Liver as our Great Alchemist Part 4: Deficiency and Excess - BodyMind Institute

Liver as our Great Alchemist Part 4: Deficiency and Excess

By Dr. Terry Willard | Blog

Sep 11

Average Reading Time: 5 minutes and 30 seconds

So far in this alchemical adventure we have looked at a few of the transmutation aspects of the liver, or “liver energy”. We have delved into the aspect of liver detoxification and how it counts on a three-phase process (numbered I –III). We also took a glance at assessing if phase I or phase II were working properly.

Now it is time to change our focus onto two other aspects of liver strength: deficiency or excess. Again, we want to find a balance here. Some people might display one or the other of this balance. If they display either set of the symptoms strongly, then we used the appropriate botanicals. Fortunately, as we pointed out in our last blog, liver energies are particularly well suited for treatment with botanical medicine.

Liver deficiency symptoms and treatment

Michael Moore[1] states that symptoms of liver deficiency are a dry skin and mucosa, with a tendency to atopic allergies of the skin and respiratory system, with poor fat and protein metabolism, weakness of the appetite, and a tendency to constipation.  Blood sugar levels fluctuate to a large degree, with an overall tendency to a catabolic dominance and an asthenic build, complaints of peripheral coldness, with carbohydrate-rich foods preferred over proteins and fats.

Thus, the prototypical patient with symptoms of liver deficiency is constipated, suffers from hypoglycaemia, is generally cold or more sensitive to cool weather, and has a current or recent history of allergies.  Patients however may also appear obese, but this relates more to a pathological truncal abdominal obesity, rather than the generalized constitutional obesity seen in liver excess. Liver deficiency can be a native, constitutional factor, or can be acquired through liver diseases or from an exposure to liver toxins, including alcohol and petrochemicals.  One could add that liver metabolism is in large part derived from dietary influences, and thus liver deficiency would typically be associated with a low protein, high carbohydrate diet.

Herbs to stimulate

The treatment of liver deficiency symptoms is directed to increasing liver metabolism and bile synthesis, thus reducing the toxic load of the liver.  Treatments should also aim to improve the absorption of fats into the lymphatic system, thereby reducing the lipid load in the hepatic portal vein, or by increasing the supply of blood to the liver by dilating the hepatic artery.

  • Examples of “warming” cholagogues and hepatics: Barberry (Berberis), Gold Threat (Coptis), Celandine (Chelidonium), Iris, Black root (Leptandra), Oregon grape (Mahonia), Bog Bean (Menyanthes), Milk Thistle (Silybum)
  • Examples of lipid portal stimulants: Poke (Phytolacca), Pipe Vine (Aristolochia), Vine cactus (Fouquieria), Stone root (Collinsonia), Chapparal,  Larrea, Dock Rumex.
  • Examples of hepatic arterial stimulants: Pipe Vine (Aristolochia), Black root (Leptandra), Mandrake (Podophyllum), Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum)
  • Examples of anabolics: American Ginseng (Panax quinqufolium), Damiana, Wild Oats (Avena)

Liver: excess symptoms and treatment

Symptoms of liver excess are opposite in nature to deficiency symptoms, with a moist, oily skin, a tendency to fat and protein cravings, elevated uric acid levels, essential hypertension, a general tendency to hyperthermia, and when challenged by a cold or flu, a rapid onset fever and with profuse sweating.  The underlying cause of excess liver symptoms are usually related to adrenocortical or thyroid stress, with elevated levels of testosterone and progesterone in the case of the former, or elevations in thyroid secretion, with tachycardia, hyperthermia and insomnia in the latter.

Herbs to relax

The overall approach to reducing symptoms of liver excess involve increasing the buffering of nitrogen compounds in the blood with electrolyte-rich herbs, and increasing bile secretion without stimulating liver metabolism.  The primary approach is manifest in dietary choices, with a preference for fresh leafy green vegetables and a concomitant decrease in protein and fat consumption, which can present some difficulties with compliance.  As Michael Moore puts it “…a trip to a salad bar by a liver excess is an excuse to eat blue cheese dressing”.

  • Examples of alkalizing hepatics: Alfalfa (Medicago), Red Clover (Trifolium), Nettles (Urtica)
  • Examples of “cooling” cholagogues: Burdock (Arctium), Dandelion (Taraxacum), Milk Thistle (Silybum), Wormwood (Artemisia), Bugleweed (Lycopus)

It is important to note that symptoms of liver deficiency and excess, if not caused by acquired factors (particularly in the former), are best addressed through dietary shifts, increasing protein intake (e.g. animal proteins) and enhancing protein assimilation and utilization (with herbs) in liver deficiency, and increasing above-ground vegetable intake and liver catabolism (with herbs) in liver excess.

It is also important to point out that these symptoms are not absolutes. I have often had patients come in with liver excess and over a period of several years literally wearing out their liver and move into deficiency. Sometimes you will find the person’s symptom varying from one end of the spectrum to the other over a month or so, just to venture back to the older symptoms again. This is particularly true during peri- and menopausal years of transition, where some of the symptoms are directly related to liver interaction.  Remember, the best solution for this is regular detoxifications and a good base diet.

 In our next blog, I will introduce a herbal protocol that I have come to rely on to balance out and detoxify the liver.

Article By Dr. Terry Willard, Faculty Member here at the BodyMind Institute
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Wild Rose College of Natural Healing Website:


[1] Moore, Michael. 2002. Herbal Energetics in Clinical Practice. Self-published.  Available online from:

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About the Author

For over forty years, Terry Willard, Cl.H., Ph.D., has studied the medicinal properties of plants. He is recognized as one of North America’s leading Clinical Herbalists. He appears regularly in the print and electronic media as an exponent of responsible herbal use. He is the past-president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners, a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and in the Canadian Health Food Association’s Hall of Fame. Dr. Willard is the author of twelve books on the subject of Herbs including the pivotal Wild Rose Herbal Series – a series of three textbooks written to educate herbalists. Two of his books, Mind-Body Harmony and Dr. Willard Flower Essence: Emotional Alchemy and Spiritual Evolution, have been particularly popular with the general public.