The liver function is quite extraordinary. The liver is made up of 2 lobes and is located on top of the stomach. As the “Commanding General” of the body, it is also the largest solid organ with over 500 important functions. To name a few liver functions, it regulates chemical levels in the blood, excretes bile, promotes healthy absorption and digestion, and ensures good circulation of qi, our vital energy.
As we can see, it’s imperative that the liver functions properly for overall health and wellness in the body. We share more about liver functions, what happens when issues arise, and herbal remedies to help maintain optimal health.
What is the Function of the Liver?
Most people know the liver as one of our vital organs. While it’s true from the perspective of modern anatomy, the liver has a vast basis of functions that affect the other organs. Let’s take a look at the different liver functions based on Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Liver function in Western medicine
There are many things that our liver does on the daily basis. It’s considered the largest organ and gland inside the human body. Interestingly, it’s the only organ that can regrow and replace its tissue.
Inside a liver, there are hundreds of tasks on progress every single day. But mostly, here are five major functions of the liver, based on its anatomical structure.
Production of bile
Made of mainly bilirubin, cholesterol, and bile acids, bile is essential for our digestion. It breaks down fats into fatty acids and turns ammonia, which is poisonous, into the urine.
Regulation of blood levels
The liver helps to regulate our blood of amino acids, regulates our blood for proper clotting and healing, helps to clear the body of drugs or harmful substances, and helps to store resist infections by removing bacteria from the bloodstream.
Conversion of excessive glucose
The liver converts excessive glucose (sugar) into glycogen. This is used for storage that can be converted back for energy and additional glucose.
Clearance of bilirubin
Our liver also works to ensure that we don’t have excessive bilirubin from our red blood cells. Having this condition makes our eyes and skin yellow.
Stores vitamins and minerals
The liver also stores vitamins A, D, E, K, and B12. The liver is also the storage center of iron and copper.
Liver function in TCM
In TCM, the liver is one of the five Zang organs with one primary function: to store and distribute jing (essence) and qi. Rather than referring to liver in anatomy, TCM regards liver as a part of a complex web connecting multiple systems and organs. TCM sees liver functions as essential in four main areas.
Beyond its anatomical concept, our liver is a part of a complex web connecting multiple systems and organs. According to TCM, the main liver function is to control the movement of qi that sustains the organs and tissues of the body.
TCM sees liver function as essential in four main areas:
- Distribution of qi
- Regulation of digestive system
- Management of emotional health
- Modulation of the female reproductive system
The balance of qi in our liver will ensure the proper functioning of other organs inside the body. Therefore, we all need a healthy liver to function and thrive.
Problems with Poor Liver Function
In today’s fast-paced society, people who struggle to achieve work-life balance may be more susceptible to poor liver function and imbalances. Here are some problems that can arise with liver issues.
Western perspective: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, liver disease, also called hepatic disease, affects 4.5 million Americans. The result of substance abuse, obesity, autoimmune diseases, cancer, or viruses such as hepatitis can lead to the disruption of the liver. This is very serious that can lead to a life-threatening condition called cirrhosis. Over time and if untreated can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, esophageal varices, abdominal ascites, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Issues with the liver can also be genetic such as Hemochromatosis, Wilson’s Disease, and Alpha 1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. Hemochromatosis is signified as an iron disorder where the body absorbs too much iron from the food you eat; whereas Alpha 1 Antitrypsin Deficiency is the lack of a certain enzyme, and Wilson’s Disease prevents the body from removing copper in the liver.
Early awareness and a healthy lifestyle — such as limiting alcohol intake, adapting to a healthy diet, and doing regular exercises — are essential to keep the liver functioning properly. Some symptoms to look out for include yellowish and/or itchy skin, swelling of the body, excessive tiredness, pale stool, dark urine, or a loss of appetite, to name a few symptoms. Seek guidance from your doctor who can further assess your symptoms.
TCM perspective: TCM regards the liver as an army general of our body that regulates the movement of ‘qi’ to all organ systems. That’s why any imbalances in the liver can affect the activities of other organs and cause many health issues.
Digestive system disorders
Western perspective: During the early onset of liver diseases like cirrhosis, a person may experience appetite loss. This can make them lose more weight. According to a 2014 study, around 80% of liver cirrhosis patients are having at least one symptom of gastrointestinal diseases (GI). The symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, belching, and constipation — leading to malnutrition. The causes could be raised toxin levels and insulin resistance due to problems in liver function.
TCM perspective: From a TCM perspective, a disrupted balance in the liver, spleen, stomach, and gall bladder causes digestive system disorders. As a result, people who are prone to qi imbalances are likely to present with various symptoms, such as belching, heartburn, a poor appetite, and a thin white- or yellow-colored tongue coating.
TCM uses a classical formula known as 柴胡舒肝散 (Chai Hu Shu Gan San) to treat imbalances in the stomach and liver. It consists of several ingredients that work in tandem to regulate stomach and liver imbalances. The most basic ingredients of this formula are licorice root, bupleurum, bitter orange, aged tangerine peel, nutgrass galingale rhizome, Sichuan lovage root, and peony root.
Combining Toosendan fruits and Corydalis rhizome with this formula can relieve pain by improving the effect on liver qi. Meanwhile, adding decocted inula flower and hematite — the natural mineral form of iron oxide — can promote better downward movement of qi and relieve the counterflow.
Physical and emotional disorders
Western perspective: Liver dysfunction can be hard to diagnose since there are almost no visible symptoms early on. However, as the liver function becomes more impaired, it will cause physiological changes like an electrolyte imbalance and portal hypertension. In turn, patients will start experiencing physical and emotional symptoms. These include muscle cramps, breathlessness, itchy skin, trouble sleeping, depression, and anxiety.
TCM perspective: Our emotional and physical health are interconnected. For example, excessive anger or irritability is linked to various ailments. This includes dizziness, headaches, dry mouth, and redness of the face and eyes.
Similarly, TCM also believes that emotional imbalances can act as both the symptoms and causes of physical problems. Liver imbalances, specifically, link to anger, irritability, and mental health conditions such as sleeplessness, depression, and chronic stress.
A sleep formula known as Suan Zao Ren Tang is especially effective in treating insomnia. Sour jujube seeds — one of the ingredients of this classic formula — is particularly beneficial for improving sleep quality. It works by calming the mind, preventing excessive sweating, nourishing the liver, and soothing the nerves .
Women’s health disorders with the liver
Western perspective: As a part of the endocrine system, liver dysfunction can impact hormonal balance. In women, chronic liver disease may cause amenorrhea (missing periods) and infertility. This can be triggered by low testosterone along with high estrogen and prolactin levels.
TCM perspective: An unbalanced liver can cause irregular periods, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), mood disorders, fatigue, fever and/or chills, abdominal pain, growth of benign masses in the uterus called fibroids, and early menopause.
Another important role of the liver is the storing of blood as well as regulate blood volume in the body. During rest, blood requirement in organs and structures is less and excess blood is channeled to the liver for storage. When there is activity, demand for blood increases and the liver transports blood to the respective organs to meet these needs. In the case of liver blood deficiency, organs fail to receive adequate nourishment which can result in symptoms such as giddiness, weakness in limbs, insomnia, and scanty periods in women or even amenorrhea. When blood cannot be stored in the liver effectively, the circulation of blood becomes unpredictable, leading to either bleeding from the orifices or heavy menstruation in females.
Western perspective: Eye and visual issues can also be connected to liver disorders. Conditions such as Xanthelasma signified by a yellowish bubble on the eyelid, jaundice, cataracts, or Wilson’s disease may suggest a disrupted liver function.
The liver is also responsible for the production and storage of vitamin A. Because of this, problems in the liver can cause nyctalopia — an inability to see clearly in dim light or at night — and dry eye disease.
TCM perspective: Every organ has an association with a sense organ. The liver is most closely linked to the health of our eyes. Any unpleasant signs of the eyes can therefore be used to assess the health status of the liver. TCM believes that liver blood can travel upwards to nourish eye structures and gives the eyes capacity to see. A deficiency in liver blood may lead to eye issues such as blurred vision, myopia and eye floaters. On the other hand, excess liver heat can manifest in symptoms like red and bloodshot eyes, painful eyes which may be accompanied by a burning sensation.
A herbal tonic prepared using goji berries can nourish the liver, thus help improve your vision. It also improves circulation and strengthens your immune system.
How to Maintain a Healthy Liver
A healthy liver function is essential for your overall well-being. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for the body as well as the liver. This includes regular exercise, moderate-to-no drinking or drug use, practicing safe sex, and eating healthy foods. A diet rich in green tea, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, oats, fatty fish, and limited salt, sugar, saturated fats, and refined carbs is important for liver health.
A classic formula called ‘Free and Easy Wanderer (Xiao Yao San)‘ contains eight ingredients. They are bupleurum, peppermint, Chinese Angelica, ginger root, licorice root, Poria mushrooms, white atractylode, and white peony roots. Xiao Yao San is a classical TCM formula that soothes the liver, strengthens the spleen and nourishes blood. It clears “liver stagnation” which contribute to stress, mood swings, pain, irritability, constipation, abdominal upset, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and irregular periods.
Supplementation can help to enhance the healthy liver, such as Wild Yunzhi Powder and Liva Max, containing medicinal fungus, stout camphor fungus (niu chang chih). These formulations can also improve the body’s resistance to disease, promote vitality, and enhance the respiratory system. According to studies conducted on mice, antrodia cinnamomea, has been widely to treat diseases such as liver disease, drug and food intoxication, diarrhea, and certain cancers.
Many issues that arise with the liver are preventable or reversible. However, if you are experiencing any symptoms related to imbalances in the liver, you should seek the advice of a doctor or TCM practitioner. These professionals can assess your situation and prescribe remedies for your specific issues.
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