The liver is the master organ and the recycling centre of the body. Amongst its many jobs it is responsible for eliminating harmful toxins, breaking food down into energy, manufacturing and disposing of excess hormones, producing bile, fighting infections, balancing blood sugar and storing nutrients. If our liver is functioning less than optimally or is even a little sluggish then this will have a negative knock-on effect to many other areas of our overall health and well-being. Of course we all know that alcohol is a major liver toxin, disrupting its function and depleting essential B vitamins by the mouthful, but there are many other things that can also affect our liver in a negative way, such as smoking, stress, obesity and poor diet. Especially at this time of year when we are all in the midst of the festive overindulgence, it’s good to know that there are many little things we can do on a nutritional level to help our livers function more efficiently; simply by adding in little bits of super food goodness into to our diets and avoiding certain liver toxins. The liver works in 3 different phases known as ‘detoxification pathways’, each of which needs to be supported by basic good nutrition and can also be stimulated to work better by the nutrients provided by nature in certain foods, herbs and spices.
Whether you are an alcoholic just entering treatment or during early recovery, an overeater, drug abuser or just feeling a little sluggish, the following advice will help to aid and rejuvenate your liver to work at its ultimate capacity and therefore improve your overall health and vitality. In fact there’s no need to wait until you feel your liver may have been under particular strain to employ the following suggestions, as they can all be adapted into your long-term diet to ensure that you are always looking after the ‘master organ’ as best you can. The list below isn’t just a list of healthy foods! The foods, herbs and spices that I have specified all contain certain antioxidants, minerals and enzymes that specifically and directly work to improve liver health, by aiding and supporting its function and improving the efficiency of the ‘3 detoxification pathways’.
So here are my top easy tips for ‘Looking after your Liver Naturally’:
Top Superfoods for Liver health
Cruciferous vegetables: This group of vegetables includes Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Kale and Cabbage. They help the liver to metabolize excessive hormones and flush out carcinogenic substances. Don’t eat them plain, boring and boiled – Steam and top with real melted butter or coconut oil, stir-fry, make them into soups or roast them in delicious herbs and spices to keep them interesting.
Green tea: Full of plant antioxidants called ‘catechins’, which helps to assist the detoxification pathways of the liver to work more efficiently. Switching your regular tea or coffee for a green tea in the morning can make a huge difference to your health.
Powerful spices: Turmeric has been used in other cultures for centuries as a natural anti inflammatory, for pain relief, to fight infections and also is known to have medicinal properties to turn off cancer cells. It is also incredibly beneficial to the liver as it boosts detoxification pathways and also helps to heal damaged tissue. Try to add this spice to stir-fries, curries, soups and stews. Other very liver supporting spices include ginger, cinnamon and liquorice.
Lemons, Limes and Grapefruit: Provide an abundance of vitamin C and good quality fibre along with a whole host of antioxidants that help the liver run its cleansing process smoothly. All fruits are beneficial for the liver and it should be everybody’s goal to consume 3-4 pieces of fresh fruits daily, preferably before meals for optimal digestion. Always try to eat local, seasonal fruit for optimal nutrition.
Dark, bitter leafy greens and fresh herbs: All dark greens are a rich source of ‘Chlorophyll’, which helps the liver to neutralize heavy metals and dispose of harmful toxins, chemicals and waste products. It’s also a natural blood builder and cleanser. Bitter greens such as Rocket, Chicory, Parsley, Coriander and Watercress all help the liver produce more bile, which helps to remove waste from the liver and emulsify fats. Adding a dark green leafy salad drizzled with olive oil to each meal will do wonders for your health!
Olive oil: Provides a specific acid that helps to essentially ‘flush the liver’ of chemicals and toxins. Other cold-pressed oils such as Flaxseed oil and Hemp-seed oil are also beneficial and perfect for drizzling over fresh, colourful salads.
Garlic: Is an extremely powerful liver cleanser because it activates enzymes that help the liver to flush out toxins and waste products. Try to add garlic to the base of all your cooking or add it raw and crushed in salad dressings.
Avocados: This buttery, luscious fruit is very high in vitamin E, which the liver requires a steady stream to function well. It helps to activate a key antioxidant called ‘Glutathione’, which essentially protects and repairs the liver. Other good sources of vitamin E include Almonds, Pistachio nuts and Olives.
Sweet potato, Carrots and other Orange foods: All bright orange vegetables and fruits are rich in ‘Beta Carotene’, an antioxidant that helps to activate enzymes in the first phase of liver detoxification. They also make your skin glow! Other good sources include butternut squash, pumpkin, peaches and watermelon.
Globe Artichoke: Artichoke is a great ‘bile stimulator’. Bile production is essential for the emulsification of fats, proper digestion and to eliminate toxins from the liver. Globe Artichoke is a hassle to cook and peel yourself but you can find lovely jars of artichoke hearts in olive oil in most supermarkets. Great blended into a dip with olive oil and lemon juice.
Onions, Spring Onions & Shallots: Are great sources of ‘Sulphur’. Foods rich in Sulphur help to drive important detox pathways in the liver. Onions are also rich in another antioxidant called ‘Quercetin’ that acts as a natural ant inflammatory.
* Egg yolks are also a good source of sulphur.
Marmite: Alcohol and sugar both deplete the liver of much needed B vitamins. Marmite replaces them! Love it or hate it, marmite provides a whole host of B vitamins. It’s great on toast with mushy avocado or to add saltiness to soups and stews.
Brazil nuts: Are a very rich source of the mineral ‘Selenium’ which is a potent liver antioxidant and helps the liver to detoxify nasty substances. Just 3-4 kernels daily is enough to give you a boost of this key nutrient.
Seeds of Life: Pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseeds all provide essential fats and the mineral zinc which both help to repair and re-nourish cell membranes in every organ of the body. The liver requires a good supply of essential fats on a regular basis and seeds are like nature’s perfect little encapsulated packages.
* Try adding 1-2 tablespoons of crushed raw seeds over your porridge, muesli or salads.
Milk thistle: Contains a substance called ‘Silymarin’, an anti inflammatory antioxidant that can help protect the liver from toxins and help to rejuvenate the liver after it has been stressed.
* Available as tea bags or in supplement form, but do check with your GP before taking milk thistle in supplement form to make sure it’s safe if you are on other medications.
* All of the above can be incorporated into an otherwise healthy balanced diet and lifestyle and not ‘instead of’.
Don’t forget about Exercise: Regular exercise benefits every organ in the body and the liver is no exception. A body needs balance in all areas and in addition to eating healthily, exercise is the next most important thing you can do. Even if you’ve never broken a sweat in your life, just going for a walk in the fresh air is enough to give you a boost and will also encourage you to eat better too!
Liver poisons that are best avoided (other than alcohol & drugs)
Fruit juice: What even freshly squeezed pure fruit juice? Yes! Fruit juice is extremely toxic and detrimental to the liver and best avoided by all recovering alcoholics and anyone who cares for their health and here’s why: The sugar found in fruit is called ‘Fructose’ and is different to all other sugars in that it must be broken down and metabolised by the liver. The liver can only tolerate so much fructose in one go, as in the amount that comes naturally in fresh fruit along with added fibre. When you juice fruits you are essentially just extracting the pure fructose and in a single glass of juice you could be consuming the fructose (sugar) content from about 15 pieces of fruit all in one go just shunted down towards the liver. This places a heavy burden on the liver and as well as disrupting all its other crucial tasks it causes the liver to produce elevated levels of ‘Triglycerides’ (blood fats) which if done continually raises the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and insulin resistance (pre diabetes)! Insulin resistance is a major cause of diet related fatty liver! So really fruit juice is a big no no! Eating fresh fruit is great as is drinking fruit smoothies, where the whole fruit is blended as opposed to the sugar just being extracted as with fruit juices.
Sugar and Refined carbohydrates: White refined carbohydrates, sugar or anything made with white processed flour not only lack the vitamins, minerals and fibre that the human body needs but they are also very disruptive to the liver. As well as causing the liver to produce and release more triglycerides (dangerous blood fats), they also make the liver produce cholesterol particles ‘small, dense and sticky’, raising the risk of heart disease and heart attack. In recent years saturated fat has been wrongly blamed for heart disease but in reality it’s sugar and refined carbohydrates that are the main culprit.
Obviously no one is going to be perfect but these foods are best avoided on a daily basis.
Factory farmed meat, chicken, eggs and dairy: There is nothing wrong with eating good quality properly reared meats and other animal produce. However, factory farmed animals are pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones, and poor quality feed. If we eat these products we ingest the additional dangerous hormones, antibiotics and other toxins that accumulate in their flesh and other produce. Of course it’s our liver that has to work extra hard to breakdown and dispose of these nasty substances that would otherwise wreak havoc on your health.
* Always try to buy well reared grass-fed animals and organic eggs and dairy when possible. It’s great to support your local farmers market or butcher.
Excessive Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that disrupts important liver enzymes. Essentially the liver has to work very hard to detoxify caffeine instead of breaking down toxins and doing more important tasks. You don’t have to completely avoid coffee but if you are usually drinking multiple cups per day then think about cutting down, switching to decaf coffee or trying some herbal teas to give your liver a break.
Smoking: Smoking just 2 cigarettes a day is enough to deplete your body of a whole days worth of vitamin C and Beta Carotene, both of which are key liver antioxidants and essential for a healthy liver. If you are a heavy smoker but aren’t quite ready to quit then remember even just cutting down will help you in the long run.
Happy healthy eating! 🙂
Miles Kasiri – Nutritional Therapist