The ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine teaches us to attend to the health of the liver and its companion organ, the gallbladder, in the spring. The understanding of the liver in Chinese medicine is similar to, but broader than, the view of the liver in Western physiology. According to Chinese medicine, the liver is responsible for keeping energy and emotions moving in the body, for storing and purifying the blood, for the health of the eyes, and for the strength and suppleness of the tendons and nails.
Chinese medical thinking associates the liver with the emotion of anger, and it is considered the master organ of all the emotions. The liver’s main job in this regard is maintaining emotional flow. The major emotions described in the Chinese medicine literature are anger, sadness, fear, joy, and worry. They are all healthy and may be appropriate responses to various situations in life, but when we get stuck in one emotional state, disharmony, followed by disease, may strike. The key to emotional health, therefore, is to let the emotional life flow. The most common way the liver gets out of balance is through stagnation, when its ability to keep the flow going becomes compromised. The overloaded liver shows a pattern called liver qi stagnation in Chinese medicine, and extremely common syndrome among modern people. Symptoms of liver qi stagnation include a feeling of bloating or discomfort in the torso, moodiness, edginess, frustration, sadness or depression, PMS, and irregular menstruation
The best way to adjust your diet to relieve liver qi stagnation is to eat smaller amounts of congestive foods, including animal foods, nuts, and nut butter, and to eat less food altogether. People with liver qi stagnation often crave caffeine, alcohol, or hot, spicy food, which gives a temporary feeling of relief but ultimately adds to the problem. Increasing the amount of raw and super-raw fermented foods in your diet can help get energy moving and make you feel less stuck and more vital. Specific seasonal foods that will get liver energy moving include pungent foods and aromatic herbs, such as the following:
- Herbs and spices: anise, basil, bay, cardamom, cayenne and white pepper (in small quantities), cinnamon, cloves, cilantro, curry, fennel, garlic, ginger, horseradish, mint, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, vanilla
- Beans: navy, baby lima, cannellini, and other white beans
- Vegetables: collard greens, green garlic, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, radishes of all types, turnips and their greens, watercress
- Fruits: grapefruit, lemon, lime, kumquat, early plums, tangerine
The Liver in Western Medicine
Western physiology views your liver as both your body’s chemical factory and a major recycling center. Each day thousands of chemical reactions go on in this organ as it processes nutrients form food, creates and breaks down hormones and enzymes, and handles chemicals from your diet and environment. While detoxification activities happen throughout your body, the majority occur in your liver. Detoxification is what your body does to get rid of unwanted chemicals, be they leftovers of your own metabolism, stress hormones, products of your intestinal bacteria, or substances you eat, breathe, or rub into your skin or hair. There are two phases in your body’s detoxification process. The first, phase I, involves various reactions, usually involving liver enzymes, such as those in the cytochrome P450 family, which render foreign molecules easier to remove from the body. In phase II, these new molecules (some of which may be more toxic than the original compounds) are removed from the body via urine and stool. Detoxification reactions require many nutrients, such as B vitamins, glutathione, flavonoids, and phospholipids in phase I, and amino acids including glutamine, taurine, glycine, and methionine in phase II – nutrients that are scarce in refined foods but abundant in many whole foods, particularly, in the case of the amino acids, in pasture-raised eggs and animal foods.