Should I Do a Liver Cleanse?
The liver is an amazing and complex organ that transforms everything we eat, breathe, and absorb through the skin into life sustaining nutrients. As the largest organ in the body, the liver performs more than 500 important functions.1
A few of its tasks are: to create bile; filter toxins from the blood; metabolize and regulate levels of fats, proteins and carbohydrates; store energy, vitamins, and minerals; help blood clot; destroy old blood cells; and produce cholesterol to help carry fats, create hormones, and make substances that are used in digestion.
Western medicine considers the liver to be part of the digestive system, but Ayurveda considers it to be the root of rakta vaha srotas—or the oxygen carrying part of blood (rakta dhatu).2 Blood flows directly from the GI tract through the liver to be extracted, sorted, processed, altered, detoxified, stored, or passed back into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the body carrying vital nutrients with it.
One of the most important products the liver creates is bile. Indeed, the word pitta literally translates as bile.3 After ranjaka pitta in the liver produces bile, it is stored in the gallbladder to be released as needed to break down fats and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Furthermore, bile helps to regulate beneficial and harmful microbes in the intestines, and to help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It is critical in the body’s detoxification process as it eliminates harmful organisms and carries waste and toxins out of the body.
Since pitta plays a key role in the function of the liver, it is helpful to know if this dosha is balanced. The Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz is a good resource for determining the state of pitta in your body.
The 5 Digestive Fires
In Ayurveda, the liver is considered a hot and fiery organ, containing five of the thirteen main agnis,4 or digestive fires of the body. Known as bhuta agni, these five agnis—nabhasa agni (ether), vayuva agni (air), tejo agni (fire), apas agni (water), and parthiva agni (earth)5—transform the five elements (bhutas) in the foods we ingest into the nutrients the body can use.
After the bhuta agnis have done their job, the nutrients are passed on through the bloodstream to nourish the tissues of the body.
The Importance of a Healthy Liver
Even when we are conscientious about our lifestyle choices, we are still exposed to contaminants in our air, food, and water. The liver is bombarded by toxins—preservatives, pesticides, plastic residues, and alcohol, to name just a few.6
Most processed foods as well as conventional meat and dairy contain pesticides, drugs, steroids, and hormones. Oily, greasy, fried foods, refined sugars, and grains are stressors as well.
As the liver is mainly a pitta organ, when overtaxed, it is the site of many pitta imbalances such as excessive sweating, ulcers, and hyperacidity, and rosacea.7 It also may manifest as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, liver spots on the skin, changes in elimination, fatigue, lack of motivation, depression, anxiety, and memory problems.
Additionally, when the work of the liver is disturbed by an overload of toxins, the transformation of food into nutrition is hindered which leads to depletion. When toxins are not efficiently transformed or eliminated, they may end up circulating in the bloodstream creating the perfect recipe for disease to manifest.
Emotions Can Affect the Liver
The liver is considered the seat of pitta emotions such as courage, enthusiasm, cooperation, contentment, and surrender. However, it is also the seat of the more pernicious emotions of anger, hate, envy, impatience, ambition, frustration, and resentment.
Those with more pitta predominance in their constitution are more prone to these emotions. When these emotions are repressed, they are stored in the liver where they can change the flora of the gallbladder and intestines, leading to dysfunction.
Excess pitta in the liver leads to more of these negative emotions and these negative emotions in turn can cause damage to the liver. For this reason, we benefit if we digest these emotions fully and release them.
One way we can practice releasing these emotions is through meditation, letting old pain, anger, and resentment soften as we sit with these feelings and breathe. This will lighten and nourish the liver and body in turn.
“The state of ill health is a moment to moment happening. Healing is moment to moment balance, bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and how we respond.”
Ayurvedic Techniques for Liver Support
Ayurveda teaches us that prevention is the key to well-being and favors a natural and gentle approach to supporting the body’s innate detoxification processes. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your liver is to treat it well. Fortunately, by supporting the health of your liver you increase the body’s ability to detoxify itself.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”
One of the easiest ways to protect, nourish, and cleanse the liver is to be conscious of what you take into it. Eating a balanced, healthy, whole-foods diet will go a long way to keeping you and your liver well.
Whenever available, choose organic, fresh, unprocessed, locally grown foods. Bitter, sweet and astringent foods such as beets, cruciferous and dark green leafy vegetables, artichokes, apples, avocados, mung beans, celery, radish, leeks, carrots, and asparagus specifically cleanse the liver (and decrease pitta).
Generally, spring is an advantageous time to add extra support for the liver as we are drawn to eat more of the foods that naturally detoxify it. Dandelion greens are a wonderful addition to other spring greens. In addition, you might consider doing an Ayurvedic cleanse at this time of year to give the liver a rest from toxic inputs. You can read more about cleansing in An Introduction to Ayurvedic Cleansing.
More Tips for Liver Support
There are many things we can do on a day-to-day basis to support our liver, which in turn supports our health. Some of these practices may take some time (and a little encouragement) to incorporate into your life and to become good habits. But it does get easier!
- Avoid (or minimize) foods that introduce toxins (ama) and that are more difficult to digest, such as: leftovers, canned and frozen foods, conventional red meats, all processed and refined foods, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, fried foods, and smoking.
- Eat smaller meals and an early dinner.
- Drink a glass of warm water with half of a lemon squeezed into it first thing in the morning help cleanse the liver.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of warm water throughout the day.
- Exercise daily to circulate toxins out of the body.
- Give yourself a gentle self-massage (abhyanga) daily to help loosen toxins.
- Practice meditation to release stress and stored emotions. The Empty Bowl or So-Hum meditations are terrific for this.
Herbal Supplements for Liver Support
Ayurveda has been utilizing bitter herbs for thousands of years for strengthening and rejuvenating the liver and for supporting natural elimination of toxins from the blood. Many of these are bitter herbs which are inherently cooling and cleansing to the system. Some of the most important herbs used are: 8
- Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and said to benefit all tissues of the body, with special attention to the digestive and circulatory systems.
- Manjistha has a special affinity for the blood, supporting healthy plasma and proper function of the liver and kidneys.
- Guduchi promotes a healthy metabolism and is specific in the body's detoxificaion process.
- Neem is one of the quintessential bitters and has long been used to help detoxify the liver and blood. It helps remove excess pitta and kapha from the system.
- Bhumyamalaki is another bitter herb that has a special affinity for the liver, aiding and strengthening its cleansing actions.
- Bhringaraj is an excellent rejuvenative for pitta with its cooling energetics. It is calming to the mind and also supports the liver and lungs.
- Amalaki is one of the three fruits in triphala. Naturally antioxidant, it nourishes the tissues and gently removes toxins. It is expecially supportive of the digestive system and its processes.
- Coriander is one of the best herbs for supporting digestion. It helps remove excess heat in the body, making it useful in pitta-related imbalances
- Kutki is yet another bitter herb supporting healthy function of the liver, while also aiding in the maintenance of a robust immune system. It is balancing for pitta and kapha.
Before taking herbs, it is best to know your Ayurvedic body type, or constitution, (prakriti), and your current state of balance, (vikriti) If you do not know your prakriti or vikriti, take the Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz.
“The human being has enormous resources in the power to heal. And in those resources lie things that we ourselves need to clear or feel.”
Should You Consider a Liver Flush or Cleanse?
There are many types of liver cleanses and liver flushes promoted today. Would you benefit from doing a liver cleanse? As with many things in Ayurveda, it depends.
As we are all unique, with individual health circumstances, we want to look at our own situation before deciding. We must also consider our constitution and current state of balance. We must determine whether ama is present and, if it is, where it is located. We need to prepare the path of elimination, so the toxins have somewhere to go. Detoxification should always be fine-tuned to the individual so new problems aren't inadvertently created.
Most of today’s popular flushes involve fasting and purging by taking in a large amount of substances such as lemon juice, olive oil, and Epsom salts. Many of these liver flushes can be hard on the system, especially if not done under the right conditions.
For deep, holistic cleansing, Ayurveda offers an alternative. Panchakarma is a gentle—yet profound—process of detoxification, done under the guidance of an experienced practitioner. During panchakarma, different techniques are used to loosen toxins and excess doshas in the body and eliminate them through five therapeutic methods.
An Ayurvedic practitioner is trained to determine which of your doshas, dhatus, and srotas are affected and determine which, if any, type of cleanse and which herbal combination would be most beneficial for you. The beauty of panchakarma is that each session is tailored specifically to each person's unique needs.
Remember to love and nurture yourself and your liver! Both are essential for good health, and to bring vitality, joy, and enthusiasm to your life and into the world. I hope this supports you on your path to wholeness, and wish you well.