Herbal medicine for liver health

Dry January is upon us and, as conventions go, I am fully in support of this one. Not only does it visibly decrease the effects of alcohol damage on the body in a surprisingly short space of time, but is also gives our livers a real break after the heavy holiday season.

The liver is not given its due worth in medical textbooks. It is the organ that processes each and every substance that enters our mouth, and determines how long it will stay active in the body. It metabolises all hormones, provides immune defence from dietary pathogens, regulates blood sugar levels, cholesterol production, bowel flora composition and digestion. No wonder it is called the “live”-r.

Because of its role as the primary organ of detoxification, the liver is considered hugely important in modern herbal practice. Signs and symptoms of dysfunction are treated with the same urgency as actual pathological changes, recognising the fundamental role the liver plays in the balance between health and disease.


Signs and symptoms of liver dysfunction

Tiredness, lethargy, nausea, increased sensitivity to alcohol, caffeine or prescription drugs, intolerance of fatty foods, poor digestion and chronic constipation are some of the common symptoms of liver dysfunction.

In terms of conditions, those traditionally associated with poor liver function are migraines, depression, skin and digestive disease, immunological disorders, chronic allergy and cancer.

The liver is most active during the early hours of the morning (3-5am), so waking up during the night around this time is also a sign that your liver is struggling, particularly after a few too many Christmas tipples.


What herbs can do to help

The wonderful thing about the liver is that it has a fantastic capacity for regeneration and repair. Coupled with a break from alcohol, throw a couple of herbs in and you’re likely to notice a difference within a matter of weeks.

Herbal treatment for the liver mainly consists of three classes of herbs:

  1. Hepato-protectives: herbs that reduce damage caused to the liver by stressors (alcohol, pollutants) and disease. The most important of these is the well-researched herb Milk Thistle, which I will be writing about in this month’s herb-of-the-month post.
  1. Choleretics: herbs that encourage the production and flow of bile from the liver, boosting liver function and helping in the management of digestive disorders. These include all bitter herbs – dandelion root (pictured above), artichoke leaf, barberry, goldenseal, wormwood…
  1. Depuratives: herbs that work on both the liver and the lymphatic system, usually given when liver dysfunction is thought to be contributing to skin problems like eczema or psoriasis. Examples are burdock, yellow dock, Oregon grape and fumitory.


Liver-loving foods

The liver has two phases of detoxification. Phase I breaks down molecules for metabolism, and phase II ‘conjugates’ these molecules or attaches them to other ones, ready for delivery or excretion.

Phase I produces quite reactive substances that would cause damage to the body if not conjugated, so another class of herbs commonly used are those that specifically increase phase II liver detoxification pathways – common culinary herbs like rosemary, garlic, green tea and turmeric.

A diet generally high in fruit and vegetables has been shown to support these pathways of detoxification, because of the flavonoids I’ve been banging on about recently. Most importantly, the Brassica family of vegetables contain chemicals called glucosinolates that are potent phase II enzyme inducers – this includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. One great reason to eat your sprouts at Christmas!


Follow me on Twitter/Facebook for some liver-loving recipes this month, and see my previous post on bitters for more ideas about how to look after your liver.



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