The liver is a multi-faceted organ with many diverse functions. It sits in the right upper quadrant of our abdomem and acts as our internal chemist. Our liver is responsible for detoxification, control of the blood sugar, synthesis of blood clotting factors, osmotic balance in our tissues and many other vital functions.
Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophical medicine, theorized that the liver is the controlling organ of our fluid or life body and in fact in many languages the name for the liver is the same as the word life—I like to call it the “lifer”— for without a healthy functioning liver, life is simply not possible. The fluid body, or in Anthroposophical terms—the etheric body, is like the plant inside of us. (According to Anthroposophical thought the plant body consist of a mineral body taken up into the living sphere, in other words a plant is a living mineral.)
THE INNER PLANT
This inner plant controls how the fluids circulate in the body, preventing fluid congestions, swelling or dryness. This role is evident in cases of severe pathology of the liver, such as liver cancer or cirrhosis, in which one common sign is edema, especially in the legs, or acites which is fluid collection in the abdomen. This happens because the liver is not able to maintain a healthy fluid organism, hence stagnant fluid begins to collect, showing up as edema.
In fact, the unhealthy stagnation of fluid anywhere in the body points to a weakness in the liver. Hay fever or otitis media (middle ear infections) are two examples of disordered fluid organisms which are improved with proper care of the liver.
Another connection of the liver to the plant world can metaphorically be experienced by observing a patient with acute viral hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). In such cases the patient experiences profound fatigue as the “life” forces of the patient are drained. Like a poorly nourished plant with leaves that start to yellow, in the patient with hepatitis, the liver pathology is heralded by the onset of jaundice (yellowing) which is especially noted in the whites of our eyes. In fact, in many traditional medical schemes it is often said that the condition of the liver can be best seen outwardly in the clarity and overall health of the eyes.
Doctors usually get involved with treating the liver when the patient has difficulty with detoxification. This can often be seen by the fatigue of the patient, by the inability to tolerate foods or smells or even the simplest chemical exposures, or sometimes by poor elimination function in the bowels. Chalky white stools are a classic symptom of poor liver function because bile turns the stool brown and bile is the main detoxification “product” of the liver.
TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE
Think of the liver this way: the liver bags the garbage and the bile takes it out to the curb. The garbage is either metabolic waste products that we ourselves produce, or exogenously derived poisons from the outside. Bagging the garbage means that when the liver is exposed to any toxin, its job is to conjugate, or chemically manipulate, the toxin to make it soluble so it can be dissolved in the bile it produces and then flushed out of the body through the bile ducts into the small intestine and then out with the stool. The first phase is called conjugation (bagging up the garbage), the second phase is the elimination phase (taking the garbage out to the curb). With poor liver function, either the garbage doesn’t get bagged properly and unprocessed poisons end up in the circulation, or it doesn’t get taken out and therefore accumulates in the tissues. There are certain tests available that can tell you the intergrity and the integration of how these systems are functioning but in practice they almost always co-exist so it is the best course of action is to treat them both.
There are many factors that will weaken your liver over time. Excessive exposure to environmental toxins is certainly one prominent factor, often in the form of pharmaceutical medicines, many of which need to be cleared, thereby taxing the bagging function of the liver. Statin drugs and Tylenol are two prominent and frequently used drugs that are directly toxic to the liver enzymes responsible for detoxification. Also, poor bowel function and leaky gut syndrome put extra strain on the liver as the contents of the bowel go directly up to the liver to be processed. If the bowel is leaking, the liver is more burdened. In fact, in most diseases care of the detoxification function of the liver is a sound therapeutic move.
The treatment of the liver always starts with the diet. As well as doing the obvious things like removing as much toxicity as possible by eating only organic or biodynamic foods, the emphasis in the diet should be on greens, the bitter and sour tastes, and the healthy consumption of saturated fats. Protein intake should be low to moderate but healthy raised animal fats should be consumed as tolerated. I tell patients to start every morning with a glass of water with a half of lemon squeezed into the water and then eat some animal fat (especially grass-fed butter or ghee) and greens (such as dandelion greens or the more bitter greens) at every meal. The green color is the most pure reflection of plant life and this stimulates the detoxification processes in the liver. The fats are used by the liver to help make the enzymes that do this detoxification work. The mixture of cod liver oil and butter oil helps to make sure a supply of healthy fats and fatsoluble vitamins is available to nourish your liver.
For medicines, the liver is nourished mostly by plants with a bitter taste, and by therapeutic oils. The best studied plants for liver nourishment include milk thistle and schisandra. These two herbs come together in the Mediherb product called Livco, which has been shown to promote healthy liver function. In fact, milk thistle extract (called silymarin) is used as an intravenous medicine in European hospitals to treat acute poisonings, as with Tylenol overdose. The dose of Livco is one tablet three times per day.
The therapeutic oil to use is the castor oil packs described by Edgar Cayce in many of his readings. Given under a heating pad applied to the liver for two hours, from one to seven times per week, the castor oil stimulates both phases of liver detoxification and is a tried and true medicine for helping all parts of liver function.
There are many other medicines, and bitters and other products that help liver and bile function properly, including coffee enemas which are a proven medicine used by cancer patients all over the world for stimulating liver detoxification.
These suggestions will point you to the way to regain a healthy liver and the vitality that this confers.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2011.