Sluggish Liver Function

While not considered a disease from a medical point of view, sluggish or suboptimal liver function is common in Western society, and can have wide ranging effects on your health and wellbeing.

What are the symptoms of sluggish liver function?

The liver plays a central role in both digestion and detoxification, so if its functioning is less than optimal, the symptoms can affect many different parts of the body.

In the gastrointestinal system, common symptoms may include indigestion, nausea and burping, bloating and flatulence, blood sugar imbalance and an inability to tolerate fatty foods or alcohol.

Elsewhere, poor liver function may contribute to low energy levels, weight problems, hormonal imbalances (including premenstrual syndrome), headaches, skin problems (including acne and psoriasis), and difficulties maintaining normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Additional symptoms that may indicate poor functioning of the Liver organ-meridian system from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) include high day-to-day stress levels, poor circulation, muscle spasms and tightness of the tendons, eye problems, poor sleep, mood problems, short temper, perfectionism, indecisiveness and being low in initiative and/or motivation.

A wide range of additional symptoms may also occur as the result of more serious liver problems that are beyond the scope of this article. Talk to your healthcare professional for more information.

What causes sluggish liver function?

The liver plays a key role in the breakdown, metabolism and detoxification of fats, hormones, alcohol, drugs and toxins.

Suboptimal liver function is commonly the result of poor diet and lifestyle habits, including eating a diet high in sugars and fats (especially refined carbohydrates and unhealthy types of fat such as those found in deep-fried foods), consuming alcohol to excess and/or taking recreational drugs, all of which can add to the liver’s workload and generate free radical damage.

In many instances, these lifestyle choices also result in inadequate levels of antioxidants and nutrients that help to maintain liver function, such as choline, inositol and niacinamide (vitamin B3).

Additional issues that may contribute to sluggish liver activity may include being overweight, exposure to toxic compounds (e.g. pesticides or industrial chemicals), hormonal imbalances, and the use of certain prescribed medicines.

From the perspective of TCM, lifestyle factors such as eating too much, exercising too little or being under constant stress can cause the flow of Qi (energy) in the Liver organ-meridian system to become congested or stagnant, sometimes accompanied by an accumulation of Heat or Fire.

Since the Liver is considered responsible for the smooth, steady flow of Blood, body fluids and Qi (energy) around the body and the regulation of the emotions, this can result in feelings of repression, frustration, anger, low moods and poor decision making. Physical problems can also occur, including sluggishness and fatigue (especially in the morning), menstrual issues (e.g. clotting in the menstrual flow), acne, indigestion, muscle pain and tendon stiffness.

How do I treat a sluggish liver?

Milk Thistle supports healthy liver function

The Western herbal medicine Milk Thistle (St Mary's Thistle) contains potent antioxidants that scavenge free radicals in the liver and support the healthy structure and functioning of the liver cells.

It aids normal liver metabolism, stimulates the production and flow of bile, inhibits inflammation, and has traditionally been taken to relieve indigestion, bloating and abdominal discomfort.

Chinese liver tonic herbs

In TCM, conditions associated with stagnant Liver Qi are commonly treated with Liver tonic herbs.

Examples include Bupleurum (which is traditionally believed to support Liver function and help regulate the flow of Qi and Blood and promote their dispersal throughout the body), and Baical Skullcap and Chen Pi (which help stimulate the production and flow of bile).

Goji Berries and Rehmannia provide additional benefits (particularly when fatigue or stress are present), and the cooling effects of Chinese Dandelion and Baical Skullcap may also be employed to help drain excess Heat and Fire from the Liver.

Diet and lifestyle recommendations for sluggish liver function

  • Don’t smoke, take recreational drugs, or drink alcohol. If you do drink, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two standard drinks per day, and make sure you have at least a few alcohol-free days each week
  • Limit your caffeine consumption too; too much of it may contribute to Liver Qi stagnation
  • Avoid eating fatty foods, especially junk food, fried food, fatty dairy products, margarine and smoked meats such as salami and bacon. Instead, consume small quantities of high quality healthy fats such as extra-virgin olive oil and the fats found in fish, nuts and seeds
  • Ensure your diet also includes at least two litres of water each day and plenty of fibre (from fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes) to support the liver’s detoxification functions by aiding the removal of wastes from the body – but be aware that in TCM, these foods are regarded as best consumed warm rather than cold when your Liver is sluggish
  • In Chinese medicine, foods with pungent and sweet flavours (such as watercress, cardamom, rosemary and oregano) are traditionally consumed to help clear stagnation from the Liver
  • In Chinese medicine, watercress is considered a particularly beneficial food to include in your diet when you want to release stagnant Liver Qi, cool down excess Heat and support the liver’s detoxification processes
  • Other foods to favour include those with sour, bitter or pungent flavours, including garlic, ginger, grapefruit and coriander
  • Suppressing your emotions can contribute to stagnant Liver Qi, so try not to stew on things, and instead find a way to express what’s going on for you, consulting a counsellor if necessary
  • Physical activity promotes the healthy flow of Qi and Blood, and may help you manage your weight, so try to exercise every day, even on the days when you can only manage a quick walk or a few stretches
  • Minimise your exposure to man-made chemicals and toxic compounds by choosing organic produce where possible and switching to cleaning products based on natural ingredients

When should you see your doctor or other health professional about liver health?

  • Symptoms that may indicate the presence of severe liver or gall bladder problems and therefore warrant immediate medical attention include: jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes); pain or hardness in the region of the liver or the abdomen generally; loss of appetite; bloating of the abdomen, feet and/or legs; excessive itchiness of the skin; vomiting; fever; unusually light or dark coloured faeces; and foul-smelling, dark urine
  • You should also seek professional advice if you are experiencing substance abuse issues or symptoms that may be the result of previous substance abuse