Loving Your Liver in Spring
Every Spring, as the weather warms up, I get ready for my annual detox. I always focus on liver supportive herbs, which I consume for 4-6 weeks. I also make some changes to my diet and incorporate Contrast Hydrotherapy showers to aid the process.
It takes a couple weeks before I feel the full effects of the herbs, optimizing my digestion and lightening up my system in general.
A Chinese Medicine Perspective
Early on in my journey with herbal medicine, I studied the Traditional Chinese approach to health. This is where I first learned of the concept of ‘seasonal wellness’ and began to incorporate it into my life. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Spring season corresponds with the elemental phase of wood, and the liver-gall bladder organ pair. TheClassic of Sagely Benefits says that the yearly seasonal cycle begins with the activation of the liver organ, as life begins to stir in the Spring.
In the Taoist medical classic Huang di
Neijing, the Spring season is described as a time of effusion and expansion. It is the phase of the year when the old is replaced with the new, and the energy gone into hiding in winter spreads out and gives birth to new life. The Yellow Emperor’s physician recommends that we ‘rise early and walk through the courtyard in long strides, dishevel the hair, wear loose cloths and stretch out the body so that the mind can re-orient itself to life.’
In the practice of TCM, the liver is responsible for the coursing and draining of energy (Qi), blood and digestive fluids. The liver’s job is to maintain a smooth and easy flow of vital fluids and energy, but is subject to stagnation, agitation and restlessness when out of balance. Since the winter is so confining and we are not able to move around as freely as we would like, the health of the liver is best addressed in the Spring season. Working with liver enhancing herbs in the Spring, helps our body overcome the stagnation and blockage brought on by winter, which can have a depressive effect on our spirit.
The Medical Perspective
In Western medicine, the liver has a highly complex set of tasks that it performs, but two of its most vital jobs are energy metabolism and detoxification. The liver liberates energy from food to become the building blocks of new material, while safely transforming all of the old or harmful material moving through our system. The liver is a giant processor, filtering our blood at an astonishing rate of 1-2 litres per minute.
The liver harnesses and stores energy from protein, fat and carbohydrates, and is also responsible for the emulsification of dietary fats. For this reason, liver disease is linked to common metabolic disorders, which includes - insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, dyslipidemia, and cardiovascular disease.
The liver is the most important organ of detoxification in the body, as it neutralizes harmful substances so that they can be safely excreted from the body without doing any damage along the way. What that means is the liver is an antioxidant powerhouse and plays a key role in preventing oxidative damage that could otherwise lead to chronic systemic inflammation and age-related disease.
The liver has three phases of detoxification in which hormones, metabolites, medications and toxic chemicals are neutralized and excreted. The third and final phase of liver detoxification involves the production and release of bile fluid though the gall bladder. Bile fluid dissolves dietary fat and also acts as a carrier for neutralized toxins into the intestinal tract, where it stimulates bowel movement and elimination of waste. Poor dietary choices can cause the bile fluid to thicken and congeal into stones, impeding the digestion, elimination and detoxification of fatty substances.
Detoxing in a Toxic World
These days medical doctors love to bash the detox industry, claiming that ‘our bodies detoxify just fine on their own’ which I feel is a very misleading statement. In the real world, where processed food and chemical toxics abound, the average person’s liver is under stress all the time.
Like any other organ, the liver is subject to aging and disease, which is now occurring at epidemic rates in westernized countries like Canada. The aging liver can lose upwards of 50% of its capacity to neutralize free radicals, metabolize drugs and detoxify damaging substances over time. But it is not just time alone that can age the liver. A hyper-caloric diet, sleep loss, lack of exercise, alcohol, popping NSAIDs and statins, can all age the liver prematurely. Then there is the invisible elephant in the room – chronic, daily low-level exposure to multiple hazardous chemicals.
Of the 80,000 plus chemicals registered for use in the United States, there are several classes of chemicals which interfere with our hormones, and they are called endocrine disrupting chemicalsor EDCs. EDCs can bind with receptors in the liver that are directly involved in fat metabolism and increase fat storage and the number of fat cells in the body. EDCs have been implicated in the rising tide of obesity and fatty liver disease, and these chemicals are now referred to as ‘obesogens’.
The most sensitive time for exposure to obesogens is during pregnancy and early childhood, when the body’s weight control mechanisms are still being developed. Obesogen chemicals are found in cigarette smoke, PVC piping, flame retardants in carpets and furnishings, plasticizers like BPA and phthalates found in almost all consumer products, some pesticides, and older generation pollutants that persist in the environment for decades and which concentrate in conventionally raised animal foods (PCB, DDT).
A New Generation of Liver Disease
Over the last 20 years there has been a 5-fold increase in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, predominantly affecting young adults between the ages of 18 and 39. Here in Canada, 25% of the population, or one in four people, are diagnosed with NAFLD. It is currently the number one liver disease in our country and is reaching epidemic levels.
Similarly, the number of gall stones resulting in gall bladder surgery in Canadian children under the age of 18, has risen by 62% in the last 15 years. London based pediatric surgeon, Dr. Sarah Jones is seeing gall stones in children as young as 8 years old.
These are diseases that have always been associated with aging and elderly populations. Gall stones and fatty liver are the result of hyper-caloric diets which result in weight gain, or hypo-caloric diets which result in rapid weight loss. Now medical researchers are adding obesogens to the list of risk factors.
Why This Matters
While there is a lot of well warranted criticism of the detox industry currently, that does not change the facts on the ground. Liver disease in on the rise in young people. Our diet, lifestyle and exposure to chemicals is leading to epidemic levels of metabolic disease, chronic inflammation and cancer, all of which are mitigated through liver metabolism and detoxification. According to disease statistics our livers are not detoxing just fine on their own.
The one hand states that obesogen chemicals are harming our children, while the other hand says the levels of individual chemicals in our blood is miniscule – like a drop in the ocean. So what’s the truth? So far we don’t have any data on what happens when humans are exposed to multiple chemicals at low levels over many years. .
As a herbalist, I live in a state of constant irony because there is a plethora of safe, non-toxic herbs available which enhance liver detoxification, promote liver antioxidant processes, stimulate bile flow and improve the digestion and metabolism of dietary fats. They literally address every modern woe afflicting our livers. Herbs like Milk Thistle, Turmeric and Dandelion root, alone are not a panacea, they do need to be combined with lifestyle changes. But in this era of toxicity where our livers are besieged by low quality fats and industrial chemicals, they sure can lend a helping hand.