. Add the tincture to 25 – 30 ml (one ounce) of water.
When using herbs in tincture form it is important that they are held in the mouth for a bit before swallowing. This is particularly important for bitter herbs. They are significantly less potent if we don’t taste their bitterness. When using teas, this isn’t as important because it is impossible not to taste the bitterness with the larger volume of liquid that we are drinking.
A liver formulation should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach, approximately 10 to 20 minutes before meals. For most people it is best to build up the dose gradually over a few weeks. Begin by using half of the recommended dose, and add a bit more each week. Regardless of the unit dose, the herbs must be taken three times per day as indicated above.
Caution: The recommendations given here are completely safe for most people. However, they are not recommended for pregnant or nursing women, children under seven, or seniors over 70, anyone taking medications, with gallstones, or who has a serious liver illness. Anyone in these categories should consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who has appropriate education and experience to work with herbs before using liver herbs. Anyone who follows these directions and experiences any unusual symptoms or an aggravation or lack of improvement in existing symptoms should stop taking the herbs and consult with a practitioner. These herbs are safe and effective when used correctly, but every case is unique and sometimes things may be more complex than they appear to be.
Our 21st century world and lifestyle puts a lot of stress on our liver. A good liver herb formulation, taken for a couple of months, once a year, is a good policy to help maintain our overall health. Spring is an excellent time of year to do this. Liver formulations will also help with many other health problems, especially relating to digestion and chronic inflammatory conditions. However, it is always easier to prevent illness than to treat it after the fact.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca or check out his blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.ca
Join Living Earth School for their spring and summer seminars:
April 14: TREE SPIRIT MEDICINE: White Pine with Monika Ghent. 10 am – 5 pm;
May 26: MAKING SUN CARE PRODUCTS with Monika Ghent. 10 am – 5 pm;
July 14: DREAM JOURNEYING TO THE PLANT PEOPLE with Monika Ghent; 10 am – 5 pm.
Ongoing: HERBAL FIELD STUDIES WORKSHOPS with Michael Vertolli. Learn how to identify, harvest and use herbs that grow wild in Ontario. Online Introductory Lecture and outdoor field workshops, April to October. See advertisement in Vitality magazine on page 87.