The liver is one of the most vital organs in the body, and plays an important role in the body’s functioning, processing, and metabolism. It has many functions, and I will give you an explanation of these according to Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). As you will note, the Western approach only offers a physiological explanation, but the TCM approach incorporates mind and spirit.
Functions of the Liver According to Western Medicine
The liver has over a thousand different functions, and although many label it as an accessory organ, it should not be considered as such, as we would not be able to survive without it (Waller, 2010).
Within the digestive system, it supports the small intestine, and it does so primarily by producing bile that is sent to the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine) to help break down fat (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013).
The liver is also known as the chemical factory because it is involved in physiological processes that help maintain the metabolism of glucose, fats, and proteins (Campbell, 2003). It stores iron, glycogen (a form of glucose), and vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K. It also helps break down different types of toxins and drugs, and is a major organ of focus when someone is going through a detoxification. In addition, through its various metabolic processes, the liver generates a great deal of heat that contributes to overall body temperature (Campbell, 2003; Waller, 2010).
Functions of the Liver According to TCM
According to TCM, the liver is mainly responsible for storing blood and regulating the volume of blood that circulates through the body, which means it also affects menstruation (Maciocia, 2005). Improper function of the blood or liver spreads through the body as the blood circulates around it, often manifesting as skin conditions or diseases. In addition, the liver provides moisture to the eyes, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.
The liver is also is central to the movement of chi (life energy) throughout the body, thus affecting all organs, but most notoriously affecting digestion through the stomach and spleen, as well as bile secretion (Maciocia, 2005). The liver is considered as the main planning organ for the flow of chi, strategizing how to move it in a smooth fashion. As a result, the liver is considered the major planning organ in our lives, and when it is out of balance it may indicate that we are stuck, unable to plan, or unable to figure out how to get out of a situation (Waller, 2010).
On an emotional level, proper flow of chi through our liver ensures that we have balanced and happy emotions. When there is an imbalance, the results are frustration, depression, or anger (Maciocia, 2005).
Because of the many roles of the liver, any condition or disease affecting the liver can have severe consequences in the body. I will focus on hepatitis to give you an idea of the range of symptoms that a person can encounter.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, and can be caused by alcohol, drugs, poisons, or viral infections (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). Hepatitis results in the destruction of liver cells. There are 6 different kinds of hepatitis that are caused by viral infections.
Hepatitis A (HVA) and hepatitis E (HVE) are acquired by eating contaminated food, raw seafood, dirty water, exposure to sewage, or improper hygiene, (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). There is a vaccine for HVA that helps prevent infection, but not one for HVE. Ultimately the best preventative measures are proper sanitary and hygienic habits (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013; Petersen, 2014).
Hepatitis B (HVB), hepatitis C (HVC), and hepatitis D (HVD) are contracted through blood and bodily fluids, through blood transfusion, use of contaminated needles, and sexual transmission (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013; Petersen, 2014). There are drug treatment options, as well as a vaccine that helps prevent HVB. In addition, safe practices during sex and with the use of needles are the best ways to prevent these forms of hepatitis (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013; Petersen, 2014).
The last is hepatitis F (HVF), but very little is currently known about HVF and how the virus is transmitted (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013; Sung & Thung, 2003).
Symptoms vary by the type of hepatitis, but generally include weakness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, fever, flu-like conditions, tenderness in the liver, ability to palpate the liver, and aversion to food and drink (Petersen, 2014). After 3 - 10 days of infection, it is common for urine to turn dark and for the appearance of jaundice, which is yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes. However, jaundice does not occur with types of hepatitis. In fact, different forms of viral hepatitis may remain asymptomatic in people (Petersen, 2014).
Treatment for all types of hepatitis varies, but in general, it is recommended the person take complete bed rest during the time of illness. They should also avoid consumption of alcohol, drugs, sugar, salt, fats, canned food, chemicals, and cigarettes (Petersen, 2014).
Instead, the person should (Petersen, 2014):
- Drink plenty of purified water
- Fast to detoxify the liver
- Consuming diluted lemon water or vegetable juice
- Drink dandelion tea
- After recovery, for those without a history of gallbladder stones, conduct liver flushes on a regular basis
- Consume foods or supplements with chlorine, sulfur, and selenium
- Consume hepatic herbs such as goldenseal, barberry, celandine, milk thistle, and dandelion
In addition, treatment to help stimulate a smooth flow of chi and blood through the body, TCM offers a variety of treatment options including acupuncture, herbal formulas, decoctions, massage, cupping and others.
A holistic approach will likely provide a more comprehensive support to liver functioning.
Avert: www.avert.org - please note this website is a resource for HIV, but it provides information about these hepatitis
Campbell, J. (2003). Campbell’s Physiology Notes for Nurses. London, England: Whurr Publishers Ltd.
Maciocia, G. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists (2nd Ed). London, UK: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Marieb, E.T., & Hoehn, K. (2013). Human Anatomy & Physiology (9th ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson Education.
Petersen, D. (2014). The Digestive System. NAT 502 Anatomy & Physiology II. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Sung, M. W. & Thung, S. N. (2003). Hepatitis F, G, and TT Viruses. NCBI Resources. Retrieved on July 13, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK13296/
Waller, P. (2010). Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to The Human Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.