You already know how important it is to care for your heart, brain and skin, but what if I told you that you might be neglecting an organ that performs over 500 crucial tasks for your body? This organ, known as the liver, is our body’s built-in filter and detoxifier. Are you treating it right?
My Liver Does All That?
One of the main roles of the liver is metabolizing, or breaking down, carbohydrates, protein and fats from our diets. When it metabolizes these components, it stores them and uses them to create energy that our body needs to function. The liver is also responsible for storing fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K), zinc, iron, copper and magnesium. And while you may lie out in the sun to catch some rays and vitamin D, without the liver, vitamin D cannot be activated into the form used by the body. This organ is also responsible for forming and excreting bile, a substance that is necessary for digestion. Last, the liver filters our blood, at approximately 1,500 mL per minute! This allows for filtration and detoxification of the blood by removing ammonia, alcohol, drugs and any bacteria (1).
Now that we see how important the liver is to our overall health, let’s explore the best ways to care for this organ.
I Wouldn’t Drink That if I Were You
To keep the liver healthy and properly functioning, certain lifestyle behaviors should be avoided. Alcoholic liver disease is the number one liver disease in the United States. When a person consistently consumes too much alcohol (more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men), the byproduct of alcohol digestion, acetaldehyde, builds up in the body. This chemical is not only the source of your dreaded hangover, but it also leads to cellular damage and fat accumulation in the liver. Over time, this can cause a fatty liver, and eventually end in cirrhosis, a non-functioning liver (1).
Many other common liver conditions are viral, such as hepatitis. However, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition that is most likely associated with obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and elevated lipid levels. Therefore, by preventing conditions such as obesity, diabetes and dyslipidemia with a balanced diet and exercise, one is also helping to avoid future liver complications (1).
Last, smoking tobacco causes oxidative stress in the body. Oxidation has the potential to have negative effects on many regions, including the liver.
So, How Do I Keep It Healthy?
In addition to eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats, there are certain foods and supplements that are thought to promote liver health.
• Milk thistle is one of the most popular supplements for the liver. Its active compound, silymarin, is thought to protect this organ by promoting cell growth, reducing free radicals and promoting healthy inflammation. Milk thistle has been known to cause adverse reactions in people who are allergic to similar plants such as ragweed, marigold and daisy. Also, it may lower blood sugar levels, and people should take caution if they are using insulin or any other drugs that affect blood sugar levels. Lastly, it has been found that milk thistle has the potential to interact with many other drugs (2). Therefore, it is always important to consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
• Artichoke may aid in liver regeneration and support bile production (3).
• Avocado helps produce the antioxidant glutathione, which helps the liver filter out toxins.
• Flavonoid-rich beets support healthy liver function (4).
• Dandelion root promotes liver health and helps detox (3).
• Garlic helps activate enzymes that flush out toxins.
• Grapefruit helps flush out carcinogens and toxins.
• Green tea contains antioxidants called catechins.
• Leafy greens neutralize metals, chemicals and pesticides found in foods (4).
• Licorice helps defend against toxins (3).
• Turmeric aids in digesting fats and stimulates bile production.
• Vitamin E analogs (tocotrienols and alpha-tocopherol) were found to improve markers of healthy liver function in rats with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (5). In another study, half of individuals with NAFLD that took vitamin E tocotrienols (400 mg/day) for a year became negative for the disease, and their ALP and creatine levels were reduced (6).
• Walnuts are a source of glutathione (4).
To Detox or Not? That is the Question
Detoxification is the process of removing toxins, or harmful chemicals, from the body. These toxins may come from sources like alcohol, caffeine, medication, pesticides, pollution or sugars. A liver detox involves a diet that removes certain foods, then gradually introduces items again. A diet would typically start with many liquids and organic fruits/vegetables and without any caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, drugs or processed foods.
Many feel detoxing clears the body of accumulated toxins, which can lead to weight loss, increased energy, a clearer mind and the prevention of chronic diseases. However, detox diets are typically very restrictive and can only be maintained for a short amount of time. Also, the weight loss is usually due to water and muscle depletion, and is often regained once the detox is complete (7). Furthermore, a longer detox has the potential to harm the body due to inadequate and unbalanced nutritional intake. Those with blood sugar issues or who are pregnant shouldn’t try such a diet, and others should check with their doctor first.
The liver plays a key role in many of our body’s processes, and a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle will help promote a thriving liver. WF
1. L.K. Mahan, S. Escott-Stump and J.L. Raymond, Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process (Elsevier, St. Louis, MO, 2012).
2. “Milk Thistle,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/ataglance.htm, accessed May 29, 2013.
3. E. Walling, “Detox Your Liver with These Natural Herbs,” Natural News, www.naturalnews.com/027607_liver_detox_herbs.html, accessed May 29, 2013.
4. A. Patel, “Foods For Liver: 10 Foods For A Healthy and Clean Liver,” www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/09/13/foods-for-liver_n_1880715.html, accessed May 29, 2013.
5. “Vitamin E Supports Liver Health,” WholeFoods Mag., July 2013, www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/vitamin-e-supports-liver-health4353453, accessed May 29, 2013.
6. E. Magosso, et al., “Tocotrienols and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver: A Clinical Experience,” AASLD Abstracts, Hepatology, Oct. 2010.
7. “Natural Liver Detox Diets (Liver Cleansing),” www.webmd.com/balance/natural-liver-detox-diets-liver-cleansing, accessed May 29, 2013.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2013