The liver is a master multitasker of organs. Understanding what it does on a daily basis can help us encourage healthy function and prevent the symptoms associated with a sluggish liver.
On any given day, your liver completes 6 major functions:
Cells in the liver called hepatocytes produce a substance called bile. This is released by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. When we consume fat-containing foods, bile is released from the gall bladder in response to a hormone. Bile breaks apart larger clumps of fat and coats it to make it easier to digest.
Metabolism is the collection of chemical reactions within a living organism that sustain life. These reactions extract energy from nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and lipids). In the human body, the liver is involved in the metabolism of things we ingest as the blood leaving the digestive tract goes directly to the liver. From foods, the liver metabolizes carbohydrates, proteins and lipids into materials that are used for our functioning. For example, dietary protein is broken down into amino acids, which are transported to the liver and further broken down so that the toxic portions can be eliminated safely and the useful parts can go on to produce energy.
As blood circulates from the digestive tract to the liver, the hepatocytes (cells in the liver) behave like border police. They monitor the contents of circulation and take out the potentially toxic elements before they are circulated to the rest of the body. The hepatocytes remove toxins (for example, drugs and alcohol) and metabolize them to their inactive form to prevent damage. They also remove hormones the body has produced to ensure that the levels in circulation remain optimal.
As circulation passes blood through the liver, some vitamins, minerals and nutrients are removed from circulation and stored. Glucose is removed and stored to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Vitamins A, D, E, K and B12 are stored along with copper and iron so that the body has a reservoir to draw from, ensuring that levels in circulation are always adequate.
The liver produces some of the components of blood – prothrombin, fibrinogen and albumins. Prothrombin and fibrinogen are crucial for blood clotting and albumins help ensure that cells of the body maintain their optimal water concentration.
In addition to hepatocytes, the liver also contains cells that are part of the immune system. These are called Kupffer cells. As blood circulates through the liver, Kupffer cells capture and digest elements that shouldn’t be there. Bacteria, fungi, parasites, old blood cells and other debris are identified as problematic and eliminated.
Symptoms of Sluggish Liver Function
When the liver is not performing optimally, a very common complaint is fatigue but the symptoms that may be experienced vary as much as the functions of the liver.
- Without proper production and release of bile, a person may experience gallstones, intolerance to fatty foods, bloating and gas, abdominal pain, constipation and intolerance to alcohol.
Metabolism and Storage
- Poor metabolism in the liver results in increases of the “bad” cholesterol (LDL and triglycerides) and decreases of the “good” cholesterol (HDL).
- Poor fat metabolism causes other issues like weight gain, cellulitis, difficulty losing weight, buildup of fat in the liver and buildup of cholesterol in the arteries (atherosclerosis).
- Without proper removal and storage of glucose, blood sugar levels become unstable causing fatigue, headaches, vision changes, increased urination and increased thirst. Over time, unregulated blood sugar leads to type II diabetes.
- When the liver isn’t functioning efficiently, conversion of nutrients in food to their absorption and storage form suffers and results in deficiency.
Production and Detoxification
- The liver is a key player in regulating hormone levels in circulation; so liver dysfunction can result in abnormal estrogen, testosterone, thyroid hormones and insulin.
- Abnormal thyroid hormones and insulin may result in hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, insulin resistance or type II diabetes.
- Abnormal sex hormones can aggravate PMS and menopause, or cause difficulties with sexual function and reproduction.
- Without the liver functioning well as a part of our immune defense, the system becomes overextended and incapable of handling the toxins that are presenting in circulation. This can result in food sensitivities, allergies, chronic fatigue, skin pathologies (rashes, inflammation) and may increase the risk of autoimmune diseases.
Easy Ways to Encourage Healthy Liver Function
- Castor Oil Pack
- Use a piece of cotton or flannel approximately the size of a textbook. Soak it in castor oil and lay it over the liver (it’s under the last few ribs on the right side). Place saran wrap over the material and then place a hot water bottle on top. Castor oil stains so the plastic wrap helps minimize this. I would also suggest wearing old clothes and placing a towel down where you will be laying. Relax for 20-60 minutes.
- Castor oil increases circulation to the liver, thereby increases detoxification and elimination of toxins.
- Repeat 3-7 times each week – this can be particularly helpful after alcohol consumption.
- The castor oil-soaked cotton can be kept in airtight plastic and reused.
- Warm Lemon Water
- Squeeze half a lemon into a tall glass and fill with warm water. Drink quickly first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach.
- This drink promotes liver and gall bladder function. It will encourage the release of bile and promote elimination.
- Drink 8 glasses of water each day to stay hydrated and promote flushing out of detoxification products.
- Alternating Showers
- At the end of your shower, do 3 minutes of hot water followed by 30 seconds of the coldest water you can tolerate. Cycle through this 3 times and end your shower on cold.
- These drastic temperature fluctuations cause vasodilation (opening up of arteries and veins) and vasoconstriction (closing of arteries and veins). The overall result is increased circulation, which in turn promotes healthy digestion, detoxification and elimination. Added benefits include mental clarity and broadened range of comfortable temperatures.
- Try to do this each time you shower. If you don’t have time for the cycling, just finish your shower with 30 seconds of cold water.
- Liver Support Teas
- Teas containing milk thistle, dandelion and/or nettle will support healthy liver function.
- Traditional Medicinals makes Everyday Detox tea that is a great combination of herbs for healthy liver function.
- Choose teas that do no contain artificial flavors – this is becoming a very common ingredient so be sure to check.
- Supplements and Cleanses
- Visit your naturopathic doctor to learn about the best options for you – it is important not to self-prescribe. As we are trying to unburden the liver, it is crucial to select products that are the most bioavailable form, and your naturopathic doctor will be able to provide valuable guidance.
Note: This blog posting is not in place of a visit to your naturopathic doctor. Please see a health professional before taking any of the supplements/recommendations provided here within. This is to ensure that the supplements you take work well for your particular diagnosis and treatment plan.