On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Problems With the Hardworking Liver Can't Be Self-Diagnosed

DEAR DR. BLONZ: What is the story with having a "sluggish liver"? An article I recently read said that symptoms of a sluggish liver can include having a hard time losing weight, experiencing various abdominal pains or even having cellulite. This piqued my interest, and I found more on the topic, with some articles making specific recommendations for herbs and other dietary supplements. Should I try these treatments? -- F.S., Madison, Wisconsin

DEAR F.S.: The entire concept of a "sluggish liver" has no real medical meaning. I have seen the term used to explain everything from hemorrhoids to migraine headaches. It is difficult to answer the specifics of your question, because to do so would justify your conclusion that a "sluggish liver" was the source of your problems. I cannot help but doubt that this is so.

Our liver is very complex: perhaps the hardest-working and most diverse organ in our body. Its responsibilities include: making our blood; manufacturing proteins; detoxifying chemicals, including alcohol and all matter of drugs and contaminants, whether eaten, injected, absorbed through the skin or present in the air we breathe; making and storing glycogen, a form of stored glucose (blood sugar); turning excess calories into fat for storage; burning fats when necessary; creating ketones when there is insufficient glucose in the blood; producing bile, a substance that helps digest food; storing iron and some other vitamins and minerals; and making the factors that help clot the blood.

The obvious implications of this impressive list is that there can be serious consequences if the liver is not functioning up to par. But what does it mean to have a "sluggish liver"? This nonspecific term is unhelpful. It would be similar to proclaiming "something is wrong," and then expecting this singular confession to give rise to specific advice that will make it right.

With problems involving the liver, the first step should be to determine what's going on. To do this, you'll need to see a health professional, who will take a careful history, do a physical examination and order the appropriate laboratory tests.

Depending on what is at play, it is possible that there might be some treatment that can help, but what works for one individual might be counterindicated for another. The bottom line is that you risk making things worse by trying treatments on your own without knowing the source of the problem, and whether the liver is even involved. I encourage you to take the time to get the needed information before you proceed.

Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.