Are you joining us in Dry July?
- The liver is a hard-working organ playing important roles in metabolism and detoxification
- Signs of poor liver function can range from digestive problems to angry outbursts to skin break outs.
- You can support your liver with digestion by taking herbs that taste bitter such as Andrographis, Mugwort and Gentian.
- To assist the liver to metabolise fats consider herbs that stimulate bile flow such as Dandelion root.
- Enhance detoxification with Schisandra
- Support and protect liver cells from damage with Milk thistle
If you’ve chosen to participate in Dry July this year, congratulations! What a great step towards better health and wellbeing. We all know that alcohol is damaging to our health, so taking some time to avoid it completely has positive health benefits that can be seen and felt all around the body and particularly in the mind. When we think about alcohol, we often associate it with the liver. This is because it is our liver that is responsible for breaking down the alcohol so that it can be safely removed from our bodies.
By Tamara Welsh, Happy Herbalist
The Remarkable Liver
Our liver is the metabolic powerhouse of the body. It is responsible for bile production and secretion to the gall bladder for storage. Much of its work also involves the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. All of this as well as playing a major role in detoxification! We can quickly see, that a well-functioning liver is vital to good health.
Signs of poor liver function include bad breath, nausea, fat intolerance, anger, constipation, skin problems and hormonal imbalances, just to name a few. This may seem like a wide range of unrelated symptoms and that’s because the liver plays a huge and varied role in our health. It helps to remember that the liver is not only responsible for breaking down toxins such as drugs and alcohol, but also for breaking down hormones, antibodies and old blood cells.
Giving your liver a break from detoxifying alcohol during the month of July is a great start to supporting a very busy and important organ. In fact, even if you’re not participating in Dry July, focusing on supporting the liver can have a wonderful impact on health and wellbeing. Luckily, herbal medicine really shines when it comes to supporting the powerhouse that is the liver!
It All Starts in the Mouth
Stimulating the bitter receptors in the mouth is where our digestion starts. Unfortunately, the bitter taste has been lost in much of our Western cuisine as we opt for sweeter tasting foods. Bitterness is important because it begins the digestive cascade promoting salivation in the mouth, hydrochloric acid in the stomach, pancreatic enzymes and the flow of stored bile from the gallbladder and liver. Taking bitter herbs prior to meals, can really help with digestion and support the liver in its role in breaking down macronutrients. Consider herbs that taste bitter such as Andrographis, Dandelion root, Gentian or Mugwort and aim to take them 10-20 minutes prior to eating your main meals. You can also get a similar effect by chewing on some bitter greens such as Dandelion greens, chicory or rocket before eating your main meal.
Consider Herbs with Choleretic and Cholagogue Actions
These terms describe the action of a substance that increases the release of stored bile from the gallbladder (=cholagogue) and a substance that increases the production of bile by the liver (=choleretic). These actions are important when dealing with liver insufficiency i.e. a slow or poor functioning liver. Bile is the solution produced and secreted by the liver that helps with the digestion of fats. In essence, it helps to break down fats and stop them from rejoining each other (think of oil of the surface of water). This allows for greater surface area so that our pancreatic enzymes can do their work and the fat molecules can be absorbed. Without bile, much of the fat we eat is excreted in the faeces. Thus, common symptoms of liver (or gallbladder) insufficiency are stools that are pale in colour, foul smelling, floating and contain excess fats. Focusing on herbs with these actions can help to improve these symptoms. I recommend starting low and slow with herbs for the liver using a mildly stimulating herb such as Dandelion root.
Dandelion root has both choleretic and cholagogue actions. It is a bitter tonic and due to its stimulation on digestion can have a mild laxative effect. Dandelion root can be consumed as a tea or when brewed with milk makes a great coffee alternative. Dandelion root has been used traditionally for liver and gallbladder disorders such as inflammation of the gallbladder, gallstones, jaundice, dyspepsia with constipation and chronic skin conditions.
The metabolism of harmful substances in the body involves reactions in the liver by the actions of enzymes. There are two ‘phases’ by which substances are detoxified and so in order to enhance this process both phase I and phase II reactions need to be stimulated.
Schisandra is an herb that has traditionally been used to detoxify alcohol. It is thought to do this by its ability to enhance phase I/II hepatic metabolism. It is the fruit (berry) of Schisandra that is used therapeutically in this way and like other berries, Schisandra berries are high in antioxidants and so have a protective effect.
Other herbs with the ability to enhance liver detoxification include green tea, garlic, turmeric and rosemary. Use these liberally in your diet over the course of Dry July (and beyond!) to support the liver in its detoxification work.
Regeneration & Renewal
You may have heard that the liver can repair itself. This unique capacity to repair itself means that if the liver is damaged it can regrow. That said, the liver isn’t invincible and can be damaged beyond repair by certain diseases such as hepatitis, cancer and fatty liver disease or by damage from drugs and toxins. Luckily, there are a few herbs known for their hepatoprotective and hepato-trophorestorative actions.
Hepatoprotective herbs protect liver cells against toxic damage. They include the liver loving herb, milk thistle as well as herbs such as Dong quai and Schisandra. Milk thistle is a particularly useful and well-known herb when it comes to supporting the liver, preventing further damage and even restoring health to a damaged liver. Clinically, Milk thistle has demonstrated the ability to lower elevated liver enzymes in alcohol-related liver disorders and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is known as a hepato-trophorestorative which simply means it restores the integrity of liver tissue. In experimental models, it has been shown to have anticarcinogenic activity.
I hope you have found this series on herbs to support mental health helpful! Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or suggestions on what you’d like me to cover.
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