Spring is a time of cleansing and renewal, of starting anew. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s also the season of the liver, the organ of detoxification, explains integrative-medicine practitioner Elson Haas, MD, author of Staying Healthy With the Seasons.
But why provide extra help for the liver in any season? Isn’t it doing its job without assistance? Unless we’ve been diagnosed with a specific liver problem, why make the effort?
Turns out there are plenty of reasons.
The liver is a filter, explains functional-medicine practitioner Jill Carnahan, MD: It sifts out dangerous materials before they enter your bloodstream. But because the volume of hazardous substances in the environment is steadily increasing, the liver can become overwhelmed.
While the liver benefits from support year-round, harnessing that “spring-cleaning” energy can be especially valuable. “Daily habits can make or break liver health,” Carnahan says.
Understand Your Liver
The liver processes every substance that enters the body, including food, drugs (surgical anesthesia, over-the-counter pain relievers, discarded pharmaceuticals that turn up in drinking water), diesel exhaust, and synthetic chemicals like pesticides. And that’s not all.
“There are thousands of new chemicals introduced into the environment every year,” says functional-medicine practitioner Robert Rountree, MD. This toxic onslaught can outpace the liver’s ability to process it.
Alcohol has historically been considered the liver’s primary foe: Drink too much for too long and you risk alcoholic liver disease (ALD); inflammation and scarring from ALD can lead to cirrhosis.
Chemical exposure can cause toxicant-associated fatty liver disease (TAFLD), damaging the liver in a way that’s similar to that of alcohol. Like its more severe cousin, toxicant-associated steatohepatitis, TAFLD often affects individuals who display none of the traditional risk factors for liver disease, such as heavy drinking or obesity.
Sugar is another trigger: Chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Even a teetotaler can develop NAFLD after a lifelong sugar habit. (For more on fatty liver disease, see “The Hidden Liver Crisis”.)
When the liver is overburdened or damaged, the rest of the body suffers.
“We are detox machines,” says Carnahan, but these mechanisms can break down from overwork. Research has linked toxic-chemical exposure with negative changes to gut flora, mitochondrial function, genetic health, and hormone balance. When these get out of whack, it puts the body at higher risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and neurological dysfunction.
Liver function can be compromised for some time before we notice, too. Rountree describes a vegetarian patient who was young, fit, and a fan of organic produce.
“She seemed to be doing everything right with her lifestyle,” he says, yet routine blood work showed liver inflammation. Rountree suspected the acetaminophen that she took daily for joint pain. She stopped taking it, started a milk-thistle supplement, and her blood work normalized.
Show Some Love
All of this might tempt you to try a liver detox, but experts agree that this is not enough — or necessarily safe.
“Many of the ‘cleansing’ protocols can be hard on the liver or gall-bladder,” says Rountree. “Plus, there is no real evidence that these protocols lower the body’s burden of a specific chemical. Any scientifically proven detox program should be focused on lowering the total toxic load in the body, either by enhancing the enzyme systems that transform toxins into a less harmful chemical or by gently accelerating their elimination.”
Instead of a targeted detox, he and other experts recommend a holistic and routine approach to liver health. The daily lifestyle and nutritional strategies that follow can support the liver — and reduce its workload.
These eight behaviors will help protect your liver and support its function.
Because the liver acts as the body’s protective filter, anything you can do to reduce toxic exposure and support overall detoxification will help it do its job more efficiently.
1) Attend to Your “Exposome”
The food you eat, the air you breathe, and any toxins you encounter, as well as the chemicals and hormones your body generates, make up your exposome. It plays a significant role in your long-term health, says Rountree.
And there are simple ways to clean it up. Install a quality water filter. Take shoes off indoors so you don’t track in pesticides. Routinely check your home for mold to protect air quality. Dust often: Airborne toxins can get caught in household dust and loiter on furniture, countertops, and flooring. Invest in an air purifier. If you have a green thumb, stock up on houseplants, which may help clean the air.
You can also avoid toxic exposure by using safe DIY cleaning and body-care products, and by steering clear of synthetic scents. A vinegar-and-water mixture is terrific for many household chores — and it’s cheap! (For more on cleaning up your home and body-care routine, see ELmag.com/greencleaning and ELmag.com/diybeauty.)
2) Stay Hydrated
The liver processes fat-soluble toxins in two phases. During phase 1, it transforms them into compounds that are easier for the body to eliminate. During phase 2, they are transformed again, this time into water-soluble substances that the body then excretes. Any activity that keeps water-soluble compounds moving through the body helps the liver remove toxins, and there is no better way to achieve this than drinking plenty of clean, filtered water daily. Shoot for half your body weight in ounces each day to stay well-hydrated.
3) Balance Your Gut
The gut is one of the earliest stops for whatever we ingest. The healthier it is, the lighter the burden it delivers to the liver. A healthy gut sports a solid barrier and a diverse mix of bacteria. But when these are compromised, hostile bacteria can run amok and produce toxins of their own that can even mimic alcohol byproducts.
“Gut bacteria produce a significant percentage of the chemical metabolites found in the bloodstream,” notes Rountree. “For example, people with intestinal overgrowth of fermenting yeast or bacteria may get liver toxicity simply from their own ‘internal breweries.’”
To create and maintain microbial balance in the gut, eat probiotic-rich foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Prebiotic foods, such as Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, apples, and dandelion greens, are also good choices because they feed healthy bacteria.
Include plenty of fiber in your diet and go easy on the simple carbs and refined sugar, which can foster the growth of bad bacteria. A high-quality probiotic supplement can also help. (For more on probiotics, see “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics”.)
4) Be Mindful With Pharmaceuticals
Once a drug enters the body, it is subject to first-pass metabolism, or the one-two punch of absorption through the gut wall and breakdown by the liver. “A lot of drugs get partially inactivated in the body [during this process],” says Rountree. “Up to 80 percent of a drug’s potency can decrease before entering the bloodstream. This effect can be significantly affected by the health of a person’s microbiome, which can change dramatically after taking antibiotics.”
What’s more, first-pass metabolism taxes the liver, using resources it might otherwise devote to processing other exposures.
So, though some drugs are necessary, pay attention to how many medications you use. If you take over-the-counter pain relievers regularly, especially those containing acetaminophen, consult a healthcare practitioner who can help you taper off safely and find more liver-friendly ways to ease your symptoms.
5) Take a Sauna
Saunas offer an excellent way to sweat out toxins. Case studies show that regular sauna use may help regulate mercury levels, and research on lead toxicity suggests that sauna bathing can help the body eliminate toxic trace metals.
6) Soak in An Epsom-Salts Bath
Although there is little direct research on the effectiveness of Epsom-salts baths for detoxification, the salts’ main ingredients, magnesium and sulfate, are both reputed to support detox processes, drawing toxins from the body. Plus, the stress-relieving benefits of a relaxing bath are hard to overestimate.
To move toxins out of your body, move your body! Sweat removes potentially harmful molecules through the pores, and studies report that some toxins, like heavy metals, are even more concentrated in sweat than in blood or urine.
Bonus: Several clinical trials show that exercise helps reduce fat in the liver and boosts overall liver health and function.
8) Avoid Excess
TCM practitioners say too much of anything — food, alcohol, toxins — can cause a “stagnant” liver. (They all produce a heavy load for the liver to process.) “Liver stagnation is basically what it sounds like,” says nutritionist Judy Deutsch, MS, RD, LDN. “Energy doesn’t circulate as well in the body, and the outcomes of that can be many things: pain, depression, disease.” So make moderation your mantra.|
The following foods and dietary approaches help stimulate and support the liver’s detox processes.
It’s not just alcohol that taxes liver function. Refined sugar and processed foods can also take their toll, exposing the organ to chronically high levels of insulin and chemicals. These whole foods and dietary strategies offer extra support.
Eat Cruciferous Vegetables
Members of the Brassica family are the most potently liver-supportive foods. These include broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radishes, rutabaga, arugula, and kale. Enjoy them daily to optimize the detox process.
During phases 1 and 2 of liver detoxification (technically referred to as biotransformation; see “Stay Hydrated,” above for more on these phases), enzymes turn carcinogens, hormones, drugs, and other foreign substances into compounds that are easier for the body to eliminate. “Many fat-soluble chemicals are relatively inert when they go into the body. Without biotransformation they could potentially stay for years, stored away in our body fat,” explains Rountree. Phase 1 enzymes transform these compounds into forms that can be readily neutralized. Cruciferous vegetables (a.k.a. crucifers) help boost these crucial enzymes.
Crucifers then increase phase 2 liver enzymes; these continue the process and create an easier-to-eliminate water-soluble compound. Both phases are critical: It’s not enough to make the toxins chemically reactive — they have to be neutralized and ushered out. Cruciferous vegetables support both processes.
For an extra boost of liver support, eat more broccoli sprouts. Research on nutritional interventions has shown them to be especially powerful, says Rountree. (Learn more at “The Power of Cruciferous Vegetables.”)
Embrace Bitter Foods
Asparagus, watercress, and other bitter fare can help support the liver by stimulating bile production. Roasted-dandelion-root tea is another liver-friendly choice — and it can be a great coffee substitute when you’re trying to quit caffeine. Research has found that bitter dandelion greens also help boost phase 2 liver-detox enzymes.
Choose Mildly Pungent Foods
TCM practitioners note that foods with a mildly pungent flavor — like basil, turmeric, black pepper, ginger, fennel, cumin, crucifers, strawberries, and cherries — move stagnant energy out of the liver. Plus, each of these foods is rich in antioxidants, which help neutralize the harmful free radicals created during phase 1 detox.
Get Plenty of Healthy Protein
Many functional-medicine practitioners believe that consuming enough healthy, high-quality protein is necessary for effective detox. Some toxins are expelled from the body by attaching themselves to protein sources that contain key amino acids used during phase 2 detox. These amino acids include:
- Glycine: Found in turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, bison, pumpkin seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, lentils, and amaranth.
- Taurine: Found in cooked meat and fish, including beef, chicken, turkey, and lamb.
- Glutamine: Found in beef and chicken. (Also found in the vegetables spinach, parsley, and cabbage.)
- Arginine: Found in turkey, pork, pumpkin seeds, eggs, walnuts, sesame seeds, fava beans, and pine nuts.
No matter what you eat, digestion will produce waste products for the liver to process. Choosing organic foods as often as possible means your liver has to handle only the normal metabolites of digestion; it can avoid the extra work of breaking down the pesticides and herbicides used on conventional crops.
Drink Lemon Water
Both Deutsch and Haas recommend drinking lemon-infused water to support the liver. Animal studies suggest that the citric acid in lemons helps protect against liver damage; other animal research suggests that lemon juice can help diminish alcohol-induced liver damage.
Try Intermittent Fasting
“Whenever you take a break from eating, your liver is not getting a dump of endotoxins from the gut,” says Carnahan. Even 12- to 16-hour overnight fasts can give the liver a break. (For more on the protocol, see “Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting”.)
Supplement Your Nutrition
These antioxidants and herbs are especially supportive of the liver:
⋅ Glutathione: This powerful antioxidant aids cellular detoxification. Concentrated doses have been used to treat acute liver poisoning, and it has shown promise in treating NAFLD.
“Glutathione and glutathione precursors are my top supplements for supporting liver health,” says Rountree. “They are well tolerated, and pretty much anyone can benefit from them.” He recommends 1,000 to 1,500 mg daily of N-acetylcysteine, which is a direct glutathione precursor.
⋅ Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA): This antioxidant may be extra beneficial to the liver, in part because it increases glutathione levels. Studies suggest ALA may also help ease alcohol-induced liver damage, combat heavy-metal poisoning, and reduce oxidative stress.
“Pretty much anyone can benefit from taking ALA, but it is especially helpful for people with fatty liver and insulin resistance,” says Rountree. He recommends 300 to 600 mg daily.
⋅ Milk thistle: The active compounds in milk thistle are collectively called silymarin. Research shows that silymarin provides powerful antioxidant protection to the liver by inhibiting free–radical production during the metabolism of alcohol and acetaminophen, among other substances.
Rountree recommends supplements with silymarin phytosome because they contain phospholipids that help improve absorption.
⋅ Curcumin: The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin suppresses inflammation, scavenges free radicals, and reduces oxidative stress in the liver. “We know curcumin is good for the liver,” says Rountree. “And it is pretty much safe for anyone, unless a person is allergic to turmeric.”
He recommends 500 to 1,000 mg daily of curcumin phytosome, a more bioavailable form with soy or sunflower lecithin.