Liver Health in Chinese Medicine
At Trillium we decided that it was time to do a bit of a cleanse and some focused self care. We have all been feeling that COVID times has had us eating less than optimal and imbibing just a little more than normal. The stress due to this unprecedented time has taken a toll on our systems and we are feeling the effects, whether it’s lack of sleep, feeling irritable, digestive issues, changes is our monthly cycle (for women), more aches and pains than normal and/or increased anxiety and depression. As each person has their own unique constitution, it’s important that when eating to heal your body, you tailor your diet to your needs.
In Chinese Medicine we strive for balance. When treating a patient with dietary therapy we select foods on the basis of whether they help or hinder the state of your patients’ condition. For example, if there is heat, cool it; if there is dryness, moisten it; if there is cold, warm it; if there is deficiency, nourish it; if there is excess, drain it.
A common association of cleansing is with the liver organ. When we think about a ‘liver cleanse’ one often thinks that your liver is full of toxins. However, I like to think of it as balancing your system for your liver or supporting your liver. Cleansing sounds like you are cleaning your liver rather than supporting your liver. When using Chinese Medicine you have to think more in terms of ‘what does my body need’ rather than let’s remove everything toxic. Ultimately your liver needs a lot of nutrients in order to function and carry out it’s roles, such as cleaning your blood. In western medicine the liver helps aid in digestion by producing bile to break down fats. In addition, all the blood leaving the stomach and intestines passes through the liver where it balances chemicals and creates nutrients for the body. In Chinese Medicine the role of the liver is to ensure smooth flow of Qi and blood in your body and is important for the following:
• It controls the volume of the blood in your vessels and also stores blood.
• By storing blood the liver regulates the volume in relation to activity, it regulates menstruation and moistens the eyes and sinews (tendons).
• The smooth flow of Qi affects your emotional state, digestion and the secretion of bile.
• The liver ‘opens to the eyes’. If you have issues with your eyes, such as blurred vision, floaters, myopia, dry or gritty eyes, this may be due to the state of your liver.
• It is also the organ most affected by anger causing liver Qi stagnation (impairing the function of the liver).
If we are going to consider supporting our liver, I would first say we need to look at what we are putting into our digestive system. By doing so, we ease the load on our overall system. There are a few common diagnoses I see in the clinic due to poor diet and stress that will in turn affect the liver function. This will vary with each person but some of the most common problems we see are liver stagnation with stomach heat; kidney yin deficiency; spleen deficiency with damp accumulation and damp heat.
The first diagnosis is someone who is stressed/irritable and experiences possible heartburn, indigestion, increased appetite, foul breath, nausea and increased thirst. I would also add that you may see constipation. This is someone who should not eat a lot of heavy foods, like nuts, bread and meat. People with Liver stagnation will crave spicy or warm/hot foods as they are a stimulant, to help relieve the feeling of depression/stagnation. It’s important to increase exercise, practice meditation and relaxation. More cooling foods to treat the stomach may be more helpful, such as tofu, mung bean sprouts, radishes, oats, asparagus, bok choy, celery, cucumber, watermelon. Eating foods rich in leafy greens, micro-algea (spirulina and chlorella), kelp, dandelion and nettle are some of my favourite foods to recommend to patients who need to nourish their liver.
Kidney Yin Deficiency is also a very common diagnosis. Those that are kidney yin deficient have experienced a lot of stimuli in their life that has aged them more than their years, becoming dry, wrinkled and greying with poor teeth, fading vision and hearing, and diminished sexual capacity. Persons with kidney yin deficiency should avoid coffee, alcohol, sugars, and hot spices. Foods to help nourish yin include, bone broths, lots of cooked vegetables, soups, stews, grains and animal protein. My favourite is a hearty rice congee made with organic bone broth, herbs, and vegetables. Congees are also very good for anyone recovering from cancer or childbirth.
Spleen deficiency with damp accumulation is again very common in the clinic. I would say that most of my patients have some sort of spleen deficiency. The spleen does not like damp foods as this causes impaired function of the spleen and you will start to see damp accumulation over time. This can be a result of eating too many sweet and fatty foods, poor eating habits, and worrying or thinking too much. This type of condition should avoid any concentrated sugars, fatty/greasy foods, too many raw foods and cold foods such as ice cream, ice water and smoothies (if you love smoothies please do not use any frozen fruit or yogurt!). Cooked vegetables, rice, lean meats, and warming spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg are all beneficial for those with spleen Qi deficiency.
The final common diagnosis is Damp Heat, which is due to an imbalance in the spleen and stomach. When the spleen is not functioning optimally it cannot transform fluids as it should and we see turbid dampness travel downwards. This can be caused by over worrying, stress, diet and lack of sleep. When dampness accumulates the Qi is impacted and stagnation occurs, creating heat, thus damp heat. Conditions seen with damp heat are liver/gallbladder, inflammation and or infection of the bladder, inflammatory diseases of the intestines, and genitals. Foods to avoid with this condition are sugars, alcohol, dairy, fatty/greasy foods and cold foods. Foods that help alleviate damp heat are diuretic in nature to drain the damp and cooling, to reduce the heat. Such foods are watermelon (especially the white part), and cooling vegetables eaten slightly cooked such as celery, watercress, radish, and rice.
Once the digestive system is properly addressed and lifestyle changes are incorporated to your daily routine, such as exercise and mindfulness/meditation, your liver will be much happier. I hope this helps you on your health journey and if anything, taught you a little more about what your local Registered Acupuncturist can do for you!
If you are interested in learning more about how Chinese Medicinal Food Therapy or Acupuncture can help you, please contact the clinic at 778-640-1119 or book an appointment with Savanna through our online booking site