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Liver Health: Why it Matters & 3 Herbs to Help

The liver is very important for maintaining our health and wellbeing. As an organ, it’s larger than our brain and responsible for filtering everything that enters our bloodstream. 

This critical organ protects us from toxins, secretes the bile we need to break down and absorb our food, recycles our blood cells, regulates blood sugar levels, and much more. 

Here, I’ll cover some of the most common health conditions that can affect the liver, and offer a list of three herbs that can support the health of this integral organ. 

Let’s dive straight in. 

What Does the Liver Do? 

The liver is essentially a large filter. At any given moment, this organ holds around 13% of your entire blood supply. 

Blood flows into the liver where it’s passed through a series of “filters” in the form of tiny enzymes that seek to identify and break apart chemicals contained in the blood. The liver is the primary metabolizer of medications, alcohol, environmental or dietary toxins, hormones, and more. 

When you drink a coffee, the active ingredient, caffeine, remains active for as long as it takes for the liver to neutralize it. The effects of caffeine only wear off when the liver metabolizes enough of the caffeine into an inactive form to stop producing effects. 

The same is true with other compounds in the blood as well. 

The liver has other important responsibilities as well. In fact, this organ performs over 500 individual functions for the body. 

Here are some of the main responsibilities of the liver: 

  • Neutralizes toxins and poisons
  • Produces bile
  • Regulates blood clotting
  • Builds and breaks down cholesterol
  • Converts glucose to glycogen
  • Stores glycogen as an energy reserve for when we need it
  • Recycles hemoglobin from old red blood cells
  • Produces certain immune factors to protect us from infection

Conditions That Affect The Liver

With so many important functions, it’s easy to see how important it is to keep our liver healthy. 

Every year, nearly 2 million people die as a result of liver-related illness [1]. The main cause of liver disease is excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, obesity, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol levels. 

Here are some of the key health conditions that affect the liver. 

Bile Stones

Bile stones are a condition that affect the gallbladder — which is closely associated with the liver. Its job is to collect bile secreted by the liver and store it until its needed. The bile is later secreted into the digestive tract after we’ve had a meal. 

This bile acts like an emulsifier to break down fats and help us absorb them into the bloodstream where we can then use it as a source of energy. 

Sometimes, the bile that accumulates in the gallbladder can form hard, pebble-like deposits — called gall stones. 

This can happen for a number of reasons, but the most common is a high concentration of cholesterol in the bile itself. 

Cholesterol is a sticky, gummy substance that can form hard deposits if concentrations are too high. 

When the stones become too large or too abundant, they block the ability of bile to flow through the gallbladder. This can be extremely painful and may cause the gallbladder to become enlarged. Medications or surgery may be necessary to dissolve the stones to allow bile to continue flowing through the gallbladder. 

NAFLD

NAFLD stands for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s one of two forms of a condition that causes the liver to fill up with fat deposits. 

The first form — AFLD or alcoholic fatty liver disease is directly caused by excessive alcohol consumption. 

The second form, NAFLD, isn’t caused by alcohol, but from other factors. The most common cause is excessive sugar intake and obesity. 

The liver plays a critical role in the regulation of blood sugar by converting sugars into glycogen (stored sugar), and fats. When blood sugar levels become too high they can become toxic to our cells. The liver takes a protective action against this by converting the excess sugar into fat — which is a safer form of stored energy. 

Unfortunately, if the liver has to do this too often, it can cause fat to accumulate within the liver itself — leading to NAFLD. 

This condition reduces the ability of the liver to do its job, leading to side-effects associated with poor liver function and may eventually lead to a much more severe condition called cirrhosis — which can be fatal. 

Herbs That Support The Liver

Now that we’ve covered some aspects of the liver in more detail, let’s go over some of our herbal allies that are useful for protecting the liver and ameliorating some of the most common health conditions that affect this important organ. 

I need to note that herbs aren’t always safe to use if you have underlying liver disease. It’s very important that you speak with an experienced herbalist before you start taking any herbs if you have been diagnosed with liver disease. 

1. Milk Thistle

Silybum marianum

Milk thistle (Silybum marinum) is considered the king of liver herbs. The primary active ingredient in this plant is a compound called silymarin — which has a very large pool of research behind it to elucidate its effects on the liver. 

Studies have shown that silymarin may help protect the liver and slow the progression of various liver diseases including viral hepatitis [2], alcohol consumption [3], and NAFLD [4]. 

The only catch with this herb is that all of the studies that have shown improvements used high doses of the herb. Making a simple tea isn’t going to be strong enough, but a strong tincture or concentrated capsule is likely to offer enough silymarin to be of use. 

2. Globe Artichoke

Cynara scolymus

Globe artichoke is more than just a delicacy, it’s also a potent hepatoprotective (liver-protective) and bitter. 

It’s common or bitter foods to affect the liver. The bitter receptors on the tongue and duodenum stimulate the secretion fo bile from both the gallbladder and the liver. At the same time, this stimulating action causes the liver to perform its other actions as well. 

Artichoke contains a compound called cynarin — which is a powerfully bitter substance.

Studies have shown globe artichoke extract significantly increases the volume of bile secreted by the gallbladder [5]. This action has a direct impact on reducing cholesterol levels, alleviating nausea, and preventing indigestion following a meal.

3. Schisandra

Schisandra Chinensis

Schisandra has many different uses in traditional medicine — ranging from eliminating acne and blemishes, to regulating hormone levels (especially in women). Most of the benefits of schisandra are the result of its impact on the liver. 

The schisandra berry contains a series of compounds that stimulate what we call phase I and phase II liver detoxification

This means schisandra increases the activity of our livers core process — detoxification. 

Detoxification is more complicated than just “eliminating toxins from the body.” We use this system to neutralize harmful chemicals, medications, environmental or dietary toxins, byproducts of cellular function, and hormones contained in the blood. 

When liver detox isn’t effective it leads to acne and breakouts, hormone imbalance, oxidative cell damage, and much more. 

Final Thoughts: How to Care For Your Liver

The liver is one of our most underappreciated organs. We all know how important the liver is for metabolizing alcohol, but it does so much more for us than this. 

The liver is also responsible for building our blood, regulating cholesterol levels, driving fat digestion, regulating blood sugar levels, neutralizing toxic chemicals, and much much more. 

Taking steps to manage pre-existing liver disease, or proactively preventing liver disease before it happens can go a long way in supporting our long-term health and wellbeing. 

Reference List

  1. Asrani, S. K., Devarbhavi, H., Eaton, J., & Kamath, P. S. (2019). Burden of liver diseases in the world. Journal of hepatology, 70(1), 151-171.
  2. Polyak, S. J., Ferenci, P., & Pawlotsky, J. M. (2013). Hepatoprotective and antiviral functions of silymarin components in hepatitis C virus infection. Hepatology, 57(3), 1262-1271.
  3. Vargas-Mendoza, N., Madrigal-Santillán, E., Morales-González, Á., Esquivel-Soto, J., Esquivel-Chirino, C., y González-Rubio, M. G. L., … & Morales-González, J. A. (2014). Hepatoprotective effect of silymarin. World journal of hepatology, 6(3), 144.
  4. Gillessen, A., & Schmidt, H. H. J. (2020). Silymarin as supportive treatment in liver diseases: A narrative review. Advances in therapy, 37(4), 1279-1301.
  5. Kraft, K. (1997). Artichoke leaf extract—recent findings reflecting effects on lipid metabolism, liver and gastrointestinal tracts. Phytomedicine, 4(4), 369-378.
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