The liver is hot, metabolically speaking. And very active: on any given day, it is performing over 500 functions for us. We all know that it’s on the liver to get us out of a pinch when we drink too much, but did you know that the liver contains a unique enzyme system that co-evolved with plants, and that this system can detoxify just about everything we encounter now? Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, estrogens: Check. Rancid cooking oils? New car smell? Stress hormones? Yup. Your liver breaks it all down.
So, while the liver takes a hit on a regular basis, it is, luckily, our most starfish-like part.
That is, the liver has the ability to regenerate—large portions can be removed, and if healthy, it will re-grow. No other organ has this capacity.
The liver is a metabolic integrator: for example, it plays a crucial role in balancing our blood sugar. It acts, as one of my great herb teachers put it, like a parent on Halloween, holding on to excess sugars coming off the digestive tract when we eat too many simple carbs. (It also makes new glucose when our blood sugar dips and we don’t have access to food. Handy.)
It is a major mediator of inflammation in the body, and an irritated or inflamed liver will speak to the body, contributing to systemic inflammation (think skin and joints). As you might deduce from the experience of a particularly epic hangover, the liver has a direct line to the brain: recent research shows that liver inflammation causes brain inflammation, contributing to brain fog, malaise, and depression.
The liver also contributes to our digestive functions by producing bile, which is stored in the gallbladder and released when we eat foods containing fat. Bile emulsifies ingested fat so that our enzymes can finish breaking it down for absorption. Without bile, we lose much of our dietary fat and fat soluble vitamins in our feces. Fat is essential for the proper function of our cell membranes—our nerves, skin, eyes, and to balance inflammation in the body. You can imagine that a strained and congested liver will let itself be known.
The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ tucked up behind the liver. It stores and concentrates bile made by the liver, which, even under normal circumstances is fairly caustic. When the gallbladder receives the hormonal signal to contract (fat, sour, and bitter in our food all trigger this), it ejects bile into the intestine, which mixes with food to emulsify fat. Bile also acts as our own internal laxative: it irritates the colon wall, triggering a bowel movement.
Gallbladder distress, in the form of stones, sludge, and spasm is very common—especially among women—and can cause upper GI symptoms like bloating, nausea, mid-line and right-sided pain, constipation, diarrhea and you guessed it, biliousness: a generally cantankerous outlook. Stress, dietary excesses, infectious organisms, and food allergies can all make the bile more caustic and thick, which irritates the gallbladder and alters proper motility.
According to many systems of traditional medicine, Liver/Gallbladder imbalance will show up with “heat” signs in the body: skin breakouts, roving inflammation, joint pain, eye redness and irritation, indigestion, PMS, increased seasonal allergies, as well as irritability and anger (gallbladder imbalance is associated with brittleness and indecision, which afflicts many of my clients).
The flip side to this are the gifts associated with Liver/Gallbladder in balance: creativity, vision, flexibility, and executive functioning—the ability to move through each step required to attain our vision. We’re also looking at a harmonious and flexible physical body, which can accommodate changes and challenges without going into “reactivity” mode, or breaking down.
A metaphor from Chinese medicine is particularly apt: the liver/gallbladder is associated with the Spring season, and the element wood. Think new wood, green and flexible saplings, versus brittle, hard, dry wood—one bends under strain, the other snaps.
Spring is the perfect time for a cleanse, to shake off the stagnation and excesses of Halloween-through-Valentine’s Day, and give your liver a break. Starfish that it is, supporting the liver in its detoxification work is easy, and yields many benefits. Clearing the gallbladder and making better bile will help you feel energetic and bright-eyed. Many people see a diminishment of their seasonal allergies, improvements in inflammatory skin conditions like acne and eczema, increased energy, smoother menstrual cycles, more comfortable digestion, and better moods.