How to Improve Liver Health Naturally
By Venus Ramos, MD
In this article:
If you’ve been exploring ways to improve your health—perhaps wanting to get rid of brain fog, sluggishness, or excess weight—you’ve likely come across the concept of a liver cleanse, also known as a liver detox. While these terms may conjure up an image of a clogged filter that needs to be cleaned, a functioning liver does not really need to have toxins flushed out of it.
Detoxification is actually one of the most important functions of the liver. It only makes sense that the liver has the ability to clean itself. So, even though cleanse and detox may be more popular buzzwords in the wellness scene, liver support is probably a better way to describe a diet and lifestyle that optimize liver function.
You can call it whatever you like. The important point is that supporting a healthy liver is vital to your overall health.
We live in a toxic world. Our bodies must contend with what seems to be an ever-growing toxic load. These toxins may emerge in the form of pesticides, household dust, outdoor air pollution, chemicals in the water supply, hormones injected into animal meats, artificial ingredients in processed foods, or harmful substances in makeup, lotions, and shampoos.
When toxins enter the body and pass into the bloodstream, they are carried to the liver. Then the liver proceeds to sort through what should go and what should stay. More specifically, it determines what needs to be neutralized and eliminated and what needs to be allowed to pass through to provide nutrients for the body.
Eliminating toxins is not just a simple filtration process, however. Detoxification occurs in two phases. In phase 1, liver enzymes must bind with toxic substances and convert them into safer compounds. Then in phase 2, the liver adds molecules to these compounds to make them water-soluble (so that they’re more stable and easier to transport).
Glutathione is one of the liver’s major role players in phase 2. Composed of three amino acids (cysteine, glycine, and glutamine), glutathione is used by the liver to bind with toxins and transport them out of the body.
Glutathione is one of the most powerful antioxidants that your body produces. As an antioxidant, it combats free radicals—unstable oxygen molecules that are created during the body’s normal metabolic processes. In an attempt to restore stability, these oxygen molecules try to rip electrons off of surrounding molecules, and this creates more free radicals. As this activity continues to spread, cell damage can occur. This is believed to be the pathway to the effects of aging, as well as to the development of infections and diseases, including cancer.
Since glutathione is made in the liver, it’s easy to see why liver health should be a major focus in your wellness efforts. When the liver is tasked with having to regularly deal with a large toxic load, it is possible to overwhelm its resources. Not only can the glutathione supply run low, but other liver functions may suffer. The liver has other important roles as well—producing bile (which is needed to digest fats), storing iron and vitamins, disposing of old red blood cells, and converting stored sugar to a form your body can use for energy when it’s needed.
Here are some lifestyle principles that can increase liver health:
Exercise reduces stress on the liver since skin is another detoxification pathway. With increased sweating, more toxins can be eliminated through the skin, reducing the burden put on the liver.
Cortisol is the “stress hormone.” It also controls the homeostasis, or the balanced state, of the liver. Too much cortisol can disrupt that balance.
Limit Alcohol Intake
The liver can break down only a small amount of alcohol each hour. Drink in moderation, meaning no more than one drink per day for an average-sized woman and two drinks per day for an average-sized man. A standard drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Eat a Balanced, Nourishing Diet
Reduce your intake of trans fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated fats, as they increase your risk for fatty liver disease. Saturated fats are found in deep-fried foods, dairy products, and red meat (though grass-fed beef does have less saturated fat than grain-fed beef). Limit refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup. Since these types of sugars can only be processed in the liver, avoiding them can reduce the liver’s burden. You may also want to add foods that support healthy liver function.
Green tea, fish oil, and resveratrol contain substances that activate the genes responsible for creating glutathione. Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower) enhance glutathione production. Garlic and onions both contain sulfur, which is required to make glutathione.
Green tea is plentiful in antioxidants known as catechins, which promote liver function.
Kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods contain probiotics, beneficial bacteria that support a healthy digestive system and maintain the gut lining. Keeping harmful substances within the digestive tract and out of the bloodstream eases the toxic load on the liver. The toxins can then simply be eliminated in the stool.
The substance betaine found in beets assists the detoxification process as well as the breakdown and removal of fats in the liver.
Leafy green vegetables
Green vegetables like kale, romaine, spinach, arugula, collards, and dandelion greens have a high content of chlorophyll, which increases bile production, helps purify the blood, and neutralizes heavy metals, pesticides, and toxic chemicals that burden the liver.
Fish and krill oils contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce fat and inflammation in the liver of those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Thus, Omega-3 supplementation may improve liver function and reduce inflammation.