Detox - Love your liver
By Poppy Burr BSc MCPP
The life-sustaining liver, and how it’s considered and treated in health and disease, represents a fundamental difference between conventional and natural medicine.
In modern medicine, disease in the liver is picked up through ‘liver function tests’. These enzymes, tested via the blood, will only be high when there is some degree of liver damage already present.
In other words, you won’t hear your doctor saying “Your liver is looking a little sluggish. Here, take this pill that will help protect it from damage.”
In fact, most pharmaceuticals directly contribute to liver damage. Some are known to affect the liver more than others, including paracetamol, ibuprofen, the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, antidepressants and statins.
The herbalist, on the other hand, is constantly thinking about how to improve liver function in their patients, and we have lots of herbs that do exactly that.
So, why do we place so much importance on the liver?
Liver warning signs
The liver is the largest glandular organ and works tirelessly to remove toxins from the blood, process hormones, digest fat, regulate blood sugar, make important proteins and generally keep us free of ‘dis-ease’.
It therefore has to work quite hard in our modern environments full of stress, refined carbohydrates, alcohol and environmental chemicals.
Some common symptoms of liver dysfunction include tiredness, nausea, increased sensitivity to alcohol or caffeine, intolerance of fatty foods, poor digestion and chronic constipation.
Things like migraines, depression, skin and digestive disease, immunological disorders, chronic allergies and cancer are also seen in holistic medicine as signs of liver trouble.
Anything that is bitter will boost liver function by encouraging the production and flow of bile - a process termed ‘choleresis’.
Gentle choleretic herbs such as dandelion root, artichoke leaf and barberry bark therefore act as general digestive tonics, helping to prevent gallstones and encourage healthy bowel movements.
Hepato-protective herbs such as milk thistle and Bupleurum falcatum will support the liver’s natural detoxification processes and protect it from damage. Bupleurum has been shown to prevent liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis (1), and milk thistle can protect the liver even during chemotherapy treatment (2).
‘Depuratives’ work on the liver and lymphatic system and include herbs such as burdock, yellow dock and Oregon grape. These are given when liver dysfunction is contributing to skin problems like eczema or psoriasis.
A final class of liver herbs are those which specifically boost phase II detoxification pathways, helping the liver process its daily burden of toxins - these are rosemary, turmeric, green tea and garlic.
Foods for liver health
For liver-loving foods, eat dark green leaves along with Brassica veggies like broccoli, watercress, cauliflower and cabbage. These contain compounds called glucosinolates that promote detoxification and fight cancer and heart disease (3).
Sour foods like lemon juice and apple cider vinegar also cleanse the liver and support digestion by increasing digestive juices.
By slowly incorporating these habits into your daily routine, you’ll quickly notice benefits to your health in terms of energy, mood, sleep and digestion.
Go on, give your liver some love – it may well be the single most important thing you can do for your health this year.
- Oka H et al. (1995) Prospective study of chemoprevention of hepatocellular carcinoma with Sho-saiko-to (TJ-9). Cancer 76(5):743-9.
- Ladas, EJ et al. (2010) A randomized, controlled, double-blind, pilot study of milk thistle for the treatment of hepatotoxicity in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Cancer 116(2): 506–513.
- Johnson, I. (2002) Glucosinolates in the human diet. Bioavailability and implications for health. Phytochemistry Reviews 1:183.