1. Liver functions, liver disease, and liver cleanse
Constant fatigue, age-related vision and memory loss
The liver is our body’s most important organ after the heart, performing many important functions including metabolism, detoxification, and formation of important compounds including blood clotting factors. It also filters, regulates, and stores blood. Stress, poor diet, and over-medication are common problems in our “civilized” lifestyle. These may lead to stress and functional damage to the liver. As a result, “sluggish” liver has become a common ailment. It may affect memory, sleep, thyroid, body weight, and other body functions.
Both estrogen and androgen stimulate cell division. Elevated levels of these hormones may lead to abnormal cell growth such as womens’ uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, breast cysts, and breast cancer or mens’ prostate enlargement and prostate cancer. Since the liver is the principal organ which removes these hormones, its failure to remove them efficiently often leads to their accumulation in the body and is a major cause of the above diseases.
It has been known for thousands of years in China that liver problems are the source of many ailments. However, hormonal imbalances are still little understood in Chinese medicine. As a result, most womens’ problems are treated for blood and energy stagnation. “Blood moving” herbs such as Don Quei, licorice, and ginseng are frequently used for reducing stagnation and stimulating circulation without realizing their effect on estrogen levels. These herbs may initially help improve circulation, but the elevated estrogen levels can eventually make the problem worse.
The liver is the most important organ after the heart. It performs hundreds of functions including:
- Circulation: transfer of blood from portal to systemic circulation, activity of the liver’s reticulo-endothelial system (kupffer cells) in the immune system. The liver stores and regulates the blood and is responsible for nourishing every cell in our body. Every part of the body depends on blood from the liver for nourishment and sustenance.
- Excretion: formation and secretion of bile for digestion and cleansing of blood; removal of ammonia from blood; excretion of substances filtered from the blood by the liver such as heavy metals or dyes.
- Metabolism: carbohydrate, protein, lipid (fat), mineral and vitamin metabolism; manufacturing and storage of many nutrients such as glucose and vitamins; production of heat through metabolism.
- Protection and detoxification: removal of foreign bodies from the blood (phagocytosis); detoxification by conjugation, methylation, oxidation and reduction.
- Production; formation of urea, serum albumin, glycogen and blood coagulating proteins such as prothrombin, fibrinogen and heparin; erythrocyte (red blood cells) destruction.
- Regulation of hormones: inactivation and elimination of hormones through the bile or urine. Since estrogen and androgen are both growth hormones which stimulate cell division, elevation of their levels in the blood due to the liver’s failure to remove them efficiently can cause their accumulation in tissue. This in turn may lead to abnormal growths such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, breast cysts and breast cancer, prostate enlargement or prostate cancer. Excessive estrogen is also the most common cause of painful menstruations.
The liver also regulates body functions which affect emotional and mental activities. In a diseased condition, the liver’s blood storage and regulatory functions are affected, and bleeding or clots can result. When liver blood is deficient, nourishment to tendons and blood vessels is curtailed, the joints become stiff, and muscles become spasmodic and numb. Blood deficiency in the liver may even lead to stroke, dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, deafness, fainting or convulsion. When the liver blood is so deficient that it cannot nourish the eyes, night blindness or blurring may result. If the liver is affected by stress or unhappy feelings, its vitality may be repressed and the sides hurt, and hiccups or hernia may develop. The bowels may become constipated and sleep may be disturbed causing nightmare or insomnia .
The liver is the most emotion sensitive organ and its weakness is often connected to emotional sensitivity. Individuals who are emotionally sensitive are more prone to weak liver even if they do not have a poor diet or are not taking medication regularly.
“The liver causes heart attacks” (Reference 3)
The structural position of the liver as a bridge between the returning blood from the digestive system and the lower part of the body to the heart makes the liver an important organ for the health of the heart. A weakened and swollen or congested liver can obstruct the venous blood flow to the heart causing heart palpitations or even heart attacks (see reference 3). In other words a healthy liver is essential for maintaining an adequate amount of blood flow to the heart and the heart can only pump the blood it receives.
Age-related vision and memory loss: the importance of the liver
According to Chinese medicine, the liver and kidneys are the organs that “age” us. That is why almost all longevity herbs used in Chinese medicine are liver and kidney tonics. Without a clean, efficient liver and healthy kidneys, blood is not filtered clean. “Dirty” blood, loaded with toxins or waste products, is heavier and more sluggish. This causes poor circulation and reduced capacity to carry oxygen and nutrients. As a result, tissue and organ cells are undernourished. If this condition persists the cells will deteriorate and inevitably age. The eye and brain cells are especially affected because the blood has to flow against gravity to reach them. In an article on Alzheimer disease in the January 1988 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, malfunction of the liver and kidneys was mentioned as one of the causes leading to Alzheimer disease. Brain tumour, which physically blocks blood flow to the brain, was also cited as one of the causes.
The brain is only 2% of our body weight, yet it needs 20% of our oxygen supply. If the toxin-loaded blood from a weak liver has limited capacity to carry oxygen, the brain cells are affected most.
I was born with a photographic memory, but I lost it at the age of 17. Up to the age of 16, I could remember every single word in textbooks that I glanced through just once. I was surprised to learn that I could not do that any more before I finished my high school. Looking back, my very stressful childhood must have congested my liver and my inadequately filtered blood had difficulty flowing up to my brain to nourish my cells. The fact that I fainted in school at the age of 11 indicated that my blood flow to my brain was already sluggish even at an early age. As the years went by with stressful life, my memory kept going down hill and reached the bottom at age 47, the year that I was diagnosed with badly congested liver. When I cleansed out my liver and gallbladder, changed my diet and started doing daily morning exercise, my memory improved. I don’t think I will get my photographic memory back, but I did gain back some of my memory power and stopped its deterioration.
When blood is loaded with toxins due to a weak and inefficient liver, there is limited capacity for the blood to carry oxygen and nutrients which are necessary for energy production. The result is constant fatigue. A clean and efficient liver which produces cleaner blood would help energy production because clean blood can carry more oxygen and nutrients. Clean blood is also lighter; it flows better and results in better blood circulation.
Liver problems: liver congestion and stagnation
Liver congestion and stagnation are common liver problems. Yet conventional medicine does not understand them and has no test to detect them. In hepatitis or liver inflammation, liver enzyme levels in the blood are elevated because of the ruptured liver cells which contain high contents of liver enzymes. However, in liver congestion or stagnation, liver cells are still intact and liver enzyme levels in blood are normal. Therefore normal clinical tests which rely on liver enzyme levels as a measure of liver condition cannot detect liver congestion or stagnation.
I had blood tests performed a few months before I was diagnosed with badly congested liver by a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. These tests showed no abnormal liver condition because they simply could not detect liver congestion. I never knew I had liver problems until the Chinese doctor correctly diagnosed my congested liver condition. This was the turning point for my health problems. When my liver became healthy again through a lengthy journey of self-healing (see the Liver cleansing section below), most of my chronic health problems disappeared.
According to Chinese medicine, all internal organs work as a team in the body; the liver is considered the “General” or “Chief of Staff:”. Unfortunately, many of our modern prescription drugs are damaging to the liver or kidneys. Over the counter drugs such as painkillers can also cause liver toxicity. Therefore it is not surprising that many people over the age of 50 develop liver weakness or toxicity. Even among healthy people who are not dependent on drugs, the liver has been filtering blood day and night throughout life without being “cleansed”. Over the years, circulating blood has deteriorated in quality which goes unnoticed. The end result is often a feeling of sluggishness and heaviness due to poor circulation. Studies linking liver damage to excessive or long-term use of painkillers have been reported.
I come from a family with weak livers. My father died of a stroke at the age of 59. It was very likely related to liver problems as he had been diagnosed as having a weak liver. My uncle became quite sick at the age of 67. His extremities were dark in colour due to poor blood supply and he was very tired and weak. He went to see a western medical doctor and was told that he was beyond help and would not live much longer. He decided to seek a second opinion from a traditional Chinese medical doctor who prescribed a liver cleansing herb (Chinese Gentian) which purges the liver. He is now over 90 and is still healthy.
Weakening of the liver and eventual toxicity are usually slow processes. In many cases the only sign of liver weakness is poor digestion and low energy level. Most people pass this off as something that happens with age. As a result they do little or nothing about it until it is too late. Fortunately, nature has endowed our liver with excellent regenerative powers. If we are able to understand the early signs of degeneration, we have an excellent chance of restoring it to optimal functioning with proper care.
The liver is the most important organ for hormone regulation. Because of my weak liver, I had severe hormone imbalance resulting in many “women’s problems”. Although the Chinese medicine practitioner correctly diagnosed my congested liver condition, his treatment actually made my problems worse! He prescribed several herbs including Dong Quei, licorice and ginseng which contain plant estrogens. Although these had beneficial effects initially because they improved my blood circulation, the plant estrogens eventually aggravated my hormone imbalance problems. I realized Chinese medicine does not understand hormones and conventional medicine also offers no help for my chronic liver congestion problems. I therefore decided to treat myself, using my combined knowledge of clinical chemistry and Chinese herbs.
At first I tried several commonly used liver cleansing herbs such as dandelion, chrysanthemum and Swedish Bitters. Dandelion and chrysanthemum were too weak. Swedish Bitters helped for about 3 weeks but my condition became actually worse because there are 3 herbs in it which contain plant estrogens. I searched Chinese herbal medicine literature (including some ancient Chinese texts) on liver remedies. Several herbs are mentioned as beneficial to the liver including Coptis, Gentian, Self-Heal and Scutellaria. Chinese Gentian (Lung-tan Tsao) has been known for thousands of years to be useful in the treatment of fever, rheumatism and general debility. It is also said to benefit the liver, aid digestion, strengthen the memory and give lightness and elasticity to the body. It is primarily used in the treatment of acute hepatitis, acute conjunctivitis, acute tonsillitis, jaundice and most liver disorders (Ref. 2, 5 ). It is also helpful in alleviating “sluggish liver” which can be caused by hormone therapy, medications or other problems such as stress or poor diets.
I recalled my uncle’s very positive experience with the herb Chinese Gentian and decided to try it. From my research, I knew that the Chinese herbBupleurum increases “energy flow” in the liver. I decided to use a combination of Chinese Gentian and Bupleurum prepared in an alcoholic tincture. I reasoned that alcohol is a better carrier than water for the herbs through the liver because the liver detoxifies water-insoluble toxins for which alcohol is a better solvent. Within a few months of using this mixture in conjunction with daily morning exercise and diet control, I experienced significant improvement as judged by reduction in menstrual pain from endometriosis, arthritic pain, stiffness and improved quality of sleep. This improvement was gradual but steady.
I then came across information on apple juice fasting and olive oil/lemon juice liver and gallbladder cleansing. I decided to give it a try. The result was dramatic. After just the first cleanse, my pains, allergies and arthritis all disappeared. Apparently, malic acid in apple juice is excellent in dissolving the stagnant bile accumulated in the liver. I was really amazed by the amount of stagnant bile driven out by the apple juice. Details of the apple juice fasting and olive oil/lemon juice cleansing procedures are given in gallbladder flushing.
After my experience, a friend of mine who had gallstones for years decided to try this liver and gallbladder cleansing procedure. She did not get any result the first time. There was one difference between her procedure and mine. She did not use the Chinese Gentian and Bupleurum tincture before the cleansing, like I did. I reasoned she probably had a congested liver (many people with gallstones are likely to have congested livers) which made it difficult for the apple juice to penetrate. She took my advice and used the Chinese Gentian and Bupleurum tincture for about one month before her second cleansing. This time it was successful.
Bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When the gallbladder is occupied by stones, it tends to “overflow”, backing up in the liver and spilling out into the rest of your system. I have subsequently prepared the Chinese Gentian and Bupleurum tincture in commercial form (called “Chinese Bitters”). For certain conditions such as gallstone problems or absence of gallbladder (removal by surgery), it is best used in conjunction with another herbal tincture called Coptis which stimulates bile flow.
Restoring my liver health
Nutritional deficiency is a common problem for individuals with liver disorders. Most nutrients pass through the body without being assimilated if the liver is weak. I was taking many vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements for years without any effect. My improvement came only after my liver was cleansed and strengthened. It was after my experience that I realized that supplements taken by individuals with weak livers may end up as waste products for the body to dispose because the supplements cannot be digested or assimilated.
As described above, I restored my liver to health in less than a year by cleansing it with Chinese Bitters, by liver and gallbladder flush and by eliminating all liver and kidney weakening foods such as white flour, white sugar, caffeine, chocolate, deep fried foods, all citrus fruits, tomato, banana, cold drinks and foods which chill the liver and kidneys. I took supplements or foods rich in Vitamin B’s, C and minerals to nourish my organs and used the various Chinese herbs to increase “Chi” (energy flow) in the liver. I also perform daily morning exercises which involve stretching and deep breathing, based on an exercise regimen widely practiced in Taiwan called Y-Dan (a simple and easy to learn alternative to Tai Chi with only 19 movements). A video DVD that provides clear, easy-to-follow instructions on Y-Dan is available for ordering.
Exercise stimulates blood circulation. When blood circulates better, all organs function better. Stretching and deep breathing kind of exercises early in the morning provide the most benefit for anyone with sluggish liver. According to Chinese medicine, the liver works hard to filter our blood between 1 to 3 am during our sleep. A fair amount of blood may be still retained in the liver when we wake up in the morning if the liver is congested. Early morning exercises help to bring the blood out of the liver into the circulating system. One of the symptoms for the excess blood retained in the liver is waking up in the morning with stiffness or numbness in the fingers or dizziness due to lack of blood circulation.
Because of my high estrogen levels, I also had to avoid foods or herbs that have estrogenic activities such as Don Quei, Licorice, Ginseng, Royal Jelly, fennel, anise, flaxseed oil, clover, red clover, evening primrose oil, etc. I avoided taking all pharmaceutical drugs because most of them are weakening or damaging to the liver or kidneys.
Stress congests the liver and constricts the blood vessels. It causes poor blood flow and the whole body becomes sluggish. Furthermore, it is believed in Chinese medicine that anger (especially suppressed anger) injures the liver, grief injures the lungs, fear or fright injures the kidneys and worry injures the spleen. As mentioned earlier, all these organs support each other and work together. Disharmonies in one of these organs tend to produce an imbalance in the corresponding emotions and vice versa.
According to Chinese medicine, cold and raw vegetables such as salads tend to weaken the spleen unless the individuals who consume them are robust and strong (“Yang” type person). This could be the reason why many vegetarians look pale because of their weak spleen although Vitamin B12 deficiency may also be responsible. Also, most vegetarians eat a lot of salad, even though cooked vegetables are better to eat. One of the common signs of weak spleen is dry lips or frequent thirst. Chronic diarrhea or loose bowel may be another sign of weak spleen. Since the spleen is an important organ for red cell production, weak spleen is a common cause of anemia, especially in cases that do not respond to iron supplements.
I suffered from heart palpitations since my early teenage years. I fainted for the first time in my life in school at the age of eleven. It was due to a hereditary weak heart according to the doctor who saw me. He warned me that I might faint easily throughout my life. He was right in that prediction: I fainted more than 10 times in my life. But I have not fainted again ever since the health of my liver was restored at age 47, and my heart palpitations disappeared as well.
When my liver became healthier my vision also improved and is actually better than it was in 1989 when I was still suffering from liver congestion. I had never used eyeglasses at any time during my life and I still don’t need them. The Chinese have a saying: “The liver opens into the eyes. When the liver is harmonized, the eyes can distinguish the five colors”. Clean and nutrient-rich blood from a healthy, efficient liver can flow easily and nourish the eye tissues better. Stimulation of blood flow to the eyes by massaging also helps. I massage the pressure points for blood circulation to the eyes twice daily, morning and night when I lie flat in bed. In this position blood does not have to flow against gravity.
I am in my mid-70s now and I can still read without reading glasses, although I do have difficulty reading very small print.
- Harper, H.A., Review of Physiological Chemistry, 14th ed., Lange Medical Publications (1973).
- A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual, the American translation of the official Chinese Paramedical Manual, Running Press, Philadelphia (1990).
- Neufeld, W.P., MD The Liver Causes Heart Attack, Morning Dawn Publishing Company, Surrey, B.C., Canada (1987).
- Selkurt, E.E. (editor), Physiology, 2nd edition, Little, Brown and Company, Boston (1966).
- Chinese Medicinal Herbs, compiled by Li Shih-Chen, translated by F. Porter Smith, M.D., and G.A. Stuart, M.D., Georgetown Press, San Francisco (1973).