We’re still weeks away from the official arrival of spring, but my neighbors have already tapped their maple sugar trees to capture the sweetness of the season. Nature’s energy is rising out of the earth and carrying the sap skyward. It’s March first and there are still two feet of snow on the ground here in Amherst, Massachusetts. But the old gray pots hanging from the trees are a more accurate sign of the season than the snow. The great life force has awakened and is pushing the “up” button.
Even the sun, which has taken a higher angle in the sky, obeys. We can feel it in our bodies, too. We’re a little bit more relaxed, a little more at home in our skin. Ever aware of humanity’s inextricable bonds with nature, the Chinese sages realized long ago that the same energy that causes the sap to rise is also running like a fountain inside of each of us. And where does it go? It flows directly into the liver and gall bladder, the sages said. The biggest internal organ and its little sac of a partner are being re-invigorated by the rising tides of life. It’s a good thing, too, because, the body is desperate for a spring cleaning. After a long winter of heavy food and too much contraction against the cold, it’s time to clean house and lighten up. As they used to say about Superman, that’s a job for the liver.
Cleaning Up and Sustaining Life
The liver is a cone-shaped organ, located primarily on the right side of your body, directly under your rib cage, but extending to the left side to a point beneath the left nipple. In adults, it weighs about two-and-a-half pounds and holds about a quarter of your blood supply at any one time.
The liver does its best to remove all the poisons from your blood, including those from the environmental – such as pollutants — and dietary poisons, such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. It neutralizes the drugs people consume, both pharmaceutical and recreational, and it breaks down and converts fats into various types of cholesterol.
All day long, it transforms deadly poisons into harmless, water-soluble substances that are eliminated through the feces.
The liver is the genius chemist of your body. It creates bile acids, which emulsifies and digests fats. It also produces numerous life-sustaining blood constituents.
As if all of that weren’t enough, it makes about a thousand enzymes that help digest your food and assimilate its nutrients into your blood and cells. It produces some hormones and blocks the re-absorption of existing hormone, thus maintaining your hormonal balance.
The liver serves as a reservoir for reserve fuel, known as glycogen. It regulates the body’s heat, breaks down proteins into amino acids, and reassembles them into proteins that are unique to your biology.
We abuse it constantly, of course, but it keeps coming back. You can lose up to three quarters of its function and, given the right conditions, it will restore itself to health.
The Chinese View
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (the bible of Chinese medicine) states that the liver wants to be the “free and easy wanderer.” In other words, it loves to be flexible and open up so that blood can flow freely through its many channels.
When those channels are open, the liver is able to parcel out an abundant flow of life force throughout the body, especially to the eyes, joints, tendons and ligaments. When healthy, it gives us a deep and restful sleep.
The liver sustains our emotional equilibrium, and when disturbed, gives rise to irritability, frustration, and anger. As the liver and gall bladder become more imbalanced, we frequently suffer from headaches, shoulder and upper back pain, constipation, floaters in the eyes, poor vision, and eventually glaucoma.
The Chinese maintained that our will power was rooted in the kidneys, but our self-expression, and the experience of our personal power, are made possible by the liver. A healthy liver helps us express ourselves and thereby fulfill our needs, desires, and ambitions. A weak or deficient liver causes timidity and shyness. Wallflowers suffer from deficient livers.
Thousands of years ago, the Chinese worked out their own version of circadian rhythms and maintained that the gall bladder became more active between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., while the liver was most active between 1 and 3 a.m. Thus, any disturbances in the liver would result in insomnia.
This time of the year, the liver wants to cleanse itself and the overall system of waste products and fat. That means that it wants us to help it clean the house, so to speak.
Traditional and complementary healers throughout the world maintain that we can help the liver do that by engaging in certain supportive and cleansing behaviors.
The primary threats to the liver are poisons that create high levels of oxidation, which deform healthy cells and turn them into scar tissue. Two of the most damaging are alcohol, which makes the liver fatty, hard, and can lead to cirrhosis, and fried foods block and congest the liver. In other words, both are going to make you angry before they kill you.
There’s a limit to the amount of animal fat the liver can process, dissolve, and eliminate. Animal fats are converted in the liver into compounds that inflame the liver and alter its function. As consumption of animal foods increases, the liver produces excessive amounts of poisonous chemicals that spread throughout the system. (Among them are LDL cholesterol, lipoprotein-a, growth factors, homocysteine, C-reactive protein, fibrinogen and other clotting proteins). Not only do these substances wreak havoc in the liver, but they also destroy arteries, the heart, and tissues throughout the body.
There’s a lot you can do to restore the liver and its functions, however. Here are just some of the foods that heal your liver.
1. Sour-tasting plant foods, such as lemon and sauerkraut, both of which help to cleanse and heal the liver. Don’t put too much lemon juice in the water before you drink it. It shouldn’t be too astringent, but rather have a sweet edge. Excess astringency may slow the release of toxins from the organ. Small amounts of sauerkraut – a tablespoon three-or-four-times a week — promote liver cleansing and elimination of toxins. A couple of slices of pickle, say two or three times per week, does the same. Brown rice vinegar is heavenly nectar to the liver. It’s both sour and sweet, which makes the liver very happy, indeed. Similarly, green apple is cleansing and opening to the liver, as well.
2. toHealing grains. The Chinese maintained that wheat and barley were the two grains that promoted healing of the liver. Because our diets and environments have been so toxic, many people day suffer from weak livers and can no longer digest wheat and wheat products, such as bulgur, bread and seitan (a wheat protein made from wheat gluten). If your liver is weak, avoid wheat berries and wheat products. Instead, try eating barley, such as in barley-and-vegetable soup (see recipe below), and oats, especially steel cut or whole oats, both of which help to heal the liver. Pasta relaxes the liver and noodles in a light tamari or shoyu broth (with greens, onions, and shiitake mushrooms) can be soothing, relaxing, and healing to the liver.
3. Green and leafy open and heal. Broccoli, collard greens, kale, Napa cabbage, sprouts, dandelion, and leeks have long been seen as the big green healers. They open, cleanse, and promote the organ’s amazing self-healing capacities. Try adding brown rice vinegar to broccoli (the two are perfect together), as well as on kale, Napa cabbage, and sprouts.
4. Antioxidants not only reduce oxidation but promote repair and healing of the liver. The foods that are richest in antioxidants, of course, are those that are richest in color – vegetables that are deep green, yellow, or orange vegetables. Eat lots of them in the spring. Antioxidant-rich juices, such as carrot juice, drunk once or twice a week, can be very healing to the liver.
5.White vegetables – daikon, cauliflower, turnips, and onions — have long been used traditionally to decongest, break-up fat deposits, and drain excessive energy from the liver. They also cleanse the organ of toxins.
6.Shiitake mushrooms, which researchers have found to be highly immune boosting, have long been used to dissolve fat deposits and blockages in the liver. Shiitake tea is a great drink to help relax and detoxify the liver. Just boil one or two shiitake mushrooms in water, let simmer for ten minutes, steep, and drink hot. Also, use shiitakes in vegetable medleys and pasta dishes. (See recipes below.)
7.The liver loves exercise. Exercise promotes blood flow and elimination of waste throughout the organ. The liver also loves it when we laugh and have fun. Have lots of fun this spring. Go to the movies, spend time in nature, play games, and eat plenty of greens and leafies.
Here are a handful of recipes to help you clean house this spring.