Perhaps because there is no Western orthodox medical treatment for the liver, the liver is, unfortunately, overlooked as the cause of many health problems.

For centuries, however, herbalists have been able to make a big difference in the lives of people suffering from the wide range of problems that can be associated with compromised liver function. These health conditions include poor energy levels; chronic indigestion and malabsorption; itchy rashes and many other skin complaints; elevated cholesterol levels; and menstrual difficulties including painful periods, hormone imbalance and premenstrual syndrome.

Even our emotions can be influenced by the liver. Chronic depression as well as excessive anger can result when the liver is overburdened or working under encumbrance. And nowadays, because we are all exposed to increasing amounts of toxic chemicals in our environment, a happy, healthy liver is essential to survival.

Just as the name liver implies, our very existence is dependent on the hundreds of physiological functions carried out by this vital organ. It processes everything we eat so that the energy from food can be used at the cellular level. At the same time, it diligently carries out the removal of the waste products of metabolism, disposing of toxic and harmful materials, and breaking down chemicals (including hormones) that are no longer needed within the body. It also extracts reusable components and excretes the residue by means of the continuous flow of bile. There is also an immune system component to its work.

How the Liver Cleanses

Deep inside the liver are found "Kuppfer cells" (cells able to eat the bacteria in your body, their primary function is the production of bile)–part of the strategic gut associated lymphatic tissue or "GALT" system. These cells are capable of removing 99 percent (or more) of bacteria from portal venous blood before it passes all the way through the liver sinusoids (small blood vessels). Adequate absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K is assured by sufficient secretion of bile. The gall bladder, which is a much less complex organ, is simply a hollow muscular sack, capable of contracting at mealtimes and forcing into the intestines the considerable amount of bile it has collected in order to complete the digestive process in the intestine.

How can we protect the liver and even help improve its function? Liver protection strategy should begin with careful attention to the food we put into our bodies. Synthetic chemicals pose real problems for the liver. Food additives including preservatives, emulsifiers, colourings and stabilizers play havoc with the delicate operation of liver cells. Similarly chemicals such as lawn herbicides, heavy metals and all the other vast array of toxic man-made substances that are daily being released into our environment present significant problems for this marvellous organ which was not designed to process synthetic chemical substances.

Clearly, a planetary clean-up of chemical pollutants is essential to our survival as a species. On a domestic level, avoidance of toxic lawn and garden chemicals, harsh household cleaners and a careful food selection–no highly processed, fried, fatty foods and sugar–is the first step towards liver restoration. Similarly, excessive alcohol should be avoided. Some pharmaceutical drugs, including antibiotics and some analgesics, are known to be toxic or taxing on the liver.

Help Your Liver–Eat Healthily

On the other hand, foods such as apples, beets, carrots (all organically grown) and lemons are known to be of particular support to this organ. Most people will benefit from a daily glass of freshly extracted vegetable juice containing raw beets, carrots and a squirt of lemon juice.

Treating the liver with medicinal plants is one of the most outstanding chapters in herbal medicine. Modern phytotherapy recognizes the important activity of these liver remedies in decongesting and restoring the liver. Most are "bitters," acting as choleretics–that is, stimulating the production and flow of bile through the liver. This is a good example of the ability of natural remedies to trigger the self-healing process within the body itself. Such bitters as dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale radix), chicory (Chihorium intybus) and vervain (Verbena officinalis) are all gentle choleretics which can be used in the initial stages of liver cleansing. Any of these can safely be taken as a herbal tea, using one teaspoon per cup of boiling water steeped for 10 minutes and drunk three times a day before meals. Herbs can also be taken as tinctures with a dose of two or three millilitres three times daily before meals.

One of the best liver protectants is milk thistle (Carduus marianus). Recent research has demonstrated that this plant is effective in protecting the liver against a number of chemicals including carbon tetrachloride. There is extensive literature demonstrating the anti-hypatoxic effect of this plant which is explained by a "membrane-stabilizing action," probably through antioxidant and radical-scavenging actions. There is also evidence that milk thistle reinforces protein synthesis and accelerates liver cell-regeneration. Milk thistle is also said to prevent cirrhosis in patients with hepatitis C. Hep C patients may also benefit from the use of licorice root (Glycirrhiza glabra) said to lessen liver cell injury, stimulate the immune system and specifically inhibit growth of the hepatitis C virus. Licorice should not be used, however, if there is high blood pressure.

A Better Gall Bladder

When gall bladder disease is also a problem (usually experienced by a dull pain which typically starts over the stomach and heart burn, especially associated with fatty foods), it’s best to remember choleretic remedies which dilute and increase bile flow. One of the best is cumin (Curcuma xanthorrhiza) for treating chronic forms of cholangitis and cholecystitis. (Gall stones should not be treated except by professionals because of the danger of a stone becoming dislodged and impacted in the bile duct where it presents a medical emergency.) However, the same dietary precautions as for liver disease are useful.

Because the liver is so important to our well-being, it’s essential that we think about its health and do everything possible to maintain its optimal function. Medicinal plants used to treat liver problems can make a tremendous contribution to other seemingly unrelated problems as well as improve our emotional stability and our enthusiasm for living.

For more information on cleansing your liver, read the Liver Cleansing Handbook by Rhody Lake, number four in the alive Natural Health Guide series, available at your health food store or through alive books (800-661-0303).

About the Author

Keith Stelling is a herbalist with a holistic approach. He has retired from active practice and resides in Southampton, Ontario.