Spring is definitely in the air. Daylight Saving Time allows many of us to leave work to find the sun still shining. Here in Southern California, seeds are sprouting, birds are chirping, and flowers are blooming. People seem to have an extra swing in their step, and that "happy for no reason" feeling.
While winter can be a time for going inward and conserving energy (and probably eating too much over the holidays), spring often inspires regeneration, a renewal of spirit, and a fresh start.
In earlier times, giving special attention to liver health and detoxification was a springtime ritual in many cultures. Although it is, of course, important to take care of our liver (as well as our whole body) year-round, we can often draw inspiration from traditions that have been passed down from our ancestors. The thinking behind supporting the liver in this season is that spring brings new life, so it is time to shed what is no longer needed.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (also referred to as TCM) is a system of healing passed down through several thousand years. Treatments include herbs, acupuncture, nutritional therapy, massage, etc., and the care is based on the principles of living in harmony with nature and striving for balance. According to TCM, the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi (our vital energy) and blood.
When our qi is flowing well, we journey through life smoothly without a buildup of toxins, stress, and tension. This ideal scenario isn't always the case. In our 21st century fast-paced lifestyle, a pattern of liver disharmony observed in TCM called "liver qi stagnation" has become quite commonplace.
Some of the conditions traditionally associated with liver qi stagnation include fatigue, depression, mood swings, anger/irritability, feeling overwhelmed with stress, PMS and other hormonal imbalances, sluggish digestion/elimination, inflammation/pain in muscles and joints, headaches, allergies, bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, constipation and/or diarrhea, a feeling of a lump in your throat, nausea, frequent colds and flu, and skin breakouts.
Some of the factors that can contribute to liver qi stagnation include environmental chemicals, coffee, alcohol, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, food allergies, processed foods, emotional stress, lack of deep restful sleep, and excessive or inappropriate pharmaceutical drug and hormone use.
Our liver is an amazing organ with literally hundreds of functions, including detoxification, metabolic regulation, nutrient synthesis, hormone processing, and cholesterol and bile production. Liver qi stagnation would imply that some of the functions are not at optimal performance.
Here are 10 ways to increase your vitality and give your liver a little more TLC:
1. Drink plenty of water. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj, M.D. is one of the world's foremost experts on the therapeutic value of water. He suggests that half of your body's weight is the number of ounces of water to aim for each day. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, 60 ounces of water is your goal. I have seen the beneficial effects of this formula in the clinic with many patients over the years. Also, drinking a glass of warm water with lemon first thing in the morning will support your liver's natural detoxification processes. By the way, dehydrating beverages such as coffee and alcohol don't count towards your total water intake.
2. Eat vegetables every day, especially greens. In TCM, the color green is associated with the liver. When choosing your salad fixings, go for the organic spring mix instead of the iceberg. Your liver will love a variety of greens such as kale, spinach, and collard greens. The color green in these vegetables comes from chlorophyll, a substance plants use to trap the energy of the sun. Go ahead--eat some sunshine!
3. Add sour-tasting foods to your diet. These include citrus fruits (sprinkle lemon in your water and on foods such as fish and vegetables), raw apple cider vinegar (good for balancing pH--try two tablespoons in a glass of water, or use with olive oil on your salad), and sauerkraut (which contains beneficial bacteria). With our over-sugared, over-salted palates, we often overlook sour-tasting foods. According to TCM, the sour flavor is associated with the liver, and it enhances bile flow.
4. Avoid toxic fats, eat beneficial ones. Decrease your consumption of trans fats and partially-hydrogenated oils. Toxic fats put an unnecessary burden on the liver, further stagnating qi flow. Emphasize organic, unprocessed oils (such as olive oil and flax oil) in your food preparation. Increase the use of fish that is low in mercury, avocados, nuts, and seeds in your diet. Consider supplementing your diet with an Omega-3 supplement to boost your essential fatty acid intake. Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to decrease cardiovascular disease risk, and it can reduce symptoms of arthritis, depression, cognitive decline, and a seemingly endless list of health challenges.
5. Reduce your sugar consumption. On average, Americans eat 137 pounds of sugar a year! It's the hidden sugars that often add up. Watch what you add to foods like cereal and coffee. Read food labels and avoid overly sugary choices. Know that "fat free" foods can be loaded with sugar, and actually increase triglycerides, a fat in your blood. Eat whole fruits rather than drinking fruit juice. If you find your cravings too strong to follow practical steps, you might find helpful hints in The Sugar Addict's Total Recovery Program by Kathleen Desmaisons.
6. Eat close to nature. Often simpler is better. Select the best of what comes from Mother Nature, and avoid artificial ingredients and toxic sweeteners by eating less packaged foods. Go organic as much as possible. The Environmental Working Group offers a free guide to pesticides found in common foods. You might be surprised that peaches, apples, and bell peppers top their list of the "dirty dozen"―foods recommended especially to be purchased in their organic version.
7. Incorporate more conscious breathing and exercise into your routine to boost circulation and enhance overall liver function. Choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, and remember to breathe. In traditional Chinese cultures, you can see people doing qi gong, which emphasizes breathing and movement specifically designed to promote the smooth flow of qi.
8. Choose to be joyful by cultivating a spirit of gratitude, and regularly forgive others as well as yourself. In TCM, the emotion that contributes to stagnant liver qi is anger, especially repressed anger. The virtues that free the liver qi are forgiveness and a release of judgment towards self and others. In China, when someone is angry, they are said to have a toxic liver. In fact, a morning greeting there translates to "How is your liver?"
9. Reduce or eliminate your use of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. These substances can become very addictive, masking a greater imbalance in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Taking these suggested steps to give our liver some TLC can be part of a comprehensive program to heal our reliance on potentially harmful chemicals.
10. Schedule time for self-care. Get a massage, take a yoga class, etc. I say schedule because I've noticed something in our 24/7 culture. This is that if we don't put taking care of ourselves on our own list, it often doesn't happen. Even Oprah, the woman who seems to have everything, admitted her health started to suffer as she didn't put self-care as a priority on her to-do list.
Hopefully this article gets you thinking about ways to be kind to your liver, during the spring and always. Because life is funny... You buy a car, you get a manual. You buy a toaster, you get a manual. You are born with a liver that you will have your entire life. No manual. Yet its care and maintenance is far more important than anything that you will every buy.
Detox is certainly a hot topic these days. People want to feel better, and it is natural to want a quick fix. Be wary of marketing claims that promise to detox your body with a "five-day cleanse." Extreme approaches do not cultivate a healthy lifestyle for the long term, and they promote the on-again, off-again "diet" mentality. Developing habits and choices that will reduce the toxic burden on your liver and your whole body is not going to change things overnight, in a week, or even a year. But you can start moving in the right direction by following the guidelines outlined above.
In the next article, we will explore the use of herbs and nutritional supplements that have been proven to be safe and effective to enhance the health of the liver, and consequently the whole body. We will also dispel some of the myths regarding detox.
Until next time, Happy Spring!
Patricia Fitzgerald is a licensed acupuncturist, certified clinical nutritionist and homeopath as well as the Medical Director of the Santa Monica Wellness Center. She is also the author of The Detox Solution: The Missing Link to Radiant Health, Abundant Energy, Ideal Weight, and Peace of Mind.