Love Your Liver: Lessons From Chinese Medicine (TCM)

By Warren Kramer

Love Your Liver: Lessons From Chinese Medicine (TCM)

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There is much we can learn from the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is at least 6,000 years old. According to TCM,each season relates to specific organs that are more active and in fact going through a “cleansing” process. Early February is considered the beginning of Spring and the liver and gallbladder are the paired organs that relate to this season. They have a brother-sister relationship. If one is weak that will impact the other. If you help one, the other is also supported. Many people have their gallbladder removed and that in turn puts more strain on the liver, especially with fat metabolism and digestion in general.

The liver is known as the commanding general of the body having more than 500 functions. According to TCM, it is the organ that governs a woman’s health more than any other organ. Simply put, the liver is the body’s main organ of detoxification. Everything we eat and drink is filtered by the liver including medications and drugs. The liver works very hard to keep us healthy by getting rid of what we don’t need. Our hormonal balance, cholesterol levels and weight are governed by the liver as well. The liver even possesses the remarkable capacity to regenerate itself. How amazing is that!

When the liver and gallbladder are imbalanced they are described as stagnant or stuck. That means the energy is not smoothly moving through them. Some of the many physical and emotional symptoms of this imbalance include: headaches, teeth grinding, eye issues (especially the right eye), feeling hot all the time, pms, fibroids, prostate inflammation, irritability, anger, impatience, hip pain, thyroid issues, toenail discoloration (especially yellow and large toes), waking up between 1am and
3am and feeling restless, an overall feeling of being stuck in one’s life and more.

If it sounds like your liver needs some loving, don’t despair as there is plenty you can do to take care of it. To help the liver and gallbladder there is a very important point to understand. When we talk about food, we can discuss and analyze the nutrients found in it and in addition, we can describe the energetic quality of it. For example, a food might be described as dry, like a cracker or hard like a chip. The energetic effect is contracting or gathering. Iced water or anything frozen also has a contracting effect on our organs. Conversely, fruit juices, fruit (especially tropical), raw salad and oil have an expanding effect.

The liver which is on the right side of the body and underneath the rib cage, is nourished by foods and liquids that have a gently upward energy about them. Energy in the body moves upward from the right side, across and down. This is just like the ascending, transverse and descending colon. It is a very different way to look and think about food but it is quite significant when trying to understand how to support our organs and overall health. Yes, carrots have vitamin A and beta carotene in them but they are also a root with a green top. That root energetically goes down and the green tops go up. These 2 parts have different and beneficial effects on the body.

First and foremost to help the liver and gallbladder, try to stop eating 2-3 hours before sleep. Late night eating creates stagnation in the liver and prevents our body from cleaning and repairing at night. Secondly, stop eating when 80% full. Overeating creates more pressure on the liver and gallbladder. Eat to the point when you feel satisfied and can eat a little more but you stop. These are the two lifestyle habits that will help the most.

There are many foods that will help heal these organs. Whole grains like brown rice, barley, millet, quinoa, spelt, kamut oats and wheat berries are all helpful. If there is a gluten sensitivity, then avoiding the gluten grains like barley is suggested. Hato mugi, also known as “job’s tears” is also wonderful for the liver and is gluten free. Crackers, bread, bagels, and cereals, even if made from whole grains are not advised as they are baked and dry. Brown rice pasta and quinoa noodles are better because they are moist and not baked.

Try to emphasize plenty of leafy vegetables including: kale, collards, bok choy, nappa cabbage,watercress, mustard greens, leek, daikon tops, carrot tops, radish greens, turnip tops, dandelion greens, lettuces,and others. They all have an upward energy about them. Sprouts and mushrooms are also helpful. In addition, fresh herbs are wonderful to support the liver. Lastly, eat more vegetables to grain proportionally.

All beans are fine to eat especially mung beans. A nice mung bean soup with onion, celery, carrot, mushrooms, leek with cilantro and lemon served as a garnish will have your liver singing. Try to incorporate the sour taste 3-4 times a week as that is the flavor that helps release stagnation in the liver and gallbladder. Sour can come from: sauerkraut, Granny Smith apple, lemon, brown rice umeboshi vinegar, sour plum and cherry. If you do not like the sour taste, usually it means you need it. A little lemon squeezed on your greens does wonders. Good quality fermentation really supports the liver.

Try making a brothy miso soup with a small amount of leafy greens simmered with dried shiitake mushroom. Barley soup is a classic liver tonic during the spring. One of my favorite spring liver remedies is a fresh vegetable juice of carrot-beet-green apple and just a squeeze of lemon juice. This is the time of the year to minimize oven cooked foods (baking) and emphasize blanching, steaming, quick sauteing, juicing, pressed, raw, and pickled foods. A winning vegetable dish is peeled and cubed beets, slow cooked with a little water and a pinch of salt. Add a few drops of umeboshi vinegar when tender and a squeeze of lemon at the table.

So regarding food, think light and fresh, not heavy. Think green. Our emotions have a very significant effect on the liver. To help the liver, practice patience and forgiveness. Have compassion and try to let go of resentment. The liver is hurt by negative feelings and holding onto the past. Strive to be free of these emotions, anger keeps us stuck in all ways. Get outdoors, go to a park and rest in the grass.

Warren KramerWarren Kramer is an internationally recognized macrobiotic counselor, lecturer and cooking teacher with over 29 years of experience. He has guided thousands of people back to health over the years. He is a faculty member of the Kushi Institute and the Strengthening Health Institute. He is also a member of the Macrobiotic Educators Association. He teaches the macrobiotic approach to health and wellness in the U.S. and abroad. He also assisted Michio Kushi for over 10 years. He and his wife run the Macrobiotic Center of New England.