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Herbs for Improved Liver Function

Jean's Greens #68
Jean Argus

Overworked and underappreciated, your liver is as vital for life as your heart. Without it, digestion would be impossible and your body would have no means of eliminating waste products or detoxifying poisons. The liver stores fat soluble vitamins; it produces and stores glycogen, a source of glucose used by the brain and muscles for energy; it digests worn out red cells and some bacteria; it aids in the body's metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals; and it manufactures heparin, an anticoagulant. The average human liver weighs four pounds and is the largest solid organ in the body. A healthy liver is a blessing in every way. A congested or overworked liver leads to fatigue, incomplete digestion, lymph infections, intestinal inflammation, kidney or bladder problems, skin disorders, and other symptoms. A malfunctioning liver leads to death.

It makes sense to make liver health a priority, for when the liver functions at peak efficiency, so does our physical and emotional energy. What are the liver's enemies? Because the body responds to all unnatural substances as though they are toxins, the liver is overworked when exposed to any kind of pollution (automobile exhaust, smog, cigarette smoke, insecticides, herbicides, water contaminates, chlorine, inorganic copper, lead, and other metals), drugs (over-the-counter, prescription, and recreational drugs such as alcohol), artificial flavorings, chemical preservatives, and even white or refines sugars and flours. The list of substances that stress the liver goes on and on. Even physical inactivity is the liver's enemy, for without daily exercise, it is overburdened by the retention of cellular waste.

It's no exaggeration to say that the liver's friends are good food, good water, good air, and good exercise. This simple prescription is unfortunately difficult to carry out in today's world, where an uncontaminated environment is the exception rather than the rule and where most fruits and vegetables come with pesticide residues. But every step you can take toward providing your body with fresh, whole foods and clean air and water is worth pursuing, as is an active exercise program.

Fortunately, Mother Nature offers an abundance of liver supporting herbs that cleanse and heal. In fact, there is an entire class of herbs called Alteratives or Blood Purifiers that benefit this organ. Generally high in vitamins and minerals, they neutralize acidity in the body, aid in assimilating nutrients, and help eliminate metabolic waste products. Examples include burdock root (Arctium lappa), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus and related species), dandelion root and leaf (Taraxacum officinale), Echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea), red clover flower (Trifolium pretense), Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium and related species), goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis), plantain leaf (Plantago species), sassafras root bark (Sassafras officinale), nettles (Urtica diocia), sarsaparilla (Similax officinalia), and chaparral leaf (Larrea tridentata; see our 1995 report on the safety of chaparral).

Alteratives are the herbalist's first choice when any of the following symptoms manifest:

  1. Chronic skin ailments, such as acne, exzema, psoriasis, boils, carbuncles, liver spots, and rashes.
  2. Digestive disturbances such as flatulence, constipation, ulcers, indigestion, and colitis.
  3. Gall bladder problems, such as inability to digest fats and oils, or gallstones.
  4. Emotional disturbances, such as being quick to anger or having hidden anger. Anger is the emotion most associated with the liver.
  5. Chronic debilitating disease such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, rheumatism, or any long term illness.
  6. Hormonal disturbances, including premenstrual syndrome, infertility, heavy periods, and other menstrual difficulties.
  7. Nervous system disorders, for the liver and nervous systems are closely connected. Alternatives are used in the treatment of recurring headaches, including migraine, and chronic nerve disorder.
  8. Kidney disturbances, for the kidneys must rely on the liver for the cleansing of the blood it filters. Alternative herbs are recommended for all urinary tract infections and imbalances.
  9. All problems related directly to the liver, such as jaundice, hepatitis, cirrhosis, and other symptoms of liver impairment.
  10. All drug addictions, including alcoholism.

Most of the alteratives are roots, requiring decoction (slow simmering) when made as a tea. Combine 2 parts raw dandelion root, 1 part burdock root, ½ part Echinacea root, and 1 part Oregon grape root for a simple, basic blend. Use up to one tablespoon of this blend per cup of water, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes; then let stand for a few minutes, strain, and serve. Drink up to 4 cups daily in small amounts, such as ½ cup at a time, throughout the day.

Other liver-friendly herbs are the Bitters, named for their sharp, biting taste. Often aromatic and always a digestive stimulant, these plants are tonics to the gastro-intestinal mucous membranes. Their essential oils, lipophilic substances, cumarins, and bitter elements help balance a diet rich in sweets and fats, and they provide a rich supply of minerals. Bitters are divided into two categories: cholagogues, which increase the flow of bile, and hepatoprotectants, which repair and protect the liver from exposure to toxins. Cholagogues include dandelion root, burdock root, artichoke, turmeric root (Cucurma longa, the familiar spice), and goldenseal root.

Bitters are popular in Europe as pre- and after-dinner digestive tonics. The popular blend Swedish Bitters contains 11 herbs from this category. Here in the U.S., bitters are far less appreciated, but those who take the time to make friends with these pungent herbs are rewarded with improved digestion, energy, and a feeling of well being. A taste of bitter herbs stimulates and increases digestive secretions. For best results sip a tea or tincture just before eating, or chew on the leaf or root of a bitter herb; pills or capsules containing bitters have little effect on digestion, for it is the body's response to the bitter taste that matters.

Any combination of bitter herbs will work. Rosemary Gladstar offers this recipe for a liver cleanse tea. Brew a decoction (simmered tea) from 1 part yellow dock root, 2 parts burdock root, 2 parts dandelion root, 1 part Oregon grape root, 2 parts ginger root, ½ part Echinacea root, and 1 part pau d'arco (Tabebuia impetiginosa). Use up to 1 tablespoon tea per blend per cup of water, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes. Let stand a few minutes, then strain and sip. Drink up to 4 cups daily before meals. Do not sweeten this tea! You want the underworked bitter taste buds on your tongue to respond.

When it comes to liver health, milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) is in a class by itself. A powerful hepatoprotectant, milk thistle seed contains antioxidant flavonoids that protect the liver from free radicals and other toxins. It works so well that clinical trials have proven its ability to reverse many liver disorders including hepatitis and cirrhosis. Milk thistle extracts cause a damaged liver to regenerate, even after damage from poisonous mushrooms and other toxins. Milk thistle seed preparations include teas, tinctures, extracts, and capsules; in Europe, intravenous infusions are used to treat amanita (deathcap) mushroom poisoning.

Hepatitis is a serious illness, and it is treated by several herbal regimens. One of the most successful, proven in clinical trials, is milks thistle seed. Another is treatment with thymus tissue extract. The July 1991 issue of Health Counselor magazine featured an article about Carson B. Burgstiner, M.D., a surgeon who contracted hepatitis B. from an infected patient. After seven years of conventional medical treatment did nothing to improve his health, he discovered a link between the thymus and this debilitating disease. He began taking a thymus tissue extract supplement daily plus 25,000 units of beta carotene and multiple vitamins. Within six weeks, he was completely cured and all tests showed him to be normal. Although no one in the medical profession seems to be interested in Dr. Burgstiner's case, he believes this simple treatment may save the lives and careers of others like him.

A general daily program for a healthy liver includes a simple diet of fresh vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and fresh fruits, especially citrus fruit, cherries, and raw apple juice. In addition, the following liver tonic has been popular for years and is widely used to cleanse and tone the liver.

Liver Flush Recipe: Combine ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, ¾ cup freshly squeezed orange juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 2 to 4 cloves of raw garlic in a blender and mix until frothy. Drink at least once a day (mornings preferred) on an empty stomach, or twice daily (morning and evening). An alternative liver flush can be made from freshly made lemonade made from lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Note: The uses described here are well supported by clinical research but are not intended to replace professional medical advice. Please see a physician or other health professional if you suffer from an illness.