The liver is not a particularly glamorous organ in our Western view of the body. It’s often associated with unappealing diseases like jaundice, alcoholism and cirrhosis, and fatty liver. And while allopathic medicine has its own ways of dealing with these stigmas, holistic medicine has also jumped on the liver-judging train by subjecting it to a slew of detox regimes. If you think of yourself as healthy these days and haven’t done a liver cleanse, then you’re missing out on some essential maintenance . . . or so it seems.
As with all things related to cleanses, detoxes, and other practices that encourage us to reduce or purify ourselves in some way, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what we’re actually trying to achieve here. Should we be approaching our health practices with the mindset that we, or parts of us, are “toxic” or “impure”? How extreme do we need to be with our health? Where can we do less effort, intervene less with fewer products and supplements and programs, and still achieve the feeling of vitality and energy we want on a daily basis, not just a few times a year when we feel pushed to our limits of exhaustion, stress, illness, indulgence, or general icky feelings?
These questions are especially relevant to liver detoxes. Because the main job of the liver is detoxification (specifically of blood), it already knows how to detox without our conscious intervention. As such, we might reconsider our approach to this health trend, such that we focus less on cleansing and more on protecting this beautiful, elegant organ.
Meet Your Liver
For all the ways we want to get our livers to work better for us, it’s useful to actually understand what the liver is, what it does, and how it functions within the whole of our bodies. (Dr. Irina Matveikova)
Take your hands to the right side of your trunk and gently bring your fingers under your bottom right rib, like you were tucking in a sheet under your mattress. Your liver lives there, under the big muscle that controls breathing (called the diaphragm). Although many of us consider our stomach and intestines as the main players in digestion, the liver is actually an even more vital part of that life-giving process. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is the main organ of digestion, and in Ayurveda it’s considered the home of the five bhutagnis, or the digestive fires that separate our food into each of the five elements it comprises.
Indeed, the liver decides what parts of our food to keep and what to eliminate. It receives about 85 percent of our blood from our guts, then “cleans” one and a half liters of that blood every minute. To help with this process, the liver makes 2.5 pints of a yellow-green substance called bile, which breaks down fats. The liver’s partner in crime, the gall bladder, stores excess bile. Amazon has no match for this ultimate processing unit, which orchestrates about 500 biochemical metabolic reactions we need to stay alive. No wonder it’s our largest internal organ!
When all the channels between the liver and gall bladder are open and clear, digestion runs smoothly, you feel energized by your food, and you’re able to go with the flow of life with ease and joy. In fact, TCM has a nickname for the liver that describes this result with particular eloquence, in my opinion: the “free and easy wanderer.” But if bile starts to clog up somewhere along the way—because there’s too much being made by the liver, or the gall bladder can’t get rid of it—we start to feel the common discomforts of indigestion: fullness, bloating, and alternating diarrhea and constipation (to name a few). We’re not nourished by our food, and waste gets tangled up with the good stuff.
This back-up manifests in other parts of our health, too. Blood and emotions are one in the same in holistic traditions. Any imbalances in our ability to process and filter inputs, and circulate nutrition freely will show up in how we feel. TCM claims that the liver is the seat of the soul—a hint at why digestion is so important!—as well as the ruler of qi, or our vital energy. Like with our edible food, qi flows smoothly, we’re in the “free and easy wandering” mode; the liver “sprinkles” our emotions throughout our system (don’t you love the poetry of these ancient traditions?), and while we still experience highs and lows we can move past and through them easily. When qi is blocked, we feel a kind of mental or emotional indigestion. We get frustrated, irritated, and angry, or become fearful of life and have trouble making decisions.
While Ayurveda does not focus on individual organs as such in its paradigms of anatomy and physiology, it does associate the liver (and any imbalances thereof) with the functions and qualities of pitta dosha, which comprises fire and water. Any kind of inflammation—of emotions, digestion, even in the skin (which is connected to blood)—comes from excess pitta at least in part. Pitta is at the helm of digestion, as its fire is what cooks our food as well as helps us to process and synthesize information (it has homes in the gut, eyes, brain, and heart for all those functions).
There’s even a parallel here with the historical descriptions of the “humors” of bile: yellow bile being the hot, angry, transformative product of a liver running on high speed, and black bile being the fear, depression, and melancholy of a clogged gall bladder. In fact, black bile might be linked to āma, Ayurveda’s word for undigested food that is at the root of all diseases.
The Liver Protection Plan
Connecting physiology with emotion, the various kinds of indigestion that arise from a saturated liver makes a lot of sense. How do you feel when you are bloated or constipated? Or when your to-do list starts to spill over into the margins of your notebook (or your brain)? Are you able to focus on work, or be a good friend or partner? Do you feel “free and easy,” or able to “wander” where your heart takes you?
This is what your liver deals with on a daily basis. On top of typical sensory stimuli, our hyper-stimulated modern world has thrown off our circadian rhythm in a way that directly affects the liver’s ability to detox well. Per Ayurveda, the period of 10 PM to 2 AM (one of two pitta phases during the day) is when the liver gets to work digesting, since in theory we’re asleep and not ingesting new material. But if we’re eating, working, or glued to our screens late at night, that pitta energy gets redirected to the new stimuli, contributing to the build up of bile. No wonder our livers are just as burned out as we are!
Right now, you might be feeling like there’s no way out of this cycle of indigestion other than a liver cleanse. While a good flush of bile sounds lovely, healing won’t come from further depletion and detoxification. Resetting your liver is actually a whole lot simpler.
Here’s why: The liver is not just unique for what it does for our health—it’s also unique in how it responds to stress. Other organs get soft and boggy when they’re not functioning; but the liver becomes “astringed,” or contracted and tense. In this state, the liver lacks enough space to do its job—like trying to have water flow through a kinked-up hose. Nothing about it is free, easy, or wandering. Our emotions are concentrated and intensified instead.
There are two main reasons the liver will astringe. First is the consumption of hard-to-digest and pitta increasing foods. This includes spicy foods, caffeine/stimulants, and alcohol, all of which have a high proportion of the fire element, as well as processed foods. When you feed the liver things it doesn’t recognize—foods that are not in their whole, natural form—it takes extra work to break them down; i.e., the liver will make more bile, but it won’t move through the system as it should. Not leaving adequate space between meals can also stress the liver (and pancreas, leading to blood sugar imbalances), since it never gets a break from metabolizing new inputs.
On the other hand, too much mental stress can also overwhelm the liver,, which will affect mood, energy, and physiology. Anxiety that leads to imbalanced or inadequate meals, lack of sleep, and general fight-or-flight mode creates contraction and malabsorption throughout the body, so the liver can’t even digest foods that are “good for you.”
In both cases, if we want to restore the free and easy wandering state of the liver, we need to remove the original causes of the stress—whether it’s harsh food, drink, behaviors, or emotions—not add more things to its tank to digest like green powders (which are often also astringent in nature). Once the liver realizes it doesn’t need to cower and contract in fear of what’s coming at it, it can relax and start to do its job of detoxing again.
With more space, the powerful, competent liver can take in all the variables of your life with ease and grace. If a liver-protection plan seems like something you’d benefit from, try adding more of these liver-loving “foods” to your diet and notice how they make you feel.
Liver Protecting Foods
- Beets, cherries, pomegranates, cranberries, red grapes (red foods in general; think: blood building)
- Dark, leafy greens (cooked)
- Vegetable oils—olive, sunflower, avocado
- Spices & herbs: Turmeric, milk thistle, dandelion
Liver Protecting Activities
- Time in nature
- Good company
- Time off screens / digital detox
- Movement (think: blood circulation)
- Uninterrupted sleep
WORKS REFERENCED AND CITED
Digestive Intelligence: A Holistic Vision of Your Second Brain:
The Liver and Gallbladder
by Dr. Irina Matveikova