LOVE YOUR LIVERVitality Magazine September 1, 2004
Liver Strengthening Techniques for Managing Menopause Naturally
The following is an excerpt from Managing Menopause Naturally: Before During, and Forever by Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc (Basic Health Publications, New Jersey, 2004)
In naturopathic medical school we learned again and again, “When in doubt, treat the liver.” What our teachers were telling us is that the liver is the single most important organ in our bodies for detoxification, and that most human suffering is related in some degree to improper liver function. The liver has many roles in maintaining our good health, including detoxification of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to over a lifetime. The chemical burden in our environment is likely to increase. Hopefully, cleaner energy sources and stricter controls on pesticides and industrial solvent use will provide for a cleaner environment for our great-great grandchildren, but meanwhile the number one reason the “war on cancer” has not succeeded is environmental pollution. In addition to chemical exposure, drugs of all kinds and excess consumption of simple carbohydrates, as well as alcohol, nicotine, and saturated dietary fat, all harm the liver.
We need our liver in tip-top condition to handle current conditions. For women in any phase of menopause, excellent liver health is increasingly important as our hormonal function changes and our organs begin to age. Many popular drugs have a profoundly negative impact on our livers, including cholesterol-lowering drugs and weight-loss drugs. Always look for a natural solution to health problems before resorting to prescription drugs. Don’t forget that prescription drug use is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
Liver disease of various types falls within the top ten causes of death. Some of the general symptoms of a stressed liver include bloating, constipation, decreased fertility, fatigue, gas, hormonal irregularities, nausea, poor appetite, weakness, weight loss or gain, yellowish or itchy skin, and varicose veins, including hemorrhoids.
Hormonal problems occur with a poorly functioning liver because that is where hormones are assembled and then broken down for excretion. Also, any kind of hormonal supplementation (such as HRT, progesterone cream, and the pill) will reduce bile production and flow through the liver, thus compromising liver health.
AN INTRODUCTION TO BILE
Bile production is one of the most important jobs of the liver. Bile is so important that the liver stores a backup supply in a special little sack, the gallbladder, which hangs underneath it. Bile is mostly made up of recycled red blood cells and enzymes, which very effectively break down dietary fat into essential fatty acids that can be used by our bodies. These essential fatty acids are absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine.
Besides turning fat into fuel and new cell walls, bile also stimulates peristalsis in the large intestine. Peristalsis is the rhythmic movement of the large intestine (also called the colon), which promotes proper bowel evacuation. Without proper liver function people are likely to become constipated, because they don’t have enough bile to flow into the gut and promote a complete bowel movement. Do not underestimate the importance of good bowel function to your health (not to speak of the satisfaction of having regular evacuations).
The gallbladder helps by providing that extra reservoir of bile needed when a fatty meal comes along and requires instant attention. It is so energy expensive to produce bile that our bodies recycle nearly 100 percent of the bile that the liver produces. The tiny bit that escapes gives the dark brown color to the stool. Keep your gallbladder if you can — it comes in handy in maintaining optimal liver health. If you are having gallbladder attacks and you doctor is recommending surgical removal, try the liver-cleansing techniques described below before removing this important little organ forever.
BEETS AND OTHER FOODS TO HEAL YOUR LIVER
Besides avoiding all toxins, my three favorite tools for improving liver function are beets, milk thistle, and castor oil packs. Let’s start with beets, since I always like to start with the diet in making any positive health changes. Try to seek out organically grown beets, since beets are a root crop, and like carrots, are particularly prone to absorbing toxins in the soil. Beets improve liver function largely by thinning the bile, allowing it to flow more freely through the liver and into the small intestine, where it breaks down the fat and stimulates peristalsis. Another benefit of enhanced bile flow is the reduced likelihood of forming gallstones, a leading cause for surgical removal of the gallbladder. In fact, beets are one of my main therapeutic medicines for preventing and reducing the pain of gallbladder attacks.
My favorite way to prepare beets is to steam them whole, in a steamer or a pot with a small amount of water, until a fork easily pierces into the flesh. The skins should slip off quite easily when the beets are cool. Your hands will get stained in the process, but that’s OK because you absorb some of the beet through your hands and it’ll wash off. (Beet tops have been used as a vegetable dye since antiquity, and they produce a lightly pink, cream color.) Once the skins are removed you can cut the beets into bite-sized cubes and place them in a mason jar, where they will keep for at least a week in the fridge. I like to drizzle flax oil and balsamic vinegar over my beets to create a light pickling dressing. Serve two to four mouthfuls every other day: it’s good for the whole family.
Other foods containing liver-cleansing factors include the high-sulfur foods eggs, garlic, and onions; high-fiber foods, such as apples, celery, legumes, oat bran, and pears; cabbage family foods, such as bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts; and the spices cinnamon, licorice, and turmeric.
Milk thistle, Silybum marianum, is a well-known herbal liver protector against such major insults as carbon tetrachloride, mushroom poisoning, radiation, and Tylenol overdose. Milk thistle has been used medicinally for more than 2,000 years and has been rigorously studied for more than thirty years. An Internet search will produce hundreds of references regarding the good effects of this herb on the liver.
Milk thistle helps the liver in three distinct ways. First, the active ingredient, silymarin, can incorporate itself into the liver cells and prevent the uptake of toxins into the cells by providing specific ingredients. Second, milk thistle is a potent antioxidant and prevents oxidative damage in the liver tissue. Third, milk thistle actually helps repair damaged liver cells.
I instruct all of my patients with hepatitis C, or other types of hepatitis, or with a history of alcoholism, to take milk thistle. It is the most widely used botanical medicine in Russia, where alcoholism is rampant. For serious liver problems, a standardized extract of milk thistle (70 percent silymarin) should be used, 200 mg three times daily. Very few, if any, side effects are noted with milk thistle. Since it improves bile flow it sometimes results in loose stools, but this is usually a temporary problem. Even lower doses can be effective if you are in the perimenopausal phase of menopause, especially if you have a history of using the pill or are prone to constipation but otherwise healthy. I would suggest 200 mg daily, three times a week, to help keep your liver working properly as you transition through hormonal changes.
If you take in more than ten ounces of alcohol weekly, consider cutting back, or use these liver-cleansing methods more regularly. I particularly like the phytosome form of milk thistle, which is a special packaging of the milk thistle formulated to enhance its uptake into the cells.
My very favorite liver-enhancing naturopathic remedy is the castor oil pack. Traditionally, castor oil has been used for a wide variety of ailments including arthritis, breast cancer, colitis, constipation, epilepsy, fibrocystic breasts, headaches, hemorrhoids, hepatitis, kidney stones, lymphedema, pelvic inflammatory disease, poisoning, and ulcers. When taken internally castor oil, also know as palma Christi (the hand of Christ) or wonder-tree, is very laxative and can also induce labor in a pregnant woman near term.
An appropriate medicinal use for improving liver function is to apply castor oil externally over the liver and then over the area with heat, which drives the healing oil into the skin. Numerous research studies have described the positive effect that topical castor oil has on the immune system (it increases the production of white blood cells) and the lymphatic system (it stimulates the drainage of toxins into the lymph nodes and channels). The lymphatic system is the human body’s garbage collection system, picking up toxins from the blood and tissues and channeling them into the kidneys and intestines for elimination.
The old-fashioned way of using castor oil packs to stimulate drainage of congested tissues was to soak a flannel cloth with the oil, heat it in the oven, and place the warm, oily flannel over the affected area.
I much prefer to use a castor-oil roll-on dispenser and then cover the area with a clean cloth. Place a heating pad on top of this for at least twenty minutes, but preferably for an hour. For a castor oil pack to the liver, apply a fairly thick layer of castor oil dispensed from the roll-on (like a deodorant stick), under the right ribcage, across the midline, and between the lower ribs on the right, including around the side of your waist. This is approximately the area under which the liver is found. The cloth is put down next, to protect the heating pad from the slightly sticky layer of castor oil and to absorb toxins drawn out through the skin. The heating pad can be held in place by a large towel pinned with a safety pin, but this is optional. I often instruct patients to apply this soothing remedy every night for a week, then several times a week thereafter for several months.
I ask all my hepatitis patients to use castor oil packs regularly to improve their liver function. Even if you don’t have a liver disease, your liver is largely responsible for the symptoms of hormonal changes, in which case you will benefit from this method of enhancing your liver function. If you have fibrocystic breasts that get especially tender premenstrually, apply the castor oil pack to your breasts daily at the first indication of increased tenderness. Consult a doctor if your breast pain is new, sudden, or in one breast only. If you tend to constipation, drink more water, increase the fiber in your diet, and apply castor oil packs regularly to your abdomen.
I usually recommend that castor oil packs be applied at night, and simply left in place overnight, but always turn off the heating pad before you fall asleep. If necessary, the skin may be cleansed with baking soda diluted by plenty of water after using a castor oil pack. Dip a cloth into the soda water and rub the skin briskly until it is no longer sticky. Usually the oil soaks in completely within an hour, and no cleaning is needed.
Castor oil is also a wonderful first-aid remedy for bruises, fractures, sprains, and strains. Applied topically, with or without heat, it greatly reduces the pain, swelling, and bruising caused by a soft-tissue injury to any part of the body. Apply castor oil directly to the affected area and continue treatment for up to forty-eight hours, applying more oil as it is absorbed by the body. Castor oil also works well for chapped lips, to lighten dark patches on the skin (liver spots), and to relieve the irritation of insect bites.
For castor oil roll-ons and more information about this marvelous natural substance, you can contact Gen MacManiman, in Fall City, Washington at (425) 222-5587.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Basic Health Publications, Inc., 8200 Boulevard East, North Bergen, NJ, USA 07047. Tel: 201-868-8336. The book should be available in some Toronto bookstores, or contact the publisher.
(Editor’s Note: While the roll-on version of the castor oil appears to be only available through a U.S. distributor, bottles of castor oil can easily be found in Toronto area health food stores. I still use the old fashioned method for application — pour some castor oil on a piece of flannel, then warm the soaked flannel up in a pot on the stove. When it’s hot, remove from pot with a pair of tongs. After it cools slightly, so it’s warm but not hot, lay the flannel across the affected body part, then cover with a piece of plastic, then a towel, and lay a hot water bottle on top. It’s a messy business so keep old towels under and around yourself.)