Updated: Feb 28, 2018
One of the running jokes in clinic when I was training to be a herbalist was - ‘if you don’t know what to do with a patient, just give them liver herbs’...
Although it may seem flippant, we were only half-joking - and there is no better time to pay attention to the health of our livers than after a merry season of overindulgence.
The liver is the largest glandular organ in the body and works round the clock to remove toxins from the blood, process hormones, digest fat, regulate blood sugar, make important proteins and generally keep us free of ‘dis-ease’.
Our livers therefore have to work quite hard in our modern environments full of stress, refined carbohydrates, alcohol and environmental chemicals, such as those found in plastics, cosmetics, on non-organic foods, in water and even in the air we breathe.
When the liver is working well, bile is released into the intestines and helps digest and assimilate nutrients, kill off bad bacteria and stimulate peristalsis or movement in the colon.
When the liver is overworked, bile can thicken and become blocked up, causing stones to develop in the liver and gallbladder. That’s right - stones in the liver! These can develop over many years and are difficult to diagnose.
Liver warning signs
Signs and symptoms of liver stones and poor liver function may go unnoticed as the liver is very good at adapting to its heavy load. Others are unspecific, often attributed to other causes and treated with multiple medications that only add to the load on the liver. Some of these are:
Indigestion, bloating loss of appetite
Allergies, sinusitis, chronic runny nose
Headaches or migraines
Depression, low energy and ‘brain fog’
PMS, painful or irregular periods, infertility and loss of libido
Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
Acne, eczema, psoriasis and other skin conditions
Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes
Intolerance to cold and poor circulation
Clay-coloured stools with constipation or diarrhoea
A Liver-loving lifestyle
So what can you do about it? There are a few important steps to improving liver function that, with a bit of willpower, are easy to implement.
First of all, reduce or avoid alcohol, sugar, refined, processed and fried foods, and excessive amounts of protein. All these put greater stress on the digestive capacity of the liver.
Secondly, try not to overeat, and leave adequate space in between meals. Try to eat at regular mealtimes and not too late in the evening, to allow digestion to complete before sleep.
Thirdly, don’t ignore a poor sleep habit. Taking steps to improve your sleep will have a regenerative effect on the liver, and vice versa.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the function of the liver and other digestive organs is intimately linked to our emotional and psychological state. Emotions often associated with the liver are anger, resentment and frustration - practice letting go of these feelings.
Herbs and foods for liver health
Along with simple dietary and lifestyle changes, certain foods and herbs can really help boost liver health.
The Chinese herb Bupleurum falcatum is traditionally used to clear heat and inflammation from the liver and encourage circulation and detoxification. It is particularly effective for hormonal problems like PMS, painful or irregular periods and anxiety arising from a congested liver, and helps prevent liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis.
Milk thistle seed is another great herb for the liver, helping to increase bile and digestive enzyme production as well as promote detoxification and balance blood sugar levels.
Other herbs that help clear the liver and support its function include Dandelion, Burdock and Chicory roots. Source your herbs from the Lagos market, health food shops or your nearest medical herbalist.
As for liver-loving foods, eat dark green leaves for a bitter, liver-boosting kick along with Brassica veggies like broccoli, watercress and cauliflower. These contain compounds called glucosinolates that promote liver detoxification and help fight cancer and heart disease.
Sour foods like lemon juice and apple cider vinegar also help cleanse the liver and generally 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 in 2018.