Sleep and the Liver, Interview

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By: Steven Johnson, D.O. and Barbara Mitchell, M.D.
SpSc: Please introduce yourselves.

S: I am medical director of the Foxhollow Clinic in Louisville, KY. My original training was as co-chief resident in Internal Medicine (UMass) and as an osteopathic physician. After working extensively with cancer patients, chronic illnesses and special-needs children I came to Foxhollow to form an inpatient-based clinic. I hope in this setting to create, together with Barbara and other colleagues, a medical and cultural center where the physical, soul and spiritual needs of patients can be supported along an individual path of healing.
B: I have been working in anthroposophical medicine since 1995, coming from a traditional medical background (UofAZ) with specialty training in obstetrics and gynecology (Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC). I am interested in health and nutrition rather than disease. My path has made it clear to me that gaining/maintaining health is not a material problem alone, but requires work with energy, soul and spirit, and best in the context of a supportive social milieu. One cannot heal alone. For me working at Foxhollow and with Steven in this way is like a dream come true.

SpSc: What is the connection between sleep and the liver?

B:  A lot of children and adults are overloaded in their senses and metabolic systems. This can overwhelm the liver and one of the first symptoms of this stress is sleep disruption.

S: Healthy sleep is a time of regeneration. The liver is our great “alchemist” always directing our bodies into life-giving activity. The Prometheus myth (his liver is eaten by an eagle by day only to regenerate at night) is a wonderful archetypal image of the rhythmical healing that occurs during sleep.

SpSc: What can be done to support the liver and thus sleep?

B: The first thing parents can do is bring rhythm into their family’s life. This is often difficult for parents who are also suffering the stresses of modern life.
S: I often tell parents to work “homeopathically.” Making one consistent change has a radiating effect which leads to healthy habits. Inner change is always more effective than outer change. The true answer to the problem of stress is “present-mindedness” or “meditative consciousness.” If we truly meet the day and “digest” it then stress can become a positive force in life.

SpSc: What effect does nutrition have on the liver and on sleep?

S: I am distressed at the mineral imbalances in young children. High sodium and low potassium dynamics are occurring in relation to the large amounts of refined, processed foods children eat. Potassium is a carrier of “etheric” or “life” processes. These imbalances lead to food sensitivities, behavior and sleep distur-bances, and more. Food quality, prepara-tion, presentation and good digestive habits are very important. The nervous system and sleep are very affected by this.  

Sp.Sc: What is your procedure when a parent brings in a child?

B: It is always a very individualized approach. I look at many things: the constitution of the child, the pattern of their day and week, what are the emotional tones in the home life, what are the cultural supports, i.e., is there a CSA? A Waldorf School? I find often the child can be helped most by relieving some of the stresses on the mother, particularly in setting meaningful priorities, often in regard to rhythm and diet.

S: I listen carefully to the story of the parent and child, observing features and gestures , then try to build an inner picture of the child, including habits and social environment. My exam and any testing or diagnosis follows from this picture. A physician’s intuitiveness proceeds from his/her reverence.  

SpSc: How do we keep our children from harm?

B: We live in a society where I believe the dangers to our children are greater than the cobra or lion that could come into a village. Everywhere we turn there are dangers—food additives, media, pollution, violence, etc. And yet healthy children must participate in their society. As a parent one must navigate in a way that instills confidence and trust in the child, not an easy task.

SpSc: Are we moving forward?
B: I have tremendous hope and don’t feel the future is dim. Today’s unusual children need special circumstances. They have not come to save us; we must rear them and give them a healthy childhood.

S: We are always moving forward!  For many people healing has become a process of initiation. Physicians need to become healers, educators and spiritual counselors in one and the healing encounter will become more and more a process of community building.  

SpSc: What practical advice would you have for bedtime?

S: Bring a feeling of ritual and reverence to bedtime. A candle procession, an imaginative story, a warm sweet tea like peppermint or lemon verbena can also help. Say good-bye to the day, review it simply and put a thought of hope and confidence for what is coming tomorrow. A foot massage alone or with Arnica Massage Oil, a little lavender always calms the busy head and encourages sleep. Valerian, oat straw or passion flower teas and drops can be helpful in some cases.

B: Another tea is linden, just a few flowers, or chamomile which is very balancing. Sometimes hugging a hot water bottle is helpful. An anxious child might benefit from falling backwards onto the bed (not just before sleep) as this can release fears of ‘letting go’. Just before bed try a quiet walk backwards into bed. A pentatonic harp played in the dark is soothing. And never forget the fairy tales, wonderful, rich and nourishing. Just not everything at once!

Paracelsus Foxhollow Clinic is a new initiative bridging anthroposophically extended medicine, biological and integrative medicine. For information call  502-241-4304 and ask for Norma, or write Dr. Johnson at


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