It never fails to amaze me how much our body can heal and repair itself given favourable conditions. This is particularly true in gut health where I’ve had the privilege of witnessing dramatic improvements in my patients. When we take a closer look at the causes of indigestion, we often find liver issues are a key contributor. Today, I’d like to shed some light on this common digestive roadblock and what we can do to improve the flow of digestion.
The Liver’s Role in Digestion
Healthy digestion involves many systems working together like the nervous system, digestive enzymes, gut flora, gut lining and the liver. The liver filters harmful substances from our blood (that might enter our body via food, breath and skin) and makes bile, an amazing fluid essential for fat digestion, healthy gut flora, bowel regularity, cholesterol health and detox. The liver makes a litre of bile every day – we definitely don’t want to clog up this system.
Although alcohol is well-known to burden the liver, the prevalence of non-alcoholic liver disease is rapidly increasing and is “now considered to be the most common liver disease in the Western world.” This is due to multiple factors including diets high in fructose, sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates. These factors lead to excess fat storage in the liver and damage to liver cells. We also have significant environmental exposures (from food, air, water, household products and occupational exposures) that can burden the liver. When the liver function is compromised, bile quality or bile flow can also be impaired, preventing smooth digestion.
A Time to Eat and a Time to Fast
You may be familiar with our “central clock” determining our sleep/wake cycles. We also have clock genes in our body organs regulating our metabolic timing. Even our gut flora have a day-night cycle. To optimize these patterns, aim to eat during daylight hours only and fast at nighttime (for example, avoid consuming calories for 12 to 14 hours overnight). Fasting at night not only allows plenty of time for digestion but it also allows for clearing and repairing the gut while supporting liver detoxification. As a bonus, fasting also allows insulin levels to reset which can improve cholesterol and blood sugar issues (which further help the liver).
Bitter is Better
Growing up, my favourite part of sushi dinners was the pickled ginger (anyone else?) Many cultures use bitter foods to aid in digestion of meals. Bitter and sour foods stimulate the gut to secrete digestive enzymes and encourage bile flow.
Some bitter foods to include: ginger, arugula, bitter melon, parsley, cilantro, dandelion, endive and turmeric. Tinctures made out of bitter herbs are also convenient and readily available. Use 1-2 dropperfuls in a ¼ cup of water and drink before or with meals. I like to use digestive bitters that include gentian and dandelion (Taraxicum) root. My husband calls his tincture “an earthy kick-in-the-pants.”
Next Level Hydration
Hydration is important for healthy bowel elimination and good bile flow but drinking too much fluids with meals can contribute to indigestion! So timing hydration is critical. Hydrate on an empty stomach (away from meals). First thing in the morning is a great time to maximize hydration. I particularly love lemon water in the morning – soak a quartered organic lemon in 500-750ml of water overnight (at room temp) and drink a cup or two of the water first thing in the morning. It’s refreshing without tasting sour and your liver will love you for it! Drink water (or this lemon water) on an empty stomach throughout the day as well. Drinking a glass of water (or herbal tea) during fasting times can also manage hunger while adjusting your eating/fasting times.
A Closer Look at the Liver
The liver is a truly fascinating organ with dynamic and sophisticated functions. Sometimes gut symptoms and standard liver blood tests don’t give us enough information about which specific liver pathways we need to support. Specialised tests can be helpful for chronic indigestion or known liver-related issues like insulin resistance, fatty liver, high cholesterol, gallbladder issues, as well as hormone imbalances and chronic skin concerns.
Our modern lifestyle can be hard on our liver. And since we rarely feel liver pain, the liver is often neglected (until things become serious). Improving liver function can help unlock the full potential of our digestion and transform the way we nourish our body.
P.S. Ask us about our own digestive bitters – coming soon!