Love your liver with this detox
The liver is the largest internal organ of the human body and weighs around 1.5kg in the average adult. Blood from the digestive system must first filter through your liver before it travels anywhere else in the body. The principal roles of the liver include removing toxins from the blood, processing food nutrients and helping to regulate body metabolism.
Your liver is also involved in neutralising drugs and alcohol, producing bile to help break down dietary fats, converting carbohydrates into glucose for instantly available energy, converting glucose into its storable form (glycogen) and converting glycogen back into glucose when needed. Yet even all this does not cover all of your liver’s tasks.
Other functions of your liver include production of body proteins, metabolising hormones and changing ammonia (a toxic by-product of protein metabolism) into urea which is then excreted in urine. The liver also produces prothrombin and fibrinogen, substances needed to help with blood clotting as well as the anticoagulant heparin. The liver has an important role in vitamin storage. High concentrations of riboflavin (vitamin B1) are found in the liver and 95 per cent of the body’s vitamin A stores are concentrated in the liver. The liver also stores Vitamin D, E and K.
Major Functions of the Liver
- Helps metabolise the fats, protein and carbohydrates from your diet.
- Stores nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and the minerals iron and copper.
- Balances blood sugar by releasing glycogen when blood sugar is low.
- Filters your blood removing harmful viruses, bacteria, yeasts, foreign substances and toxins.
- Creates proteins needed for blood cells, hormones and the immune system.
- Breaks down and detoxifies excess and old hormones.
- Filters and breaks down unwanted compounds produced during metabolism.
- Detoxifies chemical toxins by converting them into substances that the body can eliminate in the bile and urine.
- Produces bile which enables you to digest fat, absorb the fat-soluble vitamins and detoxify toxins. Without bile, cholesterol levels rise and many digestive disorders can result.
- Creates Glucose Tolerance Factor (GFT) from chromium, niacin and possibly glutathione. GFT is needed for the hormone insulin to properly regulate blood-sugar levels.
All of these functions of the liver add up to it being central to the cleansing and detoxification processes of your body. If your liver slows down or ceases to function optimally, that cleansing does not take place as it should.
Signs your liver needs help
There are many signs and symptoms that indicate your liver may not be functioning optimally. You may have difficulty with fat metabolism which can result in an abnormal level of fats in the blood stream such as elevated LDL cholesterol, reduced HDL cholesterol and elevated triglycerides.
Due to the liver’s role in the production of bile that aids in the digestion of fats and fat-soluble vitamins, a poor-functioning liver can result in an intolerance to fatty foods, abdominal bloating, constipation, gallstones, nausea and pain over the liver.
A sluggish metabolism with difficulty losing weight may also be a sign of poor liver function.
The liver helps maintain the proper level of hormones and is a key organ in regulating the hormone insulin (produced by the pancreas) for efficient food metabolism. The liver also converts the thyroid hormone thyroxin (T4) into its more active form (T3) which affects almost every process in the body, including body temperature, growth and heart rate.
Blood-sugar problems including sugar cravings, hypoglycaemia and unstable blood sugar levels can occur when your liver is not functioning optimally. This is due to the liver’s role in regulating insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood-sugar levels.
A predisposition to allergies such as sinusitis, hay fever, asthma, eczema and hives can also occur along with multiple food and chemical sensitivities. If the Phase I and Phase II detoxification systems within the liver are overloaded or not functioning efficiently, toxins, dead cells and microorganisms can accumulate in the blood stream. This will then increase the workload of the immune system, which will become overloaded and irritated. This hyperstimulated immune system will then produce excessive inflammatory chemicals which can lead to various states of immune dysfunction such as allergies, inflammatory states, swollen glands and recurrent infections.
At a glance: signs of liver dysfunction
If your liver is not doing its many jobs efficiently, your body can become compromised in many ways:
- Irritable bowel or irregular bowel motions
- Coated tongue
- Yellow discolouration of the sclera (the white part of the eyes)
- Acne rosacea (red pimples around the nose, cheeks and chin)
- Brownish spots and blemishes on the skin (liver spots)
- Bad breath & body odour
- Immune system problems
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Premenstrual tension
- Skin rashes
- Recurrent headaches
- Excessive sweating
- Distended abdomen or swelling under the right lower ribs
- Light-coloured stools
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling “foggy headed”
- Lack of appetite on waking
- Waking between the hours of 1am and 3am for no apparent reason
The ‘detox organ’
The liver is central to detoxification in the body and is often referred to as the “detox organ”. This is due to its many roles in the detoxification process such as filtering toxins out of the blood, manufacturing bile which transports fat soluble toxins out of the body and detoxifying harmful substances through detoxification mechanisms known as phase I and phase II detoxification pathways.
If the liver determines that a particular substance in the bloodstream is a toxin, it has the ability to break down that toxin so that it can be eliminated from the body as waste. Since your liver filters more than 190 litres of blood every day your liver can easily become overloaded and unnatural substances are no longer able to be detoxified and remain stored in various tissues of the body. The liver’s workload can become more than it can handle creating a higher level of toxicity in the body, thus compromising your health and feeling of wellbeing.
Phase I and II
The phase I and phase II detoxification process is a two-step enzymatic process which neutralises toxins and unwanted chemical compounds. Phase I and phase II enzymes are found in virtually all organs of the body. They are most abundant in the liver, however, which re-emphasises the liver’s crucial role in detoxification.
Phase I either directly neutralises a toxin or modifies the toxic chemical to form activated intermediates which then enter phase II to be detoxified. The intermediates that enter the phase II enzyme systems are bound to molecules like glutathione, glycine and sulphate. This process creates a new non-toxic molecule that can be excreted from the body in the urine or stool. Some substances do not require phase I activity, being processed by phase II only.
One or both detoxification phases can be inefficient or overloaded. If the phase II detoxification systems are not working adequately, intermediates from phase I are not able to be detoxified and can cause substantial damage, including the initiation of carcinogenic processes. Environmental sensitivities, drug intolerances, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia may also be attributed to an excessive overload of toxins coming into phase I, with an inefficient phase II.
A significant side-effect of phase I detoxification is the production of free radicals as the toxins are transformed. Without adequate free radical defences, every time the liver neutralises a toxin, it can be damaged by the free radicals produced.
Both Phase I and Phase II detoxification enzymes are affected by the quality of your diet and specific nutrients.
Factors that impair liver function
There are a number of factors which can overload or impair the liver’s ability to detoxify such as high exposures to environmental toxins, alcohol, drugs, medications and heavy metals; a high fat diet; nutritional deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids and amino acids; and leaky gut syndrome which results in excess toxins returning from the gut to the liver.
Junk foods: hydrogenated fats, sugar and processed foods Large amounts of hydrogenated fats — for example, those often found in junk foods such as chips, biscuits, doughnuts and certain pastries — are a major source of liver-toxic rancid fats (lipid peroxides) and trans-fatty acids. Lipid peroxides are immune suppressive and can damage liver cell membranes. Trans-fatty acids suppress production of PGE1, a major liver-protecting anti-inflammatory prostaglandin.
A recent study, undertaken by scientists from the Metabolic Disease Institute at the University of Cincinnati and published in the journal Hepatology, showed that a diet with high levels of fructose, sucrose and trans fats not only increases obesity but also leads to significant fatty liver disease with scar tissue.
Coffee Caffeine has to be detoxified by your liver. That uses resources your liver could be using to detoxify all the other toxic substances to which you are exposed. Additionally, coffee beans are often sprayed with high levels of pesticides which add an extra burden on your liver. That is why organic coffees (and preferably free trade) are the way to go.
Drugs and alcohol Certain prescription drugs taken for a prolonged period such as antihistamines, anti-ulcer drugs and antidepressants add to your liver’s toxic load and can modify detoxification enzymes in the liver. Illegal drugs and the use of anabolic steroids can also cause toxic liver damage.
The liver converts alcohol into toxic acetaldehyde during its alcohol detoxification process. Acetaldehyde inhibits the production of the liver-protective prostaglandin PGE1, induces the production of free radicals and is largely responsible for the organ and blood vessel damage associated with chronic alcoholism.
Tobacco and marijuana smoking exposes you to a cocktail of chemicals such as benzpyrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanide, acetaldehyde, tars and acrolein. These enter into the bloodstream through the lungs and then the liver must work to detoxify them. Virtually all the constituents of smoke are known to damage the liver to some degree.
Environmental toxins Exposure to environmental toxins is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid in today’s industrialised society. Air pollution, heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals are just some of the toxins which your liver is forced to try to detoxify.
Motor vehicle exhaust contains dozens of liver-damaging poisons including lead, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, acetaldehyde, cadmium and peroxyacetylnitrile. Motor oil and degreasing agents are also liver toxic and may be absorbed through the skin or by inhaling them.
Pesticides found on non-organic fruits and vegetables tend to accumulate in body fat over time and add to your liver’s detoxification workload, while direct exposure to pesticide spraying can cause chronic liver damage.
Exposure to heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury can also cause liver damage. Heavy metals may enter the human body through food, water, air or absorption through the skin when they come in contact with humans in agriculture and in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, industrial or residential settings.
Other chemicals which can impair liver function include radioactive chemicals, hydrocarbon solvents and those found in paint sprays and cosmetics.
Bisphenol A, found in plastic bottles and food containers, can mimic actions of oestrogen, a reproductive hormone. Most health risk studies have been done in animals and have found breast- and prostate-like cancers and altered growth of these and other reproductive organs during development when exposed to bisphenol A.
Internal digestive factors
An overgrowth of the Candida yeast in the gut also adds an extra burden on the liver. The Candida spp. ferments dietary sugars into liver-toxic acetaldehyde in the process of turning sugar into energy. Candida also seems to increase gut and urinary levels of ammonia, another liver toxin.
Leaky gut The lining of your small intestine is meant not only to absorb food but to act as a barrier to keep out invading pathogens. When this lining gets battered by things like aspirin, bacteria or even the pesticides sprayed on food, the lining loses its integrity and bacteria, viruses, parasites and small undigested food molecules can pass through the mucosal lining and enter the bloodstream. This loss of integrity is known as leaky gut syndrome.
Various toxins can make their way through the barrier of your intestinal lining when it is permeable. Those toxins travel to the liver where they are detoxified. If the liver is overloaded and the detoxification processes of the liver are impeded, it is less able to remove the toxins and they can recirculate or deposit in the body. The toxins can recirculate to the intestinal area where they increase the permeability of the intestinal lining even more.
St Mary’s thistle (Silybum marianum) is a herb with a unique ability to detoxify, protect and regenerate the liver. Clinical trials have shown it to be effective in cirrhosis, damage from harmful chemicals and alcohol abuse, chronic hepatitis, fatty liver, enlarged liver and inflammatory liver conditions.
The liver-protecting and liver-repairing function of St Mary’s thistle is partly attributable to its antioxidant activity which is 10 times more powerful than vitamin E. It prevents toxic and foreign substances from penetrating liver cells by stabilising the outer membrane of liver cells. The active constituents displace toxins by binding to proteins and receptors on the cell membrane.
St Mary’s thistle also stimulates the growth of new liver cells so that damaged liver cells can be replaced. It is an effective antidote against poisonous substances that accumulate in the liver and has a liver-protecting effect against toxic chemicals.
Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinale) has the ability to enhance detoxification liver enzymes. Studies have shown that essential oil found in rosemary enhanced cytochrome P450 enzymes and other detoxification enzymes. Rosmarinic acid, one of the major constituents of the leaves, has been shown in clinical studies to have antioxidant properties and significant liver protective activity.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) has antioxidant and liver-protective activities and enhances phase I and II detoxification pathways. It facilitates the regeneration of the antioxidant glutathione, stabilises liver cell membranes and inhibits the activation of liver toxins. Studies have also shown it increases the activity of the enzyme superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that repairs cells and reduces the damage done to them by superoxide, the most common free radical in the body.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an antioxidant and antihepatotoxic agent and is useful for liver and gall-bladder disorders and liver toxicity. Curcumin found in turmeric speeds up phase II detox pathways and increases the production of the antioxidant glutathione.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) induces the flow of bile from the liver and improves digestion and is often used for liver and gall-bladder complaints.
Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) contains bile-stimulating and liver-protecting compounds; it also has cholesterol-lowering properties and stimulates bile production. It is useful to promote digestive function and help liver insufficiency, liver damage, liver diseases, gallstones and chronic constipation.
A liver-loving diet
Diet plays a crucial role in modifying the detoxification pathways in the liver. Protein-deficient diets are lacking in the amino acids required for the optimal functioning of your liver’s detoxification pathways. Furthermore, processed foods high in trans fats such as deep-fried foods, sugar and artificial additives add an extra burden on your liver and its detoxification capacity.
Eating a diet abundant in raw fruits, vegetables and salads will enhance the health of your liver. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, bioflavonoids, anthocyanins and carotenoids are powerful protectors of the liver and should be plentiful in the diet. Organic foods are preferable since they are free from pesticides, artificial growth hormones, antibiotics and other nasty chemicals.
Protein is required by the liver for detoxification and is needed to repair and renew cells. Choose lean protein sources such as nuts, seeds, fish and quinoa. Protein intake should be in moderation, however, due to the liver’s role in detoxifying waste products of protein metabolism.
If protein intake is excessive, amino acids are converted into fat and stored in fat depots or, if required, made into glucose for energy. However, before amino acids can be used in these ways, the nitrogen component must be removed from the compound. In the liver cells, nitrogen quickly changes into ammonia, which is highly toxic to the body. Consequently, the liver must act fast in order to convert the ammonia into urea which can then be excreted in the urine and eliminated from the body.
There are certain foods that are great to include in your liver detox which help to enhance the detoxification process through enhancing your liver detox enzymes. Just some of these foods include caraway seeds, sesame seeds, garlic and onions, beetroot and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
The health of your liver is enhanced by regular exercise. A condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is associated with a poor diet and inadequate physical activity. Fatty liver disease affects around one in 10 Australians and is one of the commonest causes of liver problems. It is a condition where fat builds up in the liver cells, causing abnormal liver function and, in some people, inflammation which can lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis).
Fatty liver disease is associated with being overweight. If your liver function is impaired and has difficulty breaking down, building or storing fat, fat can build up in the liver instead of being transported to other parts of the body for storage. This adds to the workload of your liver. Exercising regularly can help to achieve and/or maintain a healthy weight and help prevent the onset of fatty liver disease.
Nutritional liver support
Various nutrients are required in order for the liver detoxification to be carried out successfully.
B vitamins including riboflavin and niacin aid in liver detoxification. Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) deficiency frequently occurs in people with alcoholism and liver disease.
Beta-carotene & mixed carotenoids Beta-carotene protects against free-radical damage and is one of almost 600 carotenoids. Carotenoids are found in any orange-pigmented fruits and vegetables. Naturally occurring mixed carotenoids have more profound antioxidant activity than beta-carotene alone and have a greater effect on reducing the deleterious effects of free radicals. Mixed carotenoids enhance the glutathionine Phase II detoxification enzymes in the liver.
Choline is found in lecithin in the form of phosphatidylcholine. It helps the liver and gallbladder function properly. It is required for lipid transport and metabolism and helps prevent fat accumulation in the liver. With choline depletion, fat metabolism and utilisation may be decreased, possibly leading to fatty liver. Deficiency of choline may be associated with free radical damage in the liver. It is useful in chemical and drug detoxification.
Selenium is a powerful antioxidant which helps with the detoxification of chemicals and protects against free radical damage. It facilitates the recycling of vitamin C, vitamin E and the antioxidant glutathione.
SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) is a nutrient found in the body by combining the essential amino acid methionine with ATP and is highly concentrated in liver tissue. SAMe plays an important role in liver health and enhances phase II liver detoxification.
Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is often referred to as the universal antioxidant since it is both fat soluble and water soluble. ALA increases the antioxidant effects of vitamins C and E and also protects glutathione, superoxide dismutase and catalase, all of which have important liver detoxification activities. Alpha-lipoic acid is able to bind to toxic metals and is useful for heavy metal detoxification. ALA protects the liver from free-radical damage and supports the detoxifying abilities of the liver.
Glucosamine assists with liver detoxification and helps to enhance liver function.
Fish oil inhibits the formation of fat in the liver while stimulating fatty acid breakdown.
Vitamin C helps reduce the harmful effects of lead, aluminium, copper, silica and radiation exposure.
Food sources of antioxidants
Antioxidants help protect the liver and aid in the general detoxification processes of your body thereby taking a further load off the busy liver.
Carotenoids Highly concentrated in yellow- and orange-pigmented fruit and vegetables; eg, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, corn, spinach, peach, paprika
Ascorbic acid Citrus fruit, berries, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, capsicum
Tocopherols Vegetable and wheatgerm oils, wheatgerm, seed-like cereal grains, nuts, avocado, olives, eggs
Flavonoids Berries, apples, citrus fruits, broccoli, capsicum, onion, tea and wine
Chlorophyll All green vegetables
Catechins (polyphenols) Berries, green tea
Anthocyanins Found in purple-pigmented foods such as berries
Lignans Linseed, legumes (eg soya bean), sesame seed
Indoles Broccoli, Brussels sprouts
Isothiocyanates Horseradish, mustard, radishes