Eating healthy is one of the most powerful actions you can take to upgrade your overall health and quality of life, boosting your mood, your energy, and improving how well you age.
But what if you aren’t fully absorbing all the nutrients that you are so diligently consuming with all your carefully chosen healthy foods?
To get the full benefit from healthy foods – and also help your body better deal with less-than-optimal foods – you need ample production of bile.
What Is Bile?
Bile is a vital bodily fluid that has many essential functions, including:
- digesting dietary fats – adequate bile is essential for weight (excess fat) loss
- assisting in the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, especially fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E and K, which can only be absorbed if there is adequate bile
- lubricating the small intestines and stool – less lubrication can result in constipation and too much can lead to diarrhea
- binding and flushing toxins from your body, especially fat-soluble toxins.
Bile is continuously produced in your liver and then stored in your gallbladder. And in order to have ample bile production, you need a healthy liver.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), liver dysfunction is at the root of most ailments. The liver is known in TCM as the “master organ”, or The Commanding General, as it directs the actions of all the other organs, and affects them all adversely when it is out of balance. For instance, high and chronic stress affects the liver first, and then the liver is said to “act out” and inflict its unhappiness on all the other organs. From a Western perspective, some of the liver’s many important functions include detoxification, enzyme production, bile production, hormone production, immune cell activation and the storage of vitamins and iron. Either way you look at it, a happy, well-functioning liver is crucial for optimal health.
How Does the Liver Function?
All the blood leaving the stomach and intestines passes through the liver. The liver filters this blood, and breaks down, balances, and assembles compounds and nutrients from the blood for use by the rest of your body. The liver also metabolizes drugs and other substances into forms that are easier for your body to utilize, and helps detoxify your body by making various toxins less harmful and more easily excreted (as part of the 4 phases of detoxification, which you can learn more about in my course, Dr. Emily’s 10 Day Detox!).
More than 500 vital functions are handled by the liver, including:
- Production of bile
- Production of cholesterol and special proteins to help carry fats through the body
- Conversion of excess glucose into glycogen for storage (which can then later be converted back to glucose for energy) and to balance and make glucose as needed
- Regulation of blood levels of amino acids, which form the building blocks of proteins
- Production of certain proteins that make up blood plasma
- Processing of hemoglobin for its iron content (the liver stores iron)
- Clearance of excess bilirubin from red blood cells
- Conversion of ammonia to urea (urea is an end product of protein metabolism and is excreted in the urine)
- Clearing the blood of drugs and other poisonous substances
- Regulating blood clotting
- Resisting infections by making immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream
In modern society, our livers are often overburdened and cannot perform their essential functions in an optimal way. This breakdown of function can lead to disease. For instance, a non-optimally-functioning liver produces less bile, which can result in digestive issues such as bloating, constipation and stomach pain. Reduced bile production can also lead to thicker, more concentrated bile, which can lead to gallstones and gallbladder blockages. Insufficient or thick bile impairs nutrient absorption and thus increases the amount of daily nutrition required (this is a common underlying cause of the urge to overeat!) Additionally, these problems can hinder bile’s ability to remove toxins, allowing harmful substances to remain in your body and continue to do damage.
Liver Function and Hormonal Balance
The liver and thyroid have a synergistic relationship; T4 is converted to T3 by bile from the liver. T3 is the more potent thyroid hormone, metabolized from iodine. A thyroid problem may actually be the result of a liver or bile problem rather than anything to do with the thyroid gland itself.
The liver also metabolizes many other hormones such as insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and plays a major role in the inactivation and clearance of surplus hormones, such as excess estrogen. Symptoms of hormone imbalances, such as mood issues – anxiety, depression, weepiness, irritability, poor stress resilience – can result from an unhealthy liver because of the liver’s influence on hormones.
Signs of Liver Imbalance
Bile cannot be produced effectively by an unhealthy liver. There are a wide range of symptoms of liver imbalance that can be due to insufficient bile production, including:
- Gas, bloating, constipation
- Leaky gut
- Poor fat digestion
- Irregular stool
How to Support Your Liver and Produce More Bile
You can improve your liver health and boost bile production naturally in a number of ways. Here are my top 5:
1. Reduce Your Toxin Load
First, work towards reducing your intake of substances that stress your liver, such as alcohol, prescription drugs, and other toxins.
An easy first step in this direction is to choose organic foods whenever possible, especially for the “Dirty Dozen” – that’s the top 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces a well-researched list of the fruits and veggies that are the most important to buy organic. Here’s the list for 2023:
Another way to lower your toxin load is to support your body’s natural detoxification processes, by doing my 10-Day Detox annually, semi-annually, or even quarterly.
2. Eat Foods that Support Your Liver
Liver-supporting foods can improve liver function and boost bile production, as well as thinning bile so that it can flow freely, thus doing its job better. Liver-supporting foods include:
- dark leafy greens, such as kale, collards, and most other brassicas, spinach, chard, etc.
- bitter foods and beverages of all kinds
- all things beet: beet root (vegetable), beet greens, beetroot powder, beet kvass
- organic berries of all kinds
- herbal teas: dandelion leaf & root, nettles, St. John’s Wort, ginseng, schisandra berry, and green tea are among the many liver-supporting herbal teas
3. Square Breathing
An interesting area of research in improving liver health and stimulating bile flow is diaphragmatic breathing exercises. The liver is positioned just below the diaphragm, and during deep breathing, the diaphragm pushes down and massages the liver, stimulating blood flow to the liver, and boosting bile production.
Many of us are shallow breathers, and working on breathing more deeply more often can improve liver function and bile production (and it helps to relieve stress, too!) My favorite breathing technique is Square Breathing, because it’s quick, easy and effective. You simply breathe in through your nose for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, breathe out through your nose for a count of 5, and hold for a count of 5, and repeat as many times as you like.
Try it now! 🙂
4. Intermittent Fasting
Many studies have shown intermittent fasting to have multiple and wide-ranging health benefits, one of them being improved liver function. During the fasting period, bile is continuously produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Intermittent fasting is an effective way to increase the amount of bile available for fat digestion, nutrient absorption, and toxin elimination.
5. Reduce Stress
Emotional stress is detrimental for health and it creates a cascade of fight or flight hormones, such as cortisol, nitric oxide and adrenaline. This puts a huge burden on the organs of the body, but especially the liver, as it’s responsible for the removal of excess toxins and hormones.
And, as mentioned earlier, in TCM, stress leads to liver dysfunction (or Liver Depression Qi Stagnation, in TCM), which leads to all sorts of other health issues. So minimizing and alleviating stress helps soothe the liver and thus your whole system.
Some of the most effective ways to reduce stress are:
- Exercise that you enjoy
- Deep Breathing (see Square Breathing, above)
- Physical affection
- Creative pursuits
We all have our own ways of de-stressing. The important thing is to find what works best for you, and then do it regularly!
Improving liver function, and especially boosting bile production, are keys to increasing your absorption of nutrients and clearing toxins, and thus are essential for optimizing health. Five easy ways to do this are:
- Reduce Your Toxin Load
- Eat Liver-Supporting Foods
- Square Breathing
- Intermittent Fasting
- Reduce Stress