The Liver - King of Balance
(Healing Begins In the Gut Pt.2)
In the previous article in the gut series we talked about the stomach. If we want to heal and resolve any kind of gut issues, this is a great place to start.
However, as we will discover in this article, the liver has so many more functions than just being part of the digestive tract. It is our main 'filter', 'engine' when it comes to energy production, storage of nutrients, harmonizer of hormones and many others. But first things first.
The liver is one of the largest internal organs. It is located on the right side of the body, just above the stomach and is partly protected by the lower ribs.
In the ancient times, the liver was considered the seat of life. The Old English word was 'lifer' and the German 'die Leber' comes from the verb leben (to live). Why?
The liver performs over 500 vital functions!
It's impossible to cover them all in a single article, of course. Nevertheless, I will talk about the ones that are essential to be aware of if we want to stay healthy and thrive - or we need to focus on supporting and nourishing in order to improve our health.
The liver filters our blood and removes toxins. Any substance that cannot be broken down and used for energy will end up in the liver for detoxification. This could be preservatives and additives in foods or chemicals from cosmetic products, among others.
The liver continuously produces bile, a secretion for the digestion of fats - to break them down and absorb. Bile flows into the gallbladder which acts as a small sac for storing and secreting bile to aid the digestive process. The pancreatic enzymes only dissolve water soluble nutrients, not fats.
The liver is our major storage site for vitamins A, D, K and B12, minerals and glycogen. Glycogen is converted to glucose to provide energy. The pancreatic hormone insulin regulates the amount of glucose in the blood.
Sugar (all types of sugar, including alcohol) can only be metabolised in the liver.
As you can see, the liver and pancreas work closely together. Anything that will support and nourish one organ, will support the other in turn, too.
What I find interesting (and haven't seen written much about) is the fact that our liver not only breaks down and absorbs fats and fat soluble nutrients - the liver NEEDS these for its optimal functioning. So if we are lacking vitamin D (which we already discussed briefly in my thyroid article and said that it's really a steroid hormone - not a vitamin) or B12 for example, it goes without saying that our liver won't be very happy.
I have pondered the question of 'being fat' vs. 'eating fat' so many times. Why is it that we call an overweight person the same as the essential nourishing foods our body needs??
Fats don't make us fat!
It is the sugars (everything that turns into glucose) that make us overweight. In fact, the whole principle of the ketogenic diet is based on eating fats in large amounts. When we eat the right fats we balance our hormones, optimise the liver function and burn fats more efficiently. Our body is able to work on glucose as well as fats. Many health advocates are saying now that using sugar and carbohydrates to fuel the body is like pouring petrol onto a flame. We want to fuel our body in a slow and steady manner - like when we add a dry log into the fireplace.
You may ask - how about all the low fat foods in the supermarkets? I suspect it's all marketing - and a clever strategy to create ever returning customers.
The fact is, the more we limit our fat intake, the harder it will be for us to maintain a balanced bodyweight.
Do you remember what I said in the thyroid article? Whenever the balance is off, the thyroid will reduce its function. Low thyroid usually equals the inability to lose weight. So the equation could go like this:
Low fat = unbalanced hormones = unhappy liver = unbalanced blood sugar = low thyroid function = high BMI.
Although we have been told to avoid saturated fats, the ketogenic diet is all about saturated fat! Saturated fats are much more stable - they have a higher smoke point (when frying, baking), they are much slower to go rancid, keep the blood sugar more balanced and seem to keep us full for longer.
Our brain loves saturated fat and so do our hormones.
Missing adequate amounts of fat (and especially the saturated type) will reduce the body's ability to create sex hormones. I believe the fertility issues among women arose in the 80' and 90' - during the hype of aerobics and low fat! Yes, saturated fat increases cholesterol. And did you know that lack of cholesterol makes it nearly impossible to synthesize vitamin D through our skin from the sun? Yup, we NEED cholesterol.
If you still have doubts about fat - let's look at breastmilk. About 54% of its fat content is saturated fat. When we look at the speed of an infant's brain development, it makes perfect sense.
I repeat: OUR BRAIN LOVES SATURATED FAT.
Although our body can use glucose for energy, our brain doesn't need it - in fact, it doesn't want it. So having a low fat diet or just diet low in saturated fat (and possibly high in carbs/sugar) can produce a lot of brain fog, memory issues or inability to concentrate. Do you remember those times when you were studying for an exam and just couldn't read another page without having chocolate or walnuts first? Yup, it's all those good fats! (Dark chocolate, ideally. :-) )
You may know someone with Gilbert's syndrome. It's a genetic condition where due to a faulty gene the liver doesn't properly remove bilirubin from broken down red blood cells. However, in these cases the liver cannot deal with fructose (type of fruit sugar) and struggles with sugars in general (as we already said it is the liver that metabolizes sugar). People with Gilbert's syndrome are advised to eat a low fat diet to avoid burdening the liver.
A few years ago I met a chap from a local company selling an energy bar which contained more than 50% of fat. I was VERY impressed when I saw the ingredients - sunflower seeds, pecans, cacao butter, coconut oil, coconut flour, dark chocolate coating which contained more cocoa butter... The bar contained only 15.7g of sugars from maple syrup and the tiny amount of sugar in the chocolate coating.
I knew this was a very special treat - one that is actually good for you!
This is the first time I came across someone with Gilbert's syndrome. He told me how for years he had struggled with fatigue, brain fog, nausea, aches and pain - his life was a misery while he was following the official advice - eating a low fat diet and fairly high carbs. It's only when he started researching about the liver and its functions, he realised that the liver couldn't function without fats. After years of struggle, literally within days his overall wellbeing improved, just by eating a high fat diet . And that was the reason why he decided to found his company - to share his discovery and inspire others to live a healthy, vital life.
If we called the thyroid a queen of balance, we need to call the liver a king of balance. While the thyroid will downregulate its function whenever things are off, the liver will try to keep things as balanced as possible - and work even harder.
The liver balances our hormones and blood sugar among others. As women go through the menopause, or rather the changes that will lead to the menopause (menopause means the end of the monthly cycles for good), the hormone levels are dropping and fluctuating. The liver is trying very hard to keep them balanced. The accompanying night sweats and hot flashes are all signs of this process.
The liver processes and breaks down the hormone estrogen. It's very common for women of all ages to be dealing with estrogen dominance. This is a condition where the body doesn't have a balanced ratio of estrogen to progesterone. The reasons can be many - too much stress, too much sugar, not enough progesterone, perimenopause and menopause, a congested/sluggish liver (usually in combination with colon issues). Estrogen dominance causes very heavy cycles, lots of cramping, moodiness, fibroids, endometrioses, infertility and can lead to breast cancer. Also, taking the 'pill' increases estrogen in the body.
If the estrogen dominance is causing a lot of problems the conventional treatment is to use estrogen blockers. These may help alleviate the issue temporarily but are not dealing with the root cause. The root cause is down to the liver and often the colon (I will discuss this more in my future article about the colon), not doing their job properly.
It needs to said that estrogen is not bad as such - it's an essential hormone. It's only when we have too much of it or in the form of xenoestrogens (artificial, very difficult to break down estrogens) it becomes a problem. You can read more about this issue in my article about the linseed/flax seed: A Humble Flax Seed - Powerhouse of Nutrition.
If a woman takes estrogen blockers her body will automatically enter the stage of menopause, no matter her age. As we know this carries many problems with it, for example dryness of mucous membranes (including eyes and mouth), reduced bone density, infertility AND a higher load to carry for the liver.
The long-term approach I recommend is to support the liver with cruciferous vegetables, sulphur-rich foods and sprouts, herbs and spices that nourish the liver and taking a supplement called DIM (which is a concentrated extract from broccoli sprouts). The colon needs to be supported and its function restored here, too.
The other important function I want to mention is the conversion from T4 to T3 (from the passive to the active thyroid hormone) that happens in the liver. If the liver for whatever reason doesn't work optimally, the conversion may not be happening correctly. I will not go into details here as you can read more about the thyroid in my article The Thyroid - Queen of Balance. But let's just say that too much passive thyroid hormone equals an underactive thyroid which in turn brings on fatigue, cold hands and feet, sluggish metabolism, brain fog...
Now that we know about some of the essential functions of the liver, how can we support and nourish it?
I already mentioned some of the foods and nutrients but let's recap:
vitamins A, D, K and B12 (ideally from a diet rich in these, sunshine and also supplements if we can't get enough)
fats (olive oil, avocado, butter, ghee, seeds and nuts, oily fish, coconut oil, cacao butter, and if you eat red meat and organ meats)
cruciferous vegetables and sprouts - cauliflower, broccoli, all types of kale and cabbage, radishes, watercress, rocket
sulphur rich foods - eggs and the above mentioned cruciferous veg and sprouts
sour foods and condiments - lemon, berries, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut and sauerkraut juice
bitter spices and herbs - turmeric, milk thistle and other thistles (holy/ blessed thistle is especially good), aloe vera, burdock root, dandelion root, fresh herbs/weeds (dandelion and dock leaves)
According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine the liver and gallbladder belong to the element of Wood (also called Tree). We should be like a tree - strong, deeply rooted, standing tall, yet flexible.
The Wood element is more active in spring, supported by the colour green and regenerates itself every night between 11pm to 3am. Spending time in nature, wearing green clothes and getting to bed around 10pm every night may be some useful steps to nourishing the liver, as well.
Talking from the psycho-somatic view, frustration and unresolved or suppressed anger will cause liver imbalances.
From a more spiritual perspective, the liver is to do with the father. Any trauma or unresolved issues with the father, or possibly an authority, will affect the liver in a negative way.
The liver loves freedom and free artistic expression.
Let's give our 'king of balance' the time to be free and creative, without any expectations and time pressures at least once a week!