Think of the liver as a recycling center. As the blood moves through the intricate network of cells that make up the liver, it is carefully examined. Metabolic by-products, hormones, cholesterol, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, bacteria, viral particles, and all the chemical detritus of living that are in the blood are judged: some are allowed to stay, others dismantled for recycling, and some tagged for removal.
The liver stores very little. It produces bile, which is stored in the gall bladder. With the kidneys, it creates vitamins A and D, and stores those fat soluble products. And, of course, the liver caches unused energy from food in the form of sugar.
Chemicals, however, do not build up in the liver, despite what you may have read. The liver sends unneeded water-soluble chemicals, such as ammonia, to the kidneys to be excreted. (To get a sense of how quickly this happens, eat some asparagus, which contains a harmful natural chemical, and notice the smell of your urine, and how quickly you have to "go.") The liver incarcerates oil-soluble chemicals by locking them up in fat cells, or sending them to be excreted in breast milk, ejaculations, ovulations, and tears. (Chemicals are not excreted by sweating.)
The liver can be damaged. Alcohol can kill liver cells. Viruses, especially hepatitis viruses, can destroy liver cells. And cancer can take over the liver and quickly render it dysfunctional.
But the liver is amazingly regenerative. Cellular turnover is quite fast. Every cell in a healthy liver is replaced every forty days. Only substances that can keep up with the ever-changing liver are preserved (such as vitamins and sugars); chemical toxins are made homeless.
To regain and maintain good liver health is reasonably easy if the liver is not too badly damaged. I follow these guidelines to nourish and protect my liver:
Avoid liver cleanses. Herbal and other products and regimes which claim to cleanse the liver can damage and destroy cells. The liver cannot be dirty; and it does not need to be cleansed.
Eat well and regularly. Fasting reduces liver efficiency quickly.
Eat cooked food. Raw food may contain bacterial, viral, and enzymatic substances that create more work for, and may even cause an infection in, the liver. Fruits and vegetables need to be well cooked; steaming may not be enough to kill pathogens.
Eat enough fat. But not vegetable oils, which can cause inflammation and increase chemical sensitivities and auto-immune problems. Instead, I use olive oil, butter, and full-fat dairy products. I believe that diets containing 30-35% non-vegetable fats promote both liver and heart health. An article in Science News, May 28, 2005, observes: "In the absence dietary fat [there is] a marked decline in the metabolism of glucose, fatty acids, and cholesterol."
Avoid ingesting chemicals. Remember that chemicals are stored in fat and excreted in milk, eggs, and sperm. To avoid chemicals in your food, focus your organic expenditures on organic butter, oil, cheese, full-fat milk, eggs, meat, nuts, seeds, beans, and grains. The amount of agricultural chemicals in one pound of non-organic butter is equivalent to eating non-organic produce for ten years. With the exception of apricots, cherries, peaches, strawberries, melons, cucumbers, green beans, and bell peppers - the most heavily "dosed" produce - I often buy locally-grown non-organic produce since the cost is usually far less.
Get angry. The liver is the storehouse of unexpressed rage. And, yes, we are all angry about "life as it is" as one of my teachers puts it. My mentor, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, favored a Manhattan phone book and a rubber radiator hose as a way to "wake up and work out" anger. A rolled-up newspaper and a cushion, a tennis racket and a bed, or even boxing gloves and a "heavy bag" will also work. Don't wait until you are angry. Make it a part of your routine, just like brushing your teeth. Set aside at least thirty minutes a week to bring your anger to the surface. You will be shocked at the rapid benefits this brings your liver and your health.
Avoid essential oils. Even natural essential oils can impair liver function. Look for them hidden in natural and organic products such as soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash, skin lotions, deodorants and antiperspirants, and candles. And avoid antibacterial soaps, too.
Use herbs that nourish the liver. Simple remedies such as dandelion, yellow dock, chicory, milk thistle, and nettle aid the liver and are safe to use. But many herbal remedies, especially those taken in capsules, are hard on the liver and need to be avoided or used with great care and caution when liver function is not strong.
Avoid herbs that are rich in alkaloids and other natural chemicals that stress the liver: including golden seal, senna, celandine, chaparral, lobelia, licorice, valerian, rhubarb root, cayenne, and poke root. Some sensitive people may find aromatic herbs such as peppermint, lemon balm, rosemary, thyme, and lavender upsetting to their livers.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is probably the simplest, safest, most effective, and least expensive liver-nourishing herb known. All parts of the plant are medicinal: root, leaves, stalks, and flowers. Tincture of the root is most often used, but root vinegars, flower wine, cooked leaves, and stalk tea may be substituted. The greatest effect comes from eating or taking a dandelion remedy three times a day, but even once a day is useful. For more information on making and taking dandelion remedies, please see my book Healing Wise. The usual dose of the tincture is 10-30 drops diluted in some water and taken before meals. There is no known overdose.
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus and other species) is another common weed widely used to improve liver functioning. The root is generally tinctured and taken in 20-30 drop doses with meals; but the leaves or seeds can be put up in apple cider vinegar, and 2-3 tablespoonfuls taken on salad, cooked greens, or in water. Yellow dock, like dandelion is simple and safe to use. There is no known overdose. It is a highly effective agent for promoting bowel regularity.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) flashes her brilliant blue flowers for months along roadsides here in the northeast. In the fall, we dig her roots to make a liver-strengthening tincture. The dose is usually 20-40 drops three times a day in some water. There is no known overdose. Some folks do drink chicory root tea, but it is very bitter. Roasted chicory roots are used as a coffee substitute; opinion is divided as to whether this preparation still has medicinal qualities.
Milk thistle seed (Psylibum marianum or Carduus marianum) is the most famous liver tonic in the United States. It is widely recommended for anyone dealing with liver problems, whether it be jaundice, hepatitis, or multiple chemical sensitivities. It is not a wild plant, but it is relatively easy to grow from seed, and the seeds are available and not too expensive. A dose of the tincture is 1-2 dropperfuls 2-4 times a day. There is no known overdose.
To tincture seeds that you buy, simply fill a jar one-third full of milk thistle seed. Then fill the jar to the top with 100 proof vodka (no, 80 proof won't work). Shake daily for a week, then sit back and wait for five more weeks. After six or more weeks, your tincture is ready to use. Leave the seeds in the vodka for as long as you wish, even after you start using your tincture.
Milk thistle is most properly thought of as a liver protector. It functions best when taken before the liver encounters alcohol, chemicals, poisons, or other stressors. Those with chemical sensitivities find it helpful to take a large dose of milk thistle seed tincture before venturing into difficult environments.
Nettle, also known as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), is one of my favorite herbal remedies for everyone. I pour a quart of boiling water over an ounce of dried nettle (that's about one full cup) in a canning jar, screw a tight lid on the jar, and let it steep for at least four hours.
The resulting brew, which is dark and rich, nourishes the kidneys and adrenals as well as the liver. Allergic reactions of all kinds, including sensitivities to natural and man-made chemicals, may have as much to do with the adrenals as with the liver. I drink 2-4 cups of nettle infusion daily for optimum health. There is no known overdose.
Look for results from these Wise Woman ways within a month of beginning regular use. No need to use all the herbs mentioned. Consistent use of even one of them, along with anger work and a good diet, can bring results that border on the miraculous.
Herbal medicine is people's medicine. It is here for all of us: simple, safe, and free. You don't have to be an herbalist to understand and use the herbs I have discussed. You can buy or make your own remedies, as you wish. Your children will be delighted to join you in exploring the green blessings that grow all around you.
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