Eating tips your liver will love
The role of the liver in Chinese medicine
You probably already know that your liver is critical to your body's ability to digest fatty food and metabolise, detoxify and excrete wastes.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the liver also has several additional functions, including storing the blood and regulating the movement of blood and the life force energy called qi around the body in a smooth, steady and relaxed flow.
The liver is also traditionally believed to govern the tendons, ligaments, eyes and nails, and to manage and process emotions in TCM.
These liver functions mean that from the perspective of TCM, looking after your liver helps to:
- Maintain a regular, healthy menstrual cycle
- Keep the tendons and ligaments supple and flexible
- Support strong vision
- Keep the nails in optimal condition
- Manage and process emotions (especially stress, anger, resentment, frustration and irritability)
- Enable clear, calm and strategic thinking
On the other hand, TCM teaches that if the liver is overworked, the flow of qi and/or blood from the liver may become impeded, sluggish or stagnant.
This can result in a wide range of issues like:
- Menstrual irregularity, period pain, heavy periods and/or premenstrual symptoms such as irritability
- Ridged fingernails
- Muscle spasms and tightness (especially in the neck), and a tendency to experience tendon injuries or sciatica
- Emotional instability or a short temper
- Headaches and migraines
- Redness of the face, eyes or skin
- Constipation with dry, hard stools
- Poor sleep
Avoid heat-producing foods and drink
A liver that's struggling under its workload is believed to generate an excess of heat in TCM, which (among other symptoms) can lead to irritability and mild anxiety symptoms.
For that reason, it's best to minimise your intake of foods and drinks traditionally considered heating or heat-generating, which include:
- Alcohol: Traditionally regarded as having hot and damp properties, and therefore to cause heat in the liver and sluggish or stagnant qi and blood flow
- Fatty, greasy foods: These force the liver to work hard, so cut back on them, including deep fried foods, fatty meat, cheese and chocolate
- Refined sugar and sweet foods
- Stimulants like caffeine
- Spicy foods
Choose cooling foods instead
On the other hand, foods with cooling properties are traditionally eaten to off-set the effects of heat in TCM.
Start with these:
- Watermelon and other melons: Cooling watermelons are traditionally eaten to clear heat and toxins from the body and are considered especially beneficial in summertime in TCM
- Cucumbers: The cooling effects of cucumbers are considered especially helpful if you're experiencing inflammation
- Celery: Clears heat in both the liver and the stomach and helps move stagnant qi
- Artichokes: Traditionally believed to clear liver heat and regulate liver qi, as well as to promote healthy digestion and liver and gall bladder function. (Consider artichokes if you're experiencing indigestion and related symptoms like bloating and flatulence)
- Other heat-clearing foods include bananas, kiwifruit, peaches, watercress, peppermint, tofu and mung beans
Go for green
In TCM, green foods are believed to nourish the liver, and in particular to aid its detoxification.
Make sure you include plenty of them in your diet, especially dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, silverbeet, kale, bok choy, choy sum, mustard greens (sometimes referred to as collard greens) and broccoli.
The best way to serve them? Lightly steamed is perfect.
Seek out sour flavours
Many of us don't consume sour-tasting food or drinks very often, but in Chinese medicine, they're traditionally believed to be absorbed by the liver and gallbladder where they have stabilising and consolidating effects and are detoxifying and cleansing.
Good options include:
- Lemons, limes, grapefruit and their juice: The ultimate in sourness, these citrus fruits are traditionally believed to clear heat from the liver and regulate qi, as well as to regenerate body fluids and support digestive function. Try starting the day with some lemon juice in warm water each morning
- Apples: Go for tart varieties like Granny Smiths, which are traditionally considered especially beneficial for the liver in spring. They're believed to be good for the qi and to decrease heat and clear toxins
- Plums: With their mix of sweet and sour flavours, plums are traditionally eaten to soothe the liver, clear stagnant qi and remove feelings of heat deep in the body
- Tomatoes: Traditionally said to aid digestion and detoxification, calm the liver and clear both heat and stagnant food from the body
- Other sour-tasting fruits (like oranges, pineapples, strawberries and pomegranates) and vegetables, including sprouts and asparagus
- Vinegar, pickles and fermented foods: Think yoghurt, sourdough bread (especially rye), sauerkraut and pickled veggies
Bonus tip: Combine lemons and apple cider vinegar in a vinaigrette dressing to pour over your leafy green veggies. (We love this one from Detoxinista).
You don't need a lot of sourness in your diet - just a little bit here and there will put you on the right track. And be aware that in TCM it's traditionally believed important not to overdo sour foods in the springtime because their astringent nature could be too contracting.