For many people, as the air cools, the sadness of saying goodbye to the pleasant warm weather and long sunny days of summer is tempered by looking forward to the coming holiday seasons. This can mean festive gatherings, the celebration of long held traditions both through our families and our churches, and almost always, indulgences in rich food and beverages.
Today I’d like to bring the spotlight to our liver, the unsung hero that churns away doing its job, year after year, holiday season after holiday season. For those of us who do not have liver disease, we may not think about it much. Yet the liver is a powerhouse organ, in charge of a multitude of life-sustaining, necessary functions. And our liver’s health shows up not only in how we feel physically, but also emotionally. Let’s see what steps we can take to optimize our liver health as we head in to the time of year our liver works overtime!
What does the liver do?
The liver lives in the upper right corner of our belly, just under the protection of the rib cage. At 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, it weighs in as the second largest organ in our body (second only to the skin!). It is one of the most complex organs in our body. It is the first-pass filter for everything we put in our mouth. When food, drinks, and drugs (prescription or otherwise) come through our digestive system, the blood flow first delivers everything to the liver. Here it detoxes as much as possible before the nutrients are sent on to the rest of the body.
The liver is an important production center, too. It makes the substances that are needed to clot our blood, to transport proteins from place to place in the body, and even unpacks and repackages cholesterol before sending it out into the bloodstream. Certain substances, like thyroid hormone and Vitamin D, are not activated until the liver processes them. It is also a sort of warehouse, storing essential vitamins and other nutrients, releasing them when called upon.
Last but not least, the liver produces bile, which acts to digest fat. Many people may be familiar with the gallbladder, the small sack that lives tucked under the liver. It is the storage facility for bile, releasing it into the intestines when called upon every time we eat food with fat in it. Bile also serves the purpose of eliminating waste products; it is what turns our stools brown!
What diseases can occur in the liver?
Clearly our liver is important. Knowing the liver’s function helps us understand how it can become diseased. If the liver is exposed to toxins over and over, it responds in an interesting way. It begins to make fatty deposits in all of its cells, a state we call “fatty liver.” This same endpoint occurs whether the toxin is alcohol, unhealthy foods, certain prescription or other drugs (Tylenol is a big culprit), or infection by the viruses Hepatitis A, B, or C. The liver does have the remarkable ability to heal itself, unlike many other organs; if a person stops eating, drinking, or taking these things it can heal. This principle is played out in the tragic Greek myth of Prometheus, who is tied to a rock as punishment, his liver pecked at by an eagle every day, only to regenerate overnight. However, if the insulting toxins are continued for many years, eventually the liver reaches a point called fibrosis, a type of scarring. Eventually this can transform into cirrhosis. In cirrhosis, the liver is like a dried up old sponge, where blood cannot flow through easily and all liver functions are compromised.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, our liver energetically is associated with the smooth flow and distribution of Qi (pronounced “chi”). If our liver is healthy, we are able to move through our lives with clear vision, effective plans, and the energy to carry them out. Like a General in the military, the liver oversees decisions, direction, and our path through the changing circumstances in our lives. When the liver is unhealthy, energetically or physically, we have difficulties with these functions. We can become indecisive and unsure about our way. The liver energy can also become explosive and excessive. In fact, the phenomenon of rage, “seeing red,” is from an unhealthy blocked movement of Qi through our liver. In Chinese medicine, an unhealthy liver also shows up in all muscle symptoms, eye symptoms, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and substance abuse. Addictions (even workaholism and exercise addiction), control issues, and extreme competitiveness come from an imbalance of liver Qi.
How can we protect, nourish, and detox our liver?
• Minimize alcohol intake. While alcohol can feel like it quenches our irritation and frustration in the short term, in the long term it only adds fuel to the fire. If the liver spends too much time detoxing alcohol or other substances, it is unable to break down stress hormones like cortisol. Higher levels of stress hormones for longer periods than normal lead to increasing anxiety and anger.
• Minimize unhealthy fats and sugar. Eat less red meat and meat fat in general. Try not to eat any trans fats, like that found in margarine and processed foods (foods that come prepackaged and ready-to-eat). The movie Super Size Me is an excellent documentary available on Netflix that will change the way you view fast food, and what it does to your liver, forever. Sugar is also a culprit, so think again when reaching for that second Halloween candy or Christmas cookie.
• Decrease exposure to chemicals and pesticides. Eating organic is not a gimmick, but can be more expensive. Check out the Dirty Dozen list for the produce that contains the highest concentration of pesticides to try to buy organic, and the Clean Fifteen list for those types of produce that are safest to buy conventional.
• Decrease use of plastics. Do not microwave or heat anything in plastic: it is absorbed into your food. Do not drink out of water bottles that have been heated in any way, such as sitting in a hot car or cases that have sat in the sun.
• Exercise more. Not only does exercise really get the blood flowing through the liver, it also kicks off all kinds of anti-inflammatory reactions in your body. From a Chinese medicine perspective, moving your muscles moves stagnant Qi, releasing pent-up anger and frustration. Your muscles like to move and stretch, and need to do so for our overall health.
• Milk thistle is an herb that has been used for centuries as a liver protectant and healer. It has few side effects, but talk to your health care provider to see if this is right for you.
• Get screened. The CDC recommends all adults born between 1945 and 1965, as well as those who have ever used injectable drugs, be screened for Hepatitis C. If you do have Hepatitis C, make sure you have received vaccinations for Hepatitis A and B.
Cheers to a healthy and happy upcoming holiday season, as we all appreciate and work to protect our hardworking livers!