The human liver performs about 500 vital functions in the body! So, it is important to understand that some of our everyday practices could seriously interrupt liver functions and cause diseases that can otherwise be avoided. Knowing which foods and supplements can benefit the liver can take you a long way in staying healthy (1).
What Does the Liver Do?
One well-known function of the liver is to produce bile, which is responsible for carrying away waste materials in the body and breaking down fats in the small intestine during digestion. Among many other functions, the liver clears the blood of drugs, bacteria and other toxic substances, regulates blood clotting and produces immune factors that resist infections (1).
Causes of Liver Damage
Alcohol abuse has been considered one of the most common causes of liver disease in North America. Staying within healthy limits is very important, as alcohol is directly toxic to liver cells and can lead to liver inflammation, causing the organ to malfunction. Another major cause of liver damage is fat accumulation within the liver, which can lead to a gradual decline in liver function. An overdose of medications or drugs can also lead to liver injury; but, in some cases, they may cause damage even when taken in proper prescribed dosages (2).
Another cause of liver cell inflammation is hepatitis infection, which can be transmitted through fecal ingestion, contaminated blood, sexual contact or contaminated food and water exposure. Other metabolic disorders and abnormalities can also lead to liver damage. One way of keeping your liver in good shape, however, is by adhering to dietary practices and adding the required nutrients that will keep you in good health (2).
Foods to Consume and Avoid
A well-balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, will provide you with the nutrients needed for a healthy liver. Most importantly, the consumption of organically grown foods will minimize your liver’s exposure to harsh agricultural chemicals. Food groups that greatly support liver health are those rich in sulfur; they help the liver in detoxifying prescription medications, pesticides and environmental toxins (3).
Onion, garlic and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, are rich in sulfur, which helps in liver detoxification processes. Research indicates that certain spices like turmeric, cinnamon and licorice also have the ability to support your liver’s immune function. High-fiber foods such as whole grain breads, rice and cereals are considered especially helpful in liver health and are highly recommended for people with fatty liver disease (i.e., the build-up of fat in liver cells) (3, 4).
Avoiding fried and other high-fat processed foods containing hydrogenated oils can reduce the risk of liver-related diseases (3). Fat substitutes and kernel oil (e.g., canola, olive, corn, sunflower, peanut and flaxseed oils) require less bile to break down than other oils, and can help those with bile duct disease. Minimizing salted foods is an important diet recommendation for diseases like cirrhosis (i.e., the scarring and hardening of the liver) and hepatitis C (4). Rather than consuming smoked, salted and cured foods, try seasonings like lemon juice, onion, vinegar, garlic, pepper, mustard, cloves, sage or thyme.
High-calorie foods such as rich desserts, snacks and drinks can be substituted with fruits (3). It is also important for people with hemochromatosis (i.e., the build-up of iron in liver), to keep away from foods and pills that contain iron. Reduced intake of copper-laden foods such as chocolate, nuts, shellfish and mushrooms is recommended for people suffering from Wilson disease, which is caused by the build-up of copper in the body (4).
Supplements for a Healthy Liver
Milk thistle, burdock root, dandelion root and other herbs can be effective in protecting the liver. Milk thistle contains silymarin, which can stimulate the production of new liver cells, prevent liver destruction by toxins and reduce inflammation associated with hepatitis. Burdock root is known to cleanse and purify the blood and liver. Dandelion has been found to increase bile production and promote liver detoxification, and its roots are known to promote liver function (5).
Liver diseases are marked by changes in amino acid metabolism, which is characterized by low levels of circulating branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). A recent study consisting of patients with advanced cirrhosis (6), has demonstrated that long-term BCAA supplementation is associated with decreased frequency of hepatic failure. BCCA was also found to be associated with decreased frequency of complications of cirrhosis and improved nutritional status when prescribed as a maintenance therapy. While these dietary supplements have the potential to support your liver, always consult with your healthcare provider about what’s best for you. WF
1. University of Maryland Medical Center, “The Liver,” www.umm.edu/liver/liver.htm, accessed Oct. 5, 2011.
2. MedicineNet.com, “Liver Disease,” www.medicinenet.com/liver_disease/page2.htm, accessed Oct. 5, 2011.
3. The World’s Healthiest Foods, “What Foods Can Improve Liver Health?” http://whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=fightdz&dbid=11, accessed Oct. 5, 2011.
4. Liver Foundation, “Diet and Your Liver,” www.liverfoundation.org/downloads/alf_download_729.pdf, accessed Oct. 5, 2011.
5. LiveStrong.com, “Herbs and Supplements that Support Liver Function,” www.livestrong.com/article/143629-herbs-supplements-that-support-liver-function/, accessed Oct. 5, 2011.
6. M. Charlton, Branched-Chain Amino Acid Enriched Supplements as Therapy for Liver Disease (American Society for Nutrition, 2006).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2011