I stand in complete awe and amazement of the liver. Asian medicine views the liver as a unique being which has its own blood, Qi, soul and specific job as General of the armed forces in charge of keeping you alive. She can be your best friend or your worst enemy – depending on how you treat her. Your liver works 24/7 – the poor lass really does need a break.
The liver stores and mobilizes energy, produces more proteins than any other organ in the body, regulates blood flow, can regenerate itself and process all the garbage we put into our bodies – both physically and metaphysically. With everything that we put it through, the liver tends to forgive us fairly quickly and when it has the right resources can clean both you and itself up in a matter of hours.
However, because the liver is so forgiving we tend to abuse it. One of the most important functions it performs is chemically breaking down everything that enters your body: food, coffee, tequila, vitamins, medication, herbs, stress – everything. The liver does it without judgment, quickly, quietly and lovingly - until it gets overwhelmed.
Your liver loves you more than you’ll ever know – so love it back by letting it play hooky from work for a few days. Spring is the perfect time to help your liver reset since not only is it the season in Asian medicine when it's in its element, but we already have spring cleaning on our mind.
The word “liver” comes from the old English world for “life” - it helps you not only metabolize what goes into your mouth but the experiences you move through on a daily basis. The liver’s ability to do all this for you is the science of poetry in motion; however, because its got such a huge job it can tend to get overwhelmed. By simply giving your liver the space and resources to catch up on its work load, you can help clean your liver by doing 5 simple things for a minimum of 72 hours:
One of the best things you can do for your liver is to start your day by drinking warm water with the juice of half a lemon first thing in the morning. It’s a ridiculously easy body freshener that helps flush the toxins that accumulated over night when your liver was working double time to clean your blood. When fresh lemon is added to water the magic of science comes into play and the mixture becomes alkaline rather than acidic. Starting the day with a simple alkaline solution rather than something acidic, such as coffee, is the best way to get your liver to fall back in love with you.
Drinking right also means abstaining from alcohol and coffee - two things that make the liver work overtime. Alcohol is obvious; however, the reasons for coffee may not be what you think. Coffee affects your entire endocrine system and how your liver metabolizes cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, and adrenaline. Your liver is responsible for the disposal of unused or no longer necessary hormones; however, coffee competes for attention in the liver with these specific waste products. If the liver is unable to rid your body of these unused hormones, they go back into circulation or get stored in fat cells to be addressed another day. This goes for both caffeinated AND decaffeinated. Part of your spring cleaning should incorporate lemon water breaks rather than coffee breaks so your liver can catch-up.
We all do the best we can with what we have, but liver cleaning means committing to a few diet upgrades that might bring many of us to tears:
- No meat
- No dairy
- No refined sugar
- No artificial sweeteners
- No wheat
- No processed food
- No soy protein isolates
- No fried food
- No recreational drugs
- No strong chemicals such as what’s found in cleaners, solvents or hair dye
What to Eat
Don’t let the above list intimidate you. When most of us go on vacation we tend to eat whatever we want – your liver has a long list of favorite foods that help keep it clean because they contain enzymatic building blocks that help the liver self-detox. Feel free to gorge on the following:
- Crucifers such as cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccoli sprouts.
- Green leafy vegetables and herbs such as parsley, kale, watercress, cilantro, beet greens, escarole, dandelion greens and mustard greens.
- Citrus such as organs, lemons and limes. Grapefruit should be avoided since it contains a compound called naringen that can reportedly interfere with the liver’s self-cleansing process.
- Sulfur rich foods such as garlic, onions, eggs and daikon.
- Liver lovers such as artichoke, asparagus, beets, celery, dandelion root tea, whey and nutritional yeast flakes.
Liver cleansing means trying to avoid as much chemical insult as possible, so stick to organic foods and thoroughly wash anything that goes into your body to remove chemicals and insecticides.
The Spice of Life
Spices are medicine for everyday healing. Science often turns to nature in order to isolate specific compounds found in plants and animals known for their curative effects to synthetically recreate them as "medicine" or "supplements". These can be life saving when you're in medical crisis; however, the reason we eat cleanly and use spices regularly is to keep ourselves out of crisis in the first place. Many spice are highly anti-inflammatory or aid in digestion - two places we could all use a little help.
You can help your liver by adding things such as turmeric, coriander, fennel, nutmeg and cumin to any dish you're making. Fresh ginger and black pepper are digestive aids that will aid in digestion - especially if you're struggling with diet upgrades.
As with all things, spices have a definitive shelf life. When using spice as medicine, be sure that you're using fresh spices that haven't been sitting in the pantry for more than 6 months and that they've been stored properly - away from heat in air tight containers.
Should You Juice?
There are so many products, opinions, programs, websites and businesses dedicated to juicing that all back their thing up with scientific studies. It’s hard to know where to start and can be confusing. Most of the recipes I’ve come across have two things going against them: they’re high in sugar and there’s no fiber to slow the fructose absorption.
The liver LOVES sour foods and will also occasionally crave bitter foods as well when it’s feeling a bit overwhelmed. When you break down most juice cleanse recipes, they contain a ton of the liver’s favorite sour or bitter veggies; however, they're sweetened with beets, carrots, apples, sweet potatoes, and/or pineapples to hide the taste. When sweet foods are eaten in their raw form they contain fiber that slows how quickly the body absorbs the natural sugars. When you remove the fiber with a juicer, you’re eating a sugar bomb. Not all sugar is created equal and though the naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and veggies are vastly different than that found in a Snickers bar, your body’s glucose receptors can’t tell the difference. If you're a few days into a cleanse and suddenly eat something high in sugar, the effects are magnified and some people experience headaches, nausea, sudden fatigue, mood swings or will start feeling shaky.
Additionally, because juicing also removes the need to chew, you’re not allowing the digestive enzymes in your saliva the chance to break down your food at a molecular level. The idea of juicing is to make the nutritional components in foods more available to you - but you still need digestive enzymes to break them down into their usable parts.
If you’ve never juiced before, are a sugar junkie, or have weak digestion, the best thing you can do is to EAT all the foods called for in the juicing recipe and chew them until you're bored. When you stop eating like your stomach has teeth and take the time to not only enjoy your food but savor the taste, all the digestive enzymes in your saliva get a chance to help break down the nutrients while still retaining the food item's fiber – the way nature designed you to eat.
With that said, juicing is excellent if you have strong digestion, are already living a relatively sugar free lifestyle, and the juice you’re drinking has fiber in it. I will also recommend it to patients as part of a larger nutritional program who are recovering from heavy medication regimes or chemotherapy. Minimize the sweet items (which includes beets) called for in the recipe and add some of the pulp back into the juice which will help slow the sugar absorption. You can also add spices such as fresh ginger or freshly ground black pepper to help your stomach in the juicing process.
If you’re not pooping, you're not detoxing. When your body is unable excrete waste material, toxins get absorbed back into the system. During your liver’s spring vacation you need to be on the porcelain throne at least once a day – preferably twice or more. You can help the situation a couple ways:
- Make sure you’ve got enough good flora in your belly to help out. That means ensuring you’re eating lacto-fermented foods such as Kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchee or that you should take a daily pro-biotic. For more info and an in-depth conversation on pro-biotics, please read my Probiotic Primer.
- As the old Chinese proverb teaches us, staying hydrated helps “float the boat out.” Sipping on water throughout the day helps you dilute the toxins in your system by keeping your intestines flushed and regular.
- Exercise helps stimulate the natural contractions of the belly. Yoga can help east constipation, especially thanks to the twisting movements and deep breathing involved.
Being that this is one of may favorite topics, please read “Six Tips to Stay Regular and Poop Like a Champ” for tips and ways to keep you regular.
Asian medicine associates the resonance of different emotions with different organs. Anger has a 1 to 1 correlation with the liver; anger is necessary and can be a beautiful thing - in the right amount. A little bit can be the kick in the pants we all sometimes need to move us forward. However, the problem comes when it either transmutes to rage or we’re carrying it around as a low-grade chronic emotion prone to flare-ups. When anger is out of proportion to a situation or is a chronic issue, our liver takes a hit because it needs to metabolize all the stress hormones and other chemicals that are a by-product of being angry.
There have been a number of studies over the past several years clearly showing that stress has an impact on hepatic inflammatory response. When you're mentally stressed out, so is your liver. When we're under sustained long term stress that's become normalized, such as at work or in relationships, we often tell ourselves that we're all right when we're not.
“Relaxing right” as part of a detox means giving ourselves a vacation from stress and anger. Easier said than done. However, one of the best ways to do this is through meditation – even if it’s only 10 minutes a day. If you’re new to meditation one of the easiest places to start is with guided meditation. There are hundreds of free resources online that you can download to get you started. Kundalini Yoga is my personal go-to for relaxing right since it incorporates movement, breath work, sustained relaxation and meditation all in one class.
Western science recognizes our circadian rhythm and diurnal clock as natural phenomena critical to our health since daylight and season have a direct affect on our hormones. Asian medicine takes the internal clock one step further by breaking the 24 hour day into 2 hour chunks and creating 12 “phases” we move through during the day. Each phase corresponds with an organ, during which time that specific organ is suppose to be working while another organ is taking its lunch break.
11pm-1am are the hours when your gallbladder is collecting as much bile as possible because from 1am-3am, your liver is working the graveyard shift to get your blood cleaned up for the next day and the bile will be used to finish the job of breaking things down. The flip side to that is from 11pm-1am your heart is quietly resting since it has been working behind the scenes beating out the sound track to your life all day. When we stay up past 11pm, it’s as if we’re getting both the heart and gallbladder to goof around on the heart’s lunch break when it’s suppose to be resting and the gallbladder is suppose to be working.
Come 1am, because the gallbladder wasn't given peace to work, it didn't release enough bile to process what the liver was getting rid of and backs up with sludge. The heart is over tired the next day because it was up too late and the blood it received in the morning wasn’t properly cleaned the night before.
Sleeping right means being in bed by 10:30pm so you’re lying flat and resting or asleep by 11pm. Even if you’re unable to fall asleep, it’s important to be down so that gravity can start to pool your blood into the liver where it will be cleaned and scrubbed.