Spring Cleaning… Let’s talk about bowel movements
In nature, the transition from winter to spring is a transition from stillness to expansion, from hibernation to rebirth; materials from the past are cleared to make room for new growth. Similarly, the bowels and the liver work together to cleanse the body allowing for regeneration and transformation. In keeping with the cycles of nature, spring is a great time to strengthen liver and bowel function and reinforce this important cleansing process.
What’s important about the liver?
Our liver works hard every moment: filtering the blood and immune system, controlling blood sugar, controlling fluid balance in the blood vessels, making cholesterol, processing hormones, detoxifying harmful chemicals and so much more!
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver system is a Yin system, responsible for assimilation and storage of resources. Energetically, it controls the smooth flow of energy in the body including the timing of menstrual cycles and the expression of emotions. A blockage of the Liver system can lead to irregular periods or the build up of anger or waking at night between 1-3am.
What’s the connection between healthy bowels and healthy liver function?
Liver detox is like day-before-garbage day: The day before garbage day, I gather all the garbage from the trash bins in each room of the house. I leave the collected garbage by the front door so next time I’m heading out the door I can take it to the bins outside and then out to the street. Similarly, the liver prepares waste to be eliminated from the body. However, I leave the garbage sitting at the front door for days, I haven’t finished cleaning the house! Getting the garbage outside (and taken away) is the next critical step. In the same way, regular bowel movements are the critical step to eliminating garbage from the body. Poor bowel elimination can lead to prolonged exposure to toxins (triggering inflammation) and even reabsorption of substances back into the body.
As mentioned above, the Liver system in Chinese Medicine, is particularly linked to stress and excess emotions. When out of balance, an impaired Liver system can lead to the bowels’ inability to “let go”, in other words, constipation.
So how do I know I have impaired liver function?
Common signs and symptoms: skin rashes, high cholesterol, weak immune system, gallstones, high estrogen levels, fatigue, depression, headaches, puffy eyelids in the morning, dark urine in the morning, difficulty digesting fats, chemical hypersensitivity, weak/aching joints/muscles, anger and emotional excesses and insomnia. Our winter diets higher in sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol also slow down liver function.
Do I have constipation?
Some common signs and symptoms of constipation include having less than one bowel movement a day, having bowel movements that feel incomplete, having pellet stools or straining with bowel movements and chronic/recurrent hemorrhoids or anal fissures.
So how do I improve bowel and liver function?
There are many ways to optimize liver function including avoiding chemical exposures and eating a whole foods nutrient-dense diet. In this post however, we’ll list a few ways to help improve bowel health in order to optimize liver function.
- Activating the “Rest and Digest” System
- The “rest and digest” portion of our nervous system largely controls our digestive tract including bowel movements. Regular exercise, consistent sleep/wake times, un-rushed meals and daily time for active rest like reading help to regularly activate this part of the nervous system. Regular expression of thoughts and emotions are important as well. Keep in mind that past concussions and surgery can impact the nerve control of the digestive tract as well and may also need to be addressed.
- Bitter vegetables, bitter herbal tinctures and apple cider vinegar can help “prime” the gut by stimulating the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes for better digestion and regular bowel movements. In addition, reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet to promote the breakdown of stored fuel in the liver. This can make a significant impact on improving high cholesterol.
- Some liver herbs include dandelion root, milk thistle, burdock root, rosemary and schisandra – many of these herbs help repair liver cells, help with liver detox and stimulate the release of bile into the bowels. Bile carries the waste products from the liver into the bowels for elimination and is an important trigger of bowel movements. With the liver producing one liter of bile per day, poor bile production or flow can quickly impair liver function and slow down bowel clearance.
- Gut Microbiome
- Some gut bugs contribute to constipation. Probiotics are a great place to start for this. Some may need to check for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO test) for determining specific treatments against these “bad bacteria.”
- Lymph Circulation
- The lymphatic system is our “garbage collection” vessels in our body. And it relies on body movement for circulation. Gentle movement and exercise can help to clear this system after a more sedentary winter. Castor oil packs are a great way to calm the nervous system of the digestive tract and also gently move lymphatic circulation.
Note: Although it may be helpful for short term relief of constipation, avoid “purging” the bowels with strong laxatives – this doesn’t help liver detoxification.
When preparing for spring, support the elimination of waste and excess storage in order to make space for revitalizing your body: better tissue repair, better immune function and more energy. Contact us to get started on “spring cleaning” with your liver and bowel health.
Carin Matsushita, ND, RAc