the garbage man | LIVER

the garbage man | LIVER

The Garbage Man

             Everyone knows the feeling - the birds are singing, flowers are blooming, trees are budding, children are laughing, the sun is shining but that unstoppable motivation and drive you fantasized about over six months of winter hasn’t sprung the way spring has. Spring sprung without you - leaving you in the dust with a combination of deathly pale skin, thundery thighs, lethargy and a creepy aggressive attachment to the three carnal c’s; carbohydrate, couch and cat-naps. Four months later when the leaves start changing color and the cool breeze whispers hauntingly “yooou misssed sssummerr”, again. I have never sought the advice of a doctor for this debilitating ‘syndrome’ but I am sure if I did my doctor would lump it in under the depression category and send me off with a cocktail of anti-depressants and uppers eventually leading to dependence and plethora of long term issues. When the actual issue may be simply caused by a natural instinct to become slightly sedate during winter months.

            The term hibernation is reserved for bears yet most mammals, including humans, have fluxuating energy levels - mostly due to dietary restrictions in drastically changing seasonal climates. Back in the day humans relied on dried, canned foods to sustain themselves through harsh winters. Now we have access to an abundance of foods from around the world at our fingertips 24/7 but when it is -30 degrees Celsius outside the last thing I crave is a fresh vegetable salad, so instead we consume a copious amount of comforting carbohydrates and  warming whiskeys, etc. By the time spring, er springs our poor bodies are riddled with an excess of toxins and we’re left with a red hot jammed up liver desperate for some help.

            The liver is the body’s glorified garbage/recycling men. Imagine a city with ONE garbage man - this is your liver after winter. Now imagine the streets of a city with one garbage man - this is your blood after winter. The garbage in our unsightly hypothetical is a build up of hormones, drugs, all the chemicals that we encounter, cholesterol, old dead cells, sugar (the product of all those carbs), fats, amino acids all blocking any actual nutrients we may be ingesting. That ONE garbage man needs to organize it all; eliminate the good from the bad, transform some of the bad to good, store the good and some of the bad for later all while shipping off the good to satisfy the ferocious appetite of brain cells, muscle cells and the 100 trillion cells that make up the human body. Luckily your body is a little more organized and efficient at masking such unimaginable chaos as signs such as dry skin/eyes, fatigue and lethargy, swelling or fluid retention and skin irritations and strange pallor just to name a few. That one garbage man is also in charge of organizing the absorption of Vitamin D aka the sunny sunshiny happy warm cuddly rays of the sun so when we finally do get our butts off the couch to bask in the sun our liver may be too overburdened to even transform that Vitamin D into warm dreamy bliss.

            This scenario, according to Matthew Wood in his book “The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism” is stagnation. When the liver becomes stagnant it begins to function more like a swamp; instead of flowing naturally the water becomes trapped. This leads to the retention of “water in tissues causing swelling and weakness creating a blockade inhibiting excretions, secretions and absorption” (Wood 2004). All that good and bad ‘garbage’ starts to build up toxifying the water thus “impeding nutrition, metabolism, and elimination.” (Wood 2004) Congestion and stagnation, just like rotting garbage, creates heat. This heat and all those toxins are trapped and eliminatory organs such as the skin are overburdened desperately trying to move them from the blood out. When we have a hot stagnant liver our skin displays signs of irritation like eczema, psoriasis, rashes and an overall unhealthy pallor. These types of rashes are often misdiagnosed as a malfunction of the skin and are treated with harmful corticosteroid creams that essentially push the toxins back into to the blood infecting other organs - most commonly the lungs. When we have a swampy liver it becomes hypersensitive and other organs that filter toxins are at full alert as well. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) correlates the hypersensitivity of a stagnant liver after hibernation with the hypersensitivity of the lungs to springtime airborne pollutants such as pollen, dust, snow mould, ect. If the body was governed by the same system in the United States circa 2011 a stagnant congested liver would be comparable to code ’RED - Severe risk of terrorist attacks’!  

            Since the liver is already having a hard time eliminating excess steroidal hormones like cortisol, estrogen and aldosterone into bile, when the flow of bile becomes stagnant these hormones end up re-circulated through the blood upsetting the homeostasis the body maintains to control mood, energy and metabolism. Anger, depression/mood swings and lethargy can be caused by environmental factors but for the most part build up of excess estrogen through stagnant bile are to blame for erratic behavior and fatigue. The word melancholy comes from the Greek word melanos - or black and chole - bile.(Merriam-Webster) Our term for depression actually refers to the state of our bile flow - black bile can’t be good under any circumstances.  Fat cells don’t help the situation as they excrete extra estrogen and in turn the extra estrogen signals the body to store more fat cells. Sweet vicious cycle, thanks body. This along with the initial fluid retention caused by stagnation can be another factor inhibiting hitting the beach in a yellow polka dot bikini or um, speedo? In fact, Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is often associated with the obesity epidemic North America is currently facing. The congested liver has no refuge and eventually becomes clogged with undigested fat. Supercharged vicious cycle of thunder thighs.     

            Before grocery stores existed we would run out of those canned dried goods just in time for the fresh new spring sprouts to shoot up from the ground. Our vital energy wakes up from it’s long winter nap stoking our inner fire that has been reduced to glowing embers.  We would celebrate the beginning of spring with parties devoted to dance, fertility and growth ramping up our inner fire. These parties would also incorporate gobbling up anything fresh we could get out hands on because just like a glacier melt clears leaves and debris from swamps fresh leafy greens clears toxins and build up from our swampy livers allowing the nutrients we’ve been starving ourselves of to finally be absorbed.

            The liver is such a resilient organ; it is the only one we have that will actually regenerate itself if given the opportunity to catch up. One of the first plants to pop up in spring is that pesky weed known as dandelion - Taraxacum officinale and it is widely used as a spring tonic specifically for thick stagnant swamp water that congests the liver, the gallbladder and the kidneys. Both the leaf - folia and the root - radix are used to remove excess heat within the body. The folia “is salty/minerally, contains sodium and potassium and removes fluids while increasing potassium levels” just the reduction of bodily fluid can drastically increase energy levels and eradicate “dullness of the mind”. (Wood 2004) The radix is a hepatic and a cholagogue, or a liver cell tonic and gentle bile flow stimulator and has an affinity for congested livers. Dandelion can be used as a long term liver tonic as it restores liver function by detoxifying and focusing on the restoration of liver cells - or hepatocytes (Houndslow 2013).What a beautifully orchestrated world we live in - the first plant to pop up is perfectly suited to our body’s needs.

            Another herb known for it’s affinity for liver stagnation is Euonymus atropurpureus otherwise known as Wahoo or Burning Bush - aptly named for its red leaves.  It has been used by North American Indians of the Midwest as a topical medicine and has become the go-to guy when it comes to a gentle “persistent” stimulation of bile secretion from the gallbladder (Wood 2004). It contains tannins - used in the tanning of leather. Tannins are drying and toning, not just on the skin of a dead animal but for the digestive organs of our bodies as well.  Euonymus atropurpureus has a friend whose name is a little easier on the tongue: Hydrastis canadensis but Wahoo calls him Goldenseal. Together they act as a fitness coach for the liver -not the boot camp kind, the nice gentle kind of fitness coach- when the liver is congested, flabby and sluggish Wahoo and Goldenseal gives it a bit of a face lift, or tummy tuck, or .. Let’s not go down this route.. Anyways, once the liver and the gallbladder start getting back into shape the other digestive organs tend to follow suite - good riddance to winter constipation and swelling - welcome back to that healthy glow.

            It is rather amazing to note that two of the three herbs discussed above have yellow flowers. The color yellow and bile have been partners in crime since Hippocratic medicine, roughly 2473 years ago. Together they represent fire or chole aka heat. That is a solid history, plus bile is actually yellow due to the substance bilirubin that the liver filters from the blood and excretes into bile. Aaand the word jaundice is from the French word jaune meaning yellow! Not only is this world beautifully orchestrated it is perfectly comprehensive if we just pay attention!        

            The next herb is yellow mixed with red (more heat!) and it is used to treat the fullness and hot constriction of the liver. The bright orange root of Curcuma longa is an ancient medicinal plant. It basically has a name in every language, we know it as Tumeric and it is world renowned for its many uses, especially all those indicated by hot-swampy-stagnant-atrophic liver. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory with gentle stimulating properties that soothe and decongest clogged up hepatocytes (Christian 2012). One of the main actions of Curcuma longa is chologogue - cholo: bile and gogue: flow. This is such an important component when dealing with stagnant atrophic organs as any movement or flow is crucial to the removal of hepatotoxins.

            “In the twentieth century the active ingredients of Silybum marianum were analyzed and found to contain antidotes to powerful hepatotoxins.” (Wood 2004) Milk Thistle is a liver herb, through and through. Again, especially when the liver is sluggish from improper bile secretion and depression - the kind you get when you sit on the couch for six months. Back in the day when all that canned food would run out we “would eat it {the seed pod} like artichokes as a spring tonic” (Christian 2012). This provided us with an extraordinary restorative action on our burdened livers and offered protection for future damage. I think the most distinguishing aspect of this herb is found in it’s ability to protect our liver from toxicity. When we would seek it out during spring months our main motivation was to renew the liver, nowadays this herb is even more useful as we are routinely exposed to an endless amount of chemicals and toxins that infiltrate our bodies. We consume toxins as part of a regular processed food diet, we ingest alcohol in enormous amounts as a rite of passage (especially when there is not much else to do in the cold winter months), we take pharmaceuticals for contraception, ulcers, heartburn, pain, hypertension, hypotension, stimulation, depression, our air is often riddled with pollutants as well as our water. All of this foreign matter has to be processed by our livers. That poor garbage man doubles as a soldier and he is essentially constantly under attack. The liver does such a great job without any recognition or reprieve. The least we could do, even just every spring, is help the poor guy out and bring in some back up or a couple rounds of ammo.

            A little bit of love goes a long way with livers; by allowing the liver to remove toxins, unclog bile ducts and re-circulate clean, healthy blood helps renew and replenish its cells - one week of love could last a lifetime! Eating something green (the kind of green that nature makes, not the ‘no. 6’ kind of green), like spinach -imagine your liver as a badass Popeye the sailor er garbage man- kale, nettle, chickweed, anything green! Our bodies long for all things that pop up after the long arduous months of winter. Cut out coffee, pop, alcohol at least - just the liquid we typically consume can reek havoc. These can easily be replaced by a herbal tea or concoction of Dandelion root and leaf and if one feels especially gung-ho about having a healthy liver a bit of Wahoo with a pinch of Goldenseal added to the mix equals a deliciously nutritive cocktail - that’s the liver’s kind of happy hour and he deserves it! Throw in a handful of Milk Thistle seeds into the grinder with your peppercorns and voila your daily dose of Silybum marianum. And if you’re going to eat something in which you’d prefer to not know the actual ingredients of, or you know it will torture your liver at least, for the love of liver sprinkle some tumeric on it; with such a mild enjoyable flavour tumeric can be used with almost every dish; breakfast, lunch or dinner. Consider Milk Thistle and Tumeric liver ammo.

            A couple of days worth of small changes you will feel inclined to get off the couch and move. Jumping jacks before showering in the morning will force that stagnant fluid out of your liver giving poor ol’ garbage man a fresh start to the day instead of trying to catch up on yesterday’s work. Exercise (such a loaded word), scratch that - Movement is so important for the natural flow of bodily fluids. Homeostasis just can’t happen without it. Flexing muscles helps blood to flow, it forces the heart to find a steady rhythm, it moves jammed up lymphatic matter to the exit ramp and it helps us look good in yellow polka dot bikinis and speedos. All that movin and shakin wears you out but it is such a great feeling to go to bed when you actually deserve it.  Just as there are business hours and ‘witching hours’ Traditional Chinese Medicine has ‘liver hours’ (terrible, I know) - hitting the hay by 11PM and sleeping soundly until at least 3AM (O’Hara 2012) allows the liver to get down to business, prepare for tomorrow, clean house and maybe even squeeze in a nap. Sleeping during these particular hours will leave you feeling rested and more energetic than four hours of rest any other time of night -proven, by me and thousands of years of Chinese medicine!           

            Habits and lifestyles are what make us individuals and the bad ones are the hardest to change but the good ones make us feel proud and capable of anything. It feels nice to know you are helping your body because your body helps you every second of every minute of every day since before you were born. If anything taking care of your liver once a year when spring has sprung will offer you a better standard of living - your couch has nothing to offer when it comes to life experience, you can tell him I said that - not to mention a cheaper way of life; a week’s worth of dandelion, milk thistle, tumeric, goldenseal and wahoo once a year compared to a lifetime of prescription drugs and your wallet will be shouting yahoo (ooooo). We all deserve happy lives and we all deserve healthy lives, but we have to protect ourselves by making conscious choices. Your liver performs over 500 bodily functions, just for you and only you,

by being consciously aware of your liver you are consciously choosing to live a happier and healthier life.