Your liver is one hardworking hustler of an organ.
- It filters 1.4 liters of blood a minute, removing potentially toxic substances and pathogens
- It creates bile to break down fats, allowing the body to assimilate the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- It manages day-to-day blood sugar regulation
- It produces hormones and has the job of conjugating or deconjugating hormones so they can either be used or processed out of the system
- It metabolizes drugs and breaks down alcohol
- It stores essential vitamins and minerals
- It produces several vital protein components of blood plasma
- It helps to maintain electrolyte balance
Pretty impressive, huh?
Needless to say, we need to make sure our livers are in tip-top shape.
But the liver was not designed to handle as many chemicals and toxins as we’re exposed to in today’s modern world. And because of the nutrient-deplete Standard American Diet (S.A.D. 🙁 ), many individuals don’t get the adequate amount of nutrients required for detoxification.
So the liver can easily become over-burdened, congested, and sluggish. This has implications far beyond just our growing body burden — it can throw hormones off balance, increase our risk of infection, and increase our risk of chronic and acute disease.
By generally supporting the liver and also giving it the specific nutrients it needs for detoxification, we can help ensure things run smoothly.
Let’s take a closer look at the liver’s detoxification process to understand how to best support it.
There are two phases of the liver’s detoxification process:
The Phase 1 detoxification pathway (also called the “subtraction” pathway) essentially takes toxins and breaks them down. Enzymes work to subtract molecules from the toxic substances and break them up into smaller units (similar to food digestion). Phase 1 is dependent on these enzymes. After the enzymes have broken down some of the toxins, some very toxic end products (metabolites) remain and they must quickly be pushed to the Phase 2 pathway in order to make them safer for the body to use.
- Required nutrients: the B vitamins, folic acid, fat-soluble vitamins A and D, vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, glutathione, carotenoids
The Phase 2 detoxification pathway (also called the “conjugation” pathway) takes the broken-down toxins from Phase 1 and combines them with specific nutrients to make them less harmful and easier to excrete from the body.
- Required nutrients: the amino acids glycine, taurine, glutamine, cystine; sulfer; methyl; calcium d-glucarate
10 Ways to Give Your Liver Some Extra Love:
1. Keep your blood sugar levels balanced
Elevated and erratic blood sugar levels cause elevated cortisol. Cortisol is known to promote fat deposits in the liver, and elevated cortisol has been shown to increase the risk of fatty liver disease, which causes impaired liver function and can lead to liver scarring and eventual failure if left unaddressed.
Chronically high blood sugar also creates a buildup of free radicals and a general catabolic state, which robs the body of the nutrients needed to detoxify properly. It specifically depletes the B vitamins — B6 is needed for all liver enzyme functions and B2 is needed for phase I detox enzymes.
To keep blood sugar levels balanced, eat plenty of healthy protein and fat, as well as fiber-full complex carbohydrates (especially fruits and vegetables). Avoid added sugars and instead indulge your sweet tooth with antioxidant-rich fruits and dark chocolate.
2. Supplement with liver-supporting herbs
Dandelion root, milk thistle seed, and burdock root are well-known liver supporting herbs.
Dandelion root stimulates the liver and gallbladder, promoting the release of bile, which carries toxins out of the body. Stagnant bile can cause the liver to become congested, impairing its overall functioning, as well as painful gallstones (no fun). I drink dandelion root tea almost daily (you can also buy it loose and in bulk to save some money), or take it in capsule form.
Milk thistle stimulates Phase 1 detoxification. It contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants that are known to help protect the liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Silymarin been found to increase glutathione (a very powerful antioxidant that is crucial for Phase 1 liver detoxification) and may help to regenerate liver cells. Milk thistle also comes as a tea or in capsule supplement.
Burdock root also stimulates bile flow, helping to keep the liver from becoming congested. It s also rich in antioxidants, which a study has shown helps the liver heal and protects it from further damage. Again, you can supplement with burdock root with a tea or in capsule form.
3. Include beets in your diet
Beets are a rich source of betaine, which is necessary for proper liver function and metabolism. It helps thin viscous, toxic bile. The tops and greens are actually the most potent (even more than the beets itself!) so don’t throw them away!
4. Get an oil change
The liver metabolizes fats into their usable forms. The appropriate digestion of the appropriate fats causes less stress on the liver, whereas the inappropriate digestion of the inappropriate fats causes stress on the liver. Plus, bile is built from healthy fat (remember that the bile is like a “river” by which toxins are removed from the body) and the proper balance of dietary fat helps create healthy, properly flowing bile.
For liver health and free-flowing bile, get adequate amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fat from healthy sources (like coconuts and pasture-raised animal products), and monounsaturated fats, while limiting your intake of omega-6 fatty acids and avoiding trans fats (via hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils) like the plague!
5. Switch to a mineral-rich sea salt
The body’s natural detoxification processes cause the pH of the blood to become more acidic. Minerals help to buffer this condition. Plus, toxins deplete minerals like magnesium, which can lead to deficiencies of certain enzymes that are necessary in healthy Phase I liver detoxification (cytochrome P450 and NADPH).
6. Up your vitamin C intake
Vitamin C converts toxins into a water-soluble form that can be easily swept away, and is a critical cofactor for Phase 1 detoxification. It is also a potent antioxidant that reduces general free radical damage to the liver, which is important since the liver interacts with a lot of free radicals!
Citrus fruits, red bell pepper (just 1 has 3x the amount of vitamin C found in 1 orange!), strawberries, and camu camu powder (one of my favorite superfood smoothie add-ins) are great whole foods sources of vitamin C.
This is one of the main reasons I start my day with warm lemon cayenne pepper water — to give my liver a boost for the day (and rev up my metabolism)!
7. Eat more protein
The amino acids in protein are necessary for Phase 2 detoxification, so getting more of them in your diet helps the process to move along smoothly.
The best type of protein is “complete protein” — they contain all of the 9 essential amino acids (which cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through food). Animal protein is complete protein, as are hempseed, buckwheat, and quinoa.
Be wary of protein powders and supplements, though! My favorite way to get more protein in my diet is with powdered gelatin and collagen, which have added benefits for skin and gut health (win win!).
8. Get more fiber in your diet
Our stool is a dumping ground for toxins and waste — remember that the liver eliminates toxins through bile, which is released into small intestine to emulsify and absorb fat. Well since fiber keeps us regular, it prevents the absorption of these chemicals back into the body (as can happen with constipation). Fiber also binds to some of these toxins, preventing them from being reabsorbed into the body even if transit time is slower.
By helping ensure toxins are not recirculated in the body, fiber helps prevent an extra burden from being placed on the liver.
Learn more about the critical health benefits of fiber beyond regularity.
9. Stress less
Detoxification is a parasympathetic process — the body must be in “rest and digest” mode in order for the process to take place. So if we’re always running around stressed and frazzled, our livers are not able to do their job! Plus, stress causes your cortisol levels to rise significantly. As we already discussed, elevated cortisol has been shown to increase the risk of fatty liver disease, which caused impaired liver function and can lead to liver scarring and eventual failure if left unaddressed.
Look for simple ways to reduce stress in your daily life, whether it’s doing deep breathing exercises for a few minutes or waking up five minutes earlier to ensure you’re not running late to work!
10. Do a daily 12-hour fast at night
This probably sounds more extreme than it is — you’ll be sleeping most of this time! The idea here is to decrease the time and energy your body spends on digestion (which it will prioritize over the detox processes) so it can focus on detoxification. So if you wake up and eat breakfast at 7 a.m., try to eat dinner by 7 p.m. and avoid snacking afterwards.
If 12 hours is too much for you, try to stop eating at least two to three hours before you go to bed so your body will have ample time to digest your food before going to bed and can focus on detoxification while you sleep.