The Beneficent Godfather Is a Second Brain
The image of a godfather has become familiar to all of us. He is that hidden persuader who takes care of people, a real but unofficial leader who oversees the community’s affairs. Outsiders don’t even know he exists, but throughout the community his presence is felt everywhere.
The liver is like a beneficent godfather to the body. Hidden silently beneath our ribs, this huge, deep-red, wedge-shaped mountain oversees the activities and welfare of the body.
Weighing about three pounds, the liver is massive and solid. It extends vertically from our right nipple almost down to the bottom of our rib cage. Crossways, it goes from the right side over to the left nipple. About the same size as the brain, it is our largest and most complex body organ.
Like all organs, the liver is made up of cells and tubes carrying various liquids such as arterial blood (which is coming from the heart), venous blood (which is returning to the heart, lymph blood minus the red blood cells and protein), and bile (an alkaline, yellow liquid made by the liver from cholesterol and the remains of red blood cells and used to digest fats and carry waste).
The main building block of the liver is called liver lobule, which is a cylindrical or tin-can shaped arrangement of the special liver cells and vessels. In each lobule there is a vein running right up through the middle, and the liver cells radiate out form this vein like the spokes of a wheel. The cells are in neat rows so that there are spaces between the rows for blood to flow through and be acted on by the liver cells. There are between 50,000 and 100,000 lobules in the liver.
The amount of blood flow through the liver is tremendous, with one-third of all the blood in the body passing through every minute. This is twice as much as the blood flow through the brain. Since we have over five quarts of blood in us, there is about a quart and a half going through the liver each minute.
To describe exactly what the liver does is a big job, It has about 500 separate functions. Alone, it makes about 1,000 different enzymes, which are substances that bring about the quick chemical reactions needed in the body. In general, the liver does its work by acting on the blood and its contents.
The liver is like the brain of the body. It is also like the general manager of all bodily functions, making millions of decisions and carrying them out every day. Its responsibility is to regulate and supervise our internal condition.
All at the same time, the liver is: 1) the body’s chief chemical laboratory, 2) the receiver and processing plant for all incoming food and other matter, 3) the warehouse and dispenser of much of the body’s extra supplies, 4) the quality control manager for all food admitted into the body, and 5) the body’s Environmental Protection Agency which monitors the quality of the internal environment and neutralizes any unwanted or poisonous substances.
The liver also has a strong influence on our emotions and spiritual condition. A healthy liver ensures patience, endurance, perseverance, the energetic pursuit of spiritual development, and the ability to develop and maintain a strong spiritual center. Conversely a weak or sick liver will show itself as deep insecurity, irritability, anger, excitability, and stubbornness.
The liver controls and regulates the quantity, the quality, and the use of the foods we take in. For example, the liver regulates the appetite, and in the case of hepatitis (liver infection), the first symptom is a complete loss of appetite.
The liver begins its control of food in the following way. When blood leaves the heart, a certain portion passes through the intestines, where it gives oxygen to the tissues and picks up the food that is being absorbed at that time. This blood does not immediately begin circulating throughout the rest of the body but instead goes directly to the liver. The liver receives all the blood that has passed through the stomach, spleen, pancreas, and the intestines.
The liver needs to process our incoming food because if we let our food pass directly into our bloodstream it would poison us. This seems strange but much of the food we eat, even organic food, cannot be used by the body as it is. The amount of sugar in our blood is very carefully controlled by the liver. The liver is able to take any excess sugar and turn it into a type of starch called glycogen, which it stores. Later, when the blood sugar is low, the liver changes the glycogen back into sugar and puts it into the blood to feed our cells.
If we eat a starch like grains or bread, it will slowly be broken down into sugar molecules, absorbed, and sent to the liver. On the other hand, if we take in simple sugar in the form of fruits or honey, for instance, the gradual breakdown doesn’t take place and sugar is sent to the liver in great quantities.
Whenever hit with a great wave of sugar, the liver will try to stop it by turning the sugar into glycogen and storing it. There are only two ways that an unhealthy amount of sugar can get by the liver into the bloodstream. One, if there is just too much sugar storming the liver at once, (for example, after eating many sweets) and two, if the liver has become weak and can no longer do its job well.
With most people today, not only do they have weak livers from eating extreme foods, but also the quantities of sugars that are sent to their livers are enormous. I talked with a Pepsi-Cola delivery man who said that on hot days he often drank a whole case of Pepsi-Cola while driving. This is the equivalent of nearly four cups of white refined sugar.
Bile is made by the liver and is either stored in the gallbladder or sent directly to the intestines. It is necessary for the digestion of fats. Bile also carries much of the liver’s waste to the intestines to be discharged.
Animal fats are the one substance absorbed through the intestines that does not go to the liver. Instead, the fat is picked up by the lymph and put into the blood stream near the heart, from where it circulates throughout the body to be picked up and stored by the body’s cells.
Fat ends up being deposited in the liver if enough excess accumulates in the body. Such stored fat may be the single greatest cause of the weakening and poor functioning of livers.
All the cells in the body can change sugar to glycogen and store it, but the muscle and liver cells do it more often than the other cells. Muscle cells can store 1 percent of their weight in glycogen, and liver cells can store up to 6 percent. When either sugar or fat sores need to be burned, the liver plays a main role.
When fat needs to be burned, the liver alters it chemically and then sends it back to the cells to burn. When both the sugar and fat supplies are low, for example after someone has been fasting or starving for a long time, protein can also be burned for energy. Again, the liver does this. During a fast, for instance, with fat and sugar supplies low, protein will begin to be taken from the muscles. Muscles will begin to disappear, as we can recall from pictures of concentration camp prisoners. This allows sugar to be saved for the brain and nerves, which will use only sugar, and can’t burn fat or protein for their energy.
Protein, like fat, is not an ideal fuel since it produces many waste products. The main waste product of protein is ammonia, which is very poisonous and can’t be allowed to accumulate. As soon as ammonia is present, the liver converts it to urea, which is much less toxic and can be picked up by the kidneys and excreted. Uric acid is another byproduct of burned proteins that sometimes is deposited in joints and produces a painful condition known as gout. This condition is common with people who eat large mounts of meat and other animal foods, as in the case of King Henry VIII.
Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins can all be changed into one another by the liver. When sugar supplies are low, for instance, the liver will begin to change fat and protein into sugar. Whatever food is left after the liver has filled our needs will be turned into fat or mucus. If there is simply too much food, even if it is brown rice, the liver will turn the leftovers into fat. Also, if the foods taken in do not have the correct balance of the different nutrients then the body can’t use them completely and this excess will also become mucus or fat.
Today more than ever there are strange things coming to the liver in hopes of getting into the body. There are pollutants, food additives, medicines, drugs, and other chemicals. Included here are more socially accepted substances like nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. The liver is the enemy of all these destructive extremes.
The liver will try to neutralize and eliminate anything it decides is unhealthy. For example, when aspirin reaches the liver, the liver will work furiously to see that nonof it gets by into the bloodstream. Therefore, doctors have to give a large enough dose so that no matter how hard the liver tries, enough aspirin gets by to do its job.
Alcohol is one of the few substances that can be absorbed through the walls of the stomach into the blood. The liver is the only part of the body able to neutralize alcohol, which it does at the rate of about one-third ounce per hour. It takes about five or six hours for the liver to neutralize the alcohol in three beers or four shots of whiskey.
Following a change to a healthy diet, a sick liver puts its amazing regenerative power to work. Even if eighty percent of the liver is destroyed by sickness or surgery, it will grow back the missing portion in a relatively short time, all the while still carrying on its normal functions.
Like a truly selfless godfather, the liver has made the care and health of the whole body its only concern. The result of this is that the liver cannot be understood or appreciated unless the intimate relations of all the parts and their oneness with the outer environment through diet is first realized.
Liver Diseases and Remedies
The three most common forms of liver disease are liver cancer, ‘cirrhosis, and hepatitis. According to macrobiotic teacher Michio Kushi, liver cancer is often the result of the long-term eating of animal foods, especially meat, eggs, and dairy foods. This includes all foods that are high in fat and oil, even vegetable-quality oil. Along with these foods, flour products, fruits, sugar, and all raw foods can be contributing factors.
To treat liver cancer, Kushi recommends a change to the standard macrobiotic diet centered around whole grains and vegetables, seaweed, fermented foods, and seasonal fruit. All food should be cooked. The saltiness of the food should be mild (less than average). The main food should be brown rice combined with barley. One or two cups of miso soup should be taken every day. Vegetables should be at least one-half the quantity of grain, and be mostly green leafy vegetables. There should be no sweets at all. Every day a small amount of aduki beans or lentils should be eaten, as should seaweed. The liquid should be roasted barley tea, roasted brown rice tea, or kukicha twig tea.
Cirrhosis of the liver is the fifth leading cause of death among both men and women between the ages of 45 and 64. It is the gradual replacement of liver cells by hard fibrous tissue and results in the loss of liver function. The cause is the long-time eating of animal foods followed by the eating of large amounts of alcohol, fruit juice, soft drinks, and sugar, Cirrhosis has even been found among teenagers who drink lots of soft drinks.
To heal cirrhosis follow the standard macrobiotic diet with an emphasis on barley and a good proportion of hard, leafy greens. Fermented foods such as miso, shoyu, and cooked sauerkraut are helpful. An occasional supplementary dish can be shellfish, such as littleneck clams, cooked in miso soup.
Hepatitis is liver infection. The first symptom is usually loss of appetite (anorexia) often accompanied by nausea and possibly other symptoms. This stage is followed by almost complete fatigue and jaundice, with a recovery period of a few weeks or more. There is no professional medical treatment for hepatitis.
The two basic types of hepatitis are infectious and serum. Serum hepatitis is more serious and usually lasts longer. Both types are believed to be caused by viruses transmitted in various ways such as by contaminated shellfish, poor sewage disposal, infected hypodermic needles, or through sex.
In the case of hepatitis, the weakened condition of the liver and blood can come from two main groups of foods. The first is animal foods in general, especially the fatty ones like meat and dairy foods. The second group are the more tropical foods like sugar, raw fruits, and tropical vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant.
Both these groups of foods will create the internal conditions that bacteria and viruses love. To treat hepatitis, follow the standard macrobiotic diet with the following provisions. All food should be cooked. Root vegetables such as radish, turnip, and carrots should be emphasized, along with the regular eating of brown rice with barley as the main food. All flour products should be eliminated. In addition, a hot ginger compress should be applied every day to the liver area.