By: Cat Ebeling, RN, MSN-PHN, co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen, The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix
Your liver is an amazing organ. It is quietly chugging away right now, working hard to metabolize and break down toxic substances that your body encounters.
The liver performs about 500 or more necessary functions in the body, including:
- The liver produces a substance called bile, which helps to break down fats for digestion in the small intestine.
- The liver metabolizes and utilizes nutrients from the food you eat.
- Produces certain necessary clotting compounds for the blood.
- Creates cholesterol which is necessary for building hormones.
- Converts glucose in the blood into glycogen for storage.
- Processes hemoglobin and stores iron.
- Helps create certain immune factors for fighting infection.
- Metabolizes drugs and other toxins.
- Helps break down and clear old red blood cells.
- Regulates and maintains hormone levels.
- Helps to manage levels of glucose in the blood.
- Creates ketones for energy when blood sugar is low.
- The liver is also the central area for cholesterol creation and disposal.
You may not even think about your liver, but it is absolutely vital to your health and your life. If your liver isn’t functioning properly, your health will take a serious downturn. Poor liver health can eventually lead to death.
Increasing rates of liver disease
Liver disease is unfortunately on the rise. The number of deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis has increased every year since 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Liver disease is now among the top 15 causes of death for Americans.
One of the most common liver diseases is Fatty Liver Disease, or Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). Which is generally caused by a high intake of processed grains, vegetable oils, corn syrup and sugar. Carbohydrates—especially in the form of liquid carbohydrates, aka sugary drinks—are quickly converted into fat in the liver, and stored.
When the liver gets too full of fat, it cannot function properly. This leads to a more progressive form of liver disease called Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis. This liver condition causes scarring of the liver and cirrhosis. By this stage, the disease has progressed to chronic liver inflammation, possible liver failure, and will advance to liver cancer.
Other conditions or diseases that affect the liver include:
- Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), NSAIDS—especially diclofenac, statins, amoxicillin, amiodarone, allopurinol, anti-seizure medication, isoniazid, azathioprine, methotrexate, and some antipsychotics.
- Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E
- Mononucleosis (Epstein Barr virus)
- Too much iron
The liver is sort of hidden, and you can’t really feel your liver, so you may not give it much thought. When your liver is overloaded and not functioning, you don’t necessarily know it.
Early signs of liver dysfunction may be vague and difficult to pinpoint. Liver dysfunction can manifest as weakness, fatigue, achy joints, to nausea, vomiting, weight loss, itchy skin, and yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice). Liver dysfunction can even manifest as lowered cognitive function and dementia.
So just how do we support the liver, help it detox and regain health?
Like most things that have to do with our health, supporting the liver is a wholistic venture. Diet and nutrition sit at the top of the list of priorities for liver health, but lifestyle matters greatly. Sleep, alcohol use, stress, medication, weight loss and nutrition are all a part of the big picture. It’s important to protect the liver from all angles, since it is one of the primary organs of the body. Your body just cannot function without a healthy liver.
While liver health depends on what you are doing right, here are some important things to AVOID to maintain your liver health:
- Reduce all refined carbohydrates—avoid foods with added sugars, especially sugary drinks with high fructose corn syrup. Stay away from any type of refined grain products including bread, pasta, snacks, desserts.
- Avoid vegetable seed oils—Soybean oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower, peanut oil, and any “vegetable” oils are all highly inflammatory to the liver and digestive system. Linoleic acid, one of the main ingredients in vegetable oils, will lead to elevated liver enzymes and a fatty liver.
- Cut back on alcohol—It goes without saying to cut back on alcohol, as it is highly inflammatory to the liver. However, alcohol use can creep up slowly and go unnoticed until you begin to exhibit health problems. The more you drink in a particular time period, the more the liver must work to clear it. Ethanol alcohol is metabolized a substance called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is far more toxic than the alcohol and it can build up in the liver. Keep alcohol use down to 1-2 glasses of wine per day, and avoid mixed drinks which usually include sugary mixers or simple syrup.
- Eat a low carb diet to lose excess body fat—When you reduce carbohydrate intake, your appetite decreases, and you begin to burn fat, instead of relying on glucose. A low carb diet increases your insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing for your liver and your whole body. Burning body fat for energy will also help to clear the excess fat from the liver and cut your chances of Fatty Liver Disease.
- Burn off excess glycogen stored in the liver with exercise—The liver converts glucose in the blood to glycogen and stores a small portion of it for emergencies. When the liver is full of glycogen, any excess carbohydrates or sugar ingested is then stored as fat, often in the liver. Exercise and intermittent fast will help you deplete glycogen in the liver and reduce stored fat.
Foods and supplements for better liver health
Let’s look at some of the foods that promote liver health, help to detoxify the liver, and reestablish the full functions of the liver.
Choline is an essential nutrient for liver health. Choline is a nutrient that is found primarily in egg yolks and beef liver. Choline is converted into a brain chemical called acetylcholine, is responsible for helping muscles contract, and plays an important role in cognitive brain functions including short term memory focus. Most choline is metabolized in the liver where it is converted into phosphatidylcholine, which assists in ridding the liver of excess fatty acids.
The body can make small amounts of choline, but it is super important to eat foods high in choline, especially for women over the age of 45-50. In women, estrogen is partially responsible for synthesizing choline, and as estrogen levels decrease, a woman’s need for additional choline increases. This is why women over the age of 50 are often at high risk for Fatty Liver Disease.
Cruciferous vegetables include kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, turnips, arugula, radishes, collards, cauliflower and bok choi. All of these cruciferous vegetables are high in a nutrient called sulforaphane. This nutrient helps to lower liver inflammation and helps to detoxify the liver. Sulforaphane helps to get rid of fat in the liver, detox out poisonous substances, alcohol, and medications.
Cruciferous vegetable sprouts have even more powerful concentrations of sulforaphane, which is often destroyed by cooking. Cruciferous vegetables also contain many other phytonutrients that protect against cancer and promote the health of the entire body.
Garlic is known as a superfood and a health food for the whole body but it is especially helpful for liver health. Garlic is loaded with Sulphur, vitamins, minerals and a powerful substance called allicin, all of which have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Garlic is also very protective against cancer.
A study conducted in 2020 on 98 people with NAFLD found that those who took 800 mg of garlic powder per day for 15 weeks experienced significant reductions in liver enzymes ALT, AST, as well as LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. And over half the participants of the study showed improvements in liver fat levels from the garlic. Additionally, studies have linked raw garlic intake to a lower risk of liver cancer.
Coffee is one of my favorite health foods, and it’s great for your liver as well. Many studies have shown that drinking coffee, especially organic black coffee, protect against fatty liver disease and reduce inflammation.
Drinking coffee helps lower the risk of liver scarring, called cirrhosis in people with chronic liver disease. Coffee drinkers also have a lower risk of developing a common type of liver cancer, and coffee seems to have anti-inflammatory effects on the liver also. For those who drink about 3 cups a day of coffee, it lowered the risk of mortality from liver disease. And coffee increases levels of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that protects the liver, strengthens the immune system and aids in energy production.
Beets and beetroot juice have been used for many years as a remedy to activate natural detoxification liver enzymes and increase bile, which aids the liver’s ability to detoxify itself. Beets are high in a nutrient called betalains and other compounds that reduce inflammation, protect against oxidative stress and reduce liver damage. Beets also help to increase nitric oxide, which helps to relax blood vessels and allow them to carry more oxygen rich blood to all parts of the body, including the liver.
Artichokes contain two natural chemicals cynarin, and silymarin, which aid in detoxifying the liver, stimulating the kidneys, and increasing the flow of bile. Bile, which is created the liver, helps digest fats and break down cholesterol. Cynarin can be used as cholesterol lowering agent, and tests show it can decrease total cholesterol by almost 20%, and LDL by 23%.
Since bile is responsible for digesting fats and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, artichokes are also excellent for digestion. The soothing power of artichokes also helps reduce inflammation. Cynarin and silymarin are also immensely helpful to cleanse the liver after medications, detox from dangerous chemical exposure, or recover from chemotherapy for cancer treatments. And add another big plus for the artichoke: if you drink too much alcohol it works well as a hangover cure—detoxing and strengthening the liver and clearing your head.
Grapefruit is high in an antioxidant called naringin, or in humans it is naringenin. This antioxidant is effective to reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative damage. Some studies show naringin may reduce the risk of cirrhosis and hepatic fibrosis, which is the development of excessive connective tissue in the liver. And furthermore, naringin helps the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol and protects against some of its damaging effects.
Naringenin has also been shown to decrease the amount of fat in the liver and increase liver enzymes that burn fat.
Although grapefruit as a food needs further study, the current evidence points to the grapefruit being another excellent way to protect your liver and helping prevent damage and inflammation.
Mushrooms have been proven to have medicinal benefits in many areas of health, including liver health. Some early studies have suggested that mushroom intake can help reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) due to mushrooms’ anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
The best great anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and liver-protecting mushrooms include porcini oyster, turkey tail and reishi mushrooms, but most all edible mushrooms boost glutathione, the body’s primary antioxidant compound that protects against free radicals and DNA damage.
Omega 3’s in fatty fish are one of the healthiest fats to reduce inflammation and protect the body’s overall health. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce liver fat and triglycerides (fatty acids made from glucose), especially in those with fatty liver disease or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
Keep in mind that consuming more omega 3 fatty acids is beneficial to the liver, while consuming any omega 6 fats is highly inflammatory. Omega 6 oils are processed vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, canola, corn, soybean, peanut, cottonseed, or anything labeled “vegetable” oil. These omega 6 fats have been found to promote the development of liver disease.
Dandelion is the unpopular yellow flower growing in almost everyone’s back yard, but dandelion contains many powerful benefits, especially for the liver. This somewhat bitter plant, officially known as Taraxacum officinale, has long been used in herbal medicine and is known for its health benefits.
Dandelions are safe to consume raw, and are delicious in a salad, but you may also consume dandelion as a tea. Dandelion tea has been used to promote liver function in holistic medicine for thousands of years. Because dandelion is bitter, it is known to stimulate bile flow, which works as a detergent, helping to cleanse, detoxify and rid the liver of excess fats.
An important 2017 study found that carbohydrate polysaccharides present in dandelion called does help to protect the liver against disease and support overall liver function. Not sure how to eat dandelion? You can actually pick the young leaves from your lawn, as long as they have not been previously sprayed with weed killer. Dandelion greens are also available at many grocery stores. Dandelion greens are great as an addition to salads, or may be sautéed with bits of bacon as well.
Extra virgin olive oil creates several protective effects on the liver–reducing hepatic steatosis, fibrogenesis, fat oxidation and more. Extra virgin olive oil contains high quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids, primarily oleic acid, and phenolic compounds.
EVOO can help in the activation of different signaling pathways in the liver cells to help prevent inflammation, oxidative stress, endoplasmic reticulum stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and insulin resistance, helping to prevent or even resolve liver dysfunction. It only takes about 1 teaspoon of high quality olive oil to help improve liver function and overall health.
Protect your liver
While the liver is an extremely resilient organ, it is vitally important to the overall health of the body, so protecting the liver and promoting its health will protect your health, prolong your life and help you feel amazing.
If you hadn’t already noticed, these are good health practices for your whole body.
What is good for your liver is also good for your brain, and your heart and your digestive system.
I know you know what to do. Take care of yourself. I care!
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I am glad I read this, it’s been so helpful. I got to cut back on a lot of stuff.
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