Herbalists pay a lot of attention to the liver, not just for outright liver diseases, but for general well-being – many disease processes are affected by liver function, and not all of them are obvious. When discussing herbs for the liver, it is important to keep in mind that the TCM Liver (with a capital L) system differs from the physical liver in several respects, although there are overlaps. For that reason we will cover the TCM concepts of Liver Qi restriction and Liver wind elsewhere. Also, there is a bit of an artificial differentiation between treating the liver and the blood (the filter and substance being filtered), so some things–such as clearing the blood of fats–will be covered later in other sections on this website. The important thing to remember is that the liver is a hot (metabolically active) organ, and so tends to get congested and inflamed. Therefore, all the herbs in these categories work to reduce this “heat and damp,” but they work in different ways. They can easily be combined into formulas based on signs and symptoms.
Turmeric root, wheat sprouts, schisandra berries, amla fruit, beet root and milk thistle seed are among the major sources of protective anti-oxidants for the liver cells, as are fruits that contain flavonoids, especially citrus fruits. These should be used to prevent development of inflammatory disease, or for damage protection as in the case of persons taking strong chemical drugs or undergoing chemotherapy.
The liver can become weakened and deficient. If this is not corrected, it can lead to liver atrophy and depletion of glycogen stores, even hepatitis. Signs of liver deficiency include fatigue, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, dry or inflammed eyes, mouth and/or tongue, headaches, systemic heat and inflammation symptoms and general irritability. In such cases, we use white peony root and cooked rehmannia root to do what is known in TCM terms as nourishing the Liver blood and Liver Yin. Milk thistle seed also nourishes the liver, stimulating protein synthesis and cellular regeneration. Shilajatu and haritaki fruit are both very nourishing to the liver. Any of these herbs can also be used to lower elevated liver enzymes.
Heat and Inflammation
To remove excess liver inflammation with heat signs or toxins, you can also use bromelain, bupleurum root, scute root, dandelion root, turmeric root, milk thistle seed, vasaca leaf (Adhatoda vasica), neem leaf, chrysanthemum flowers, salvia root, wild asparagus root, gardenia fruit (zhi zi or G. jasminoides). You can also use any of the herbs from the poison-removing group or the heat-removing groups mentioned elsewhere. The concept of liver detoxification fits in here, and these herbs can be used to improve overall health or to treat general inflammation of unknown cause.
Heat and Dampness
Heat and dampness are present in the liver with signs of both inflammation and congestion or swelling, bile flow is usually slowed. Use cholagogues, herbs that reduce inflammation by moving the bile out more quickly to the intestine. Choose among bupleurum root, dandelion root, burdock root, eclipta, turmeric root, scute root, capillaris (yin chen hao or Artemisia capillaris), sarsaparilla root, greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), and fringe tree bark (Chionanthus virginicus). Laxative herbs like rhubarb root can sometimes provide even quicker results. Castor oil packs over the abdomen are also useful.
If there is liver inflammation with signs of pain and tension, use herbs that calm the liver and move the blood. Choose from schisandra berries, white sandalwood, salvia root, wild asparagus root, turmeric root and German chamomile.