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Cleaning the cleaner: how to keep your liver healthy

Reading time: 12 minutes

The liver is one of the most important organs in the body, reports Cate Montana. Here’s how to give it a good scrub

Bigger than the human brain, the liver is the largest internal organ, weighing around 3 lb. At any time, the liver holds up to 13 percent of our blood. And it’s the only organ in the body that can regrow to full size even if 75 percent of its original mass has been removed.

As far as biological function is concerned, there’s little the liver isn’t involved in. It’s the body’s primary cleansing and filtration system. It constantly processes nutrients absorbed by the intestines, filtering out toxins, bacteria and harmful chemicals and turning them into harmless waste products.

The liver cleanses the blood and regulates the balance of proteins, fats and sugar in the bloodstream. It mitigates the effects of medications. It metabolizes fats, carbohydrates and proteins and produces bile, which absorbs vitamins, removes waste and further breaks down fats, turning them into fatty acids. Extra bile is stored in the gallbladder until needed. When prompted by the nervous system, the liver releases bile into the small intestine, which uses the bile to further break down and absorb fats.

The liver helps regulate blood clotting and the production of amino acids, and it produces proteins designed to help carry fats throughout the body. It stores vitamins that are fat-soluble as well as minerals (especially iron and copper), releasing them as needed by the system.

Liver cells and the nerve cells of the central nervous system manufacture glutathione, a major antioxidant that breaks down free radicals, metabolizes toxins and supports healthy immune function. The liver converts excess glucose into glycogen (the primary form in which carbohydrates are stored), converting it back to glucose for energy as needed. It also converts ammonia into urea, which can be passed through the urinary tract. And, of course, the liver removes alcohol from the bloodstream.

Its ability to detect pathogens entering the body via the gut and the fact that it contains more phagocytic cells than any other organ (phagocytes eat and break down harmful materials) places the liver squarely on the front line of our body’s immune response system. The liver also produces up to 90 percent of the immune proteins circulating around the body at any one time.

Are liver cleanses necessary? Do they work?

Considering that the liver is the body’s major cleaner, working to maintain the health and stability of the body and its immune system, it only makes logical sense to keep the cleaner clean. There are endless “cleaning products”—formulas and suggestions for liver cleanses and detoxes on the market and on the web.

Some liver cleanses rely on such things as drinking copious amounts of apple juice or ingesting garlic, olive oil and Epsom salts. Some experts swear by drinking lots of hot lemon water, consuming quarts of unsweetened cranberry juice, or combining the juices of fresh ginger, oranges and carrots.

Liver-cleanse-in-a-capsule formulas also abound. Packed with milk thistle, turmeric, magnolia and choline, these products promise to detoxify the liver and kidneys, prompt bile production, increase metabolism, promote weight loss, decrease inflammation and bolster immune system function. Whether they do all, some or none of the above depends on the product and is still debatable—for the simple reason that almost zero studies have been done on individual liver cleanses.

Nevertheless, one non-commercialized formula, KIOM2012H, combining ginger, burdock root, licorice and magnolia, reduced fatty acid and lipid accumulation in patients suffering from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.1 And a wide variety of clinical studies show that individual supplements can be highly effective for prevention and treatment of severe liver conditions.

For example, milk thistle (Silybum marianum), used for thousands of years to treat liver ailments, is indeed highly effective for reducing inflammation and the accumulation of fibrin in the liver. Fibrin is a key protein in blood clotting, but it can build up in the liver, slowing the flow of blood and damaging tissue.

Milk thistle stimulates protein production that may aid liver regeneration after damage from alcohol-related liver disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and viral hepatitis.2 It’s also effective for treating metabolic syndrome, characterized by high blood pressure, weight gain, high blood sugar and imbalanced lipids.3

Glutathione has been proven to strongly mitigate oxidative stress-induced liver damage arising in both alcoholic and nonalcoholic liver diseases.4 N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) reduces cholesterol and bile acids, and the body uses the cysteine in it to produce glutathione, but it should be taken as a supplement only under medical supervision since it can have negative effects.5

Burdock root reverses alcohol-induced liver damage in rats.6 Licorice root is anti-inflammatory and antioxidative, and it has been used to effectively treat a variety of liver ailments, stabilizing glutathione levels and mitigating fat buildup in the liver.7 Dandelion prevents the buildup of fibrin in the liver and downregulates the inflammatory factors interleukin-IL-1-beta and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.8

Magnolia officinalis (magnolia bark) has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat liver conditions and is a proven anti-inflammatory with strong antioxidant and anti-tumor properties. It also mitigates alcohol-induced liver damage.9 Beetroot reduces symptoms and lipid profiles in patients with NAFLD, besides “significantly reducing” unhealthy liver size increases.10 Ingesting just 1,500 mg of cinnamon daily improves insulin resistance, lipid profiles and signs of inflammation in those suffering from NAFLD.11

Considering that every single person’s body chemistry and health situation is different, it’s hard to imagine a one-size-fits-all liver formula, but there’s no lack of products on the market trying to fit the bill. Unfortunately, given people’s eagerness to find the “magic pill” for their liver’s ills, it’s easy for over-the-counter formulas to be abused.

The Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network (DILIN) studies liver damage caused by pharmaceuticals or by herbs and dietary supplements (HDS). It found that a significant proportion of liver injury cases can be blamed on the misuse of supplements.12 It even tracked down cases of liver injury caused by the consumption of too much turmeric, the modern-day “wonder spice” touted to heal everything from inflammation to peptic ulcers.13

Our liver, kidneys, digestive tract and lymph systems are designed to remove toxins from the body and cleanse themselves. All things considered, since lifestyle choices lead to the most liver damage in the first place, it’s not unreasonable to think that lifestyle changes might be the best, most effective and safest approach to give the body a solid shot at healing that damage.

What does liver damage look like?

Liver dysfunction ranges from fatty liver diseases, steatohepatitis, and fibrosis/cirrhosis all the way to liver cancer. And then there is ALD, alcohol-related liver disease, one of the most prevalent causes of liver-associated death worldwide. The following are the major liver ailments in humans.

Cirrhosis of the liver: A condition of radical scarring of the liver causing decreased liver function, cirrhosis can be caused by chronic alcoholism as well as by hepatitis. Caught early, it can be mitigated but rarely reversed.

Hepatitis: This inflammatory condition of the liver presents as one of five types:

  • Hepatitis A and hepatitis E are caused by exposure to contaminated food and/or water. Hepatitis A can also be triggered by excessive alcohol consumption. Both usually clear up on their own in a few weeks.
  • Hepatitis B is caused by viral exposure from blood and other bodily fluids. It can manifest as an acute or chronic condition and is treatable but not curable.
  • Hepatitis C can be contracted from an infected person via blood from transfusions and shared needles.
  • Hepatitis D is an advanced form of inflammation. Uncommon in the West, it can be contracted only by people exposed to the hepatitis D virus who are already suffering from hepatitis B.

Hemochromatosis: This condition occurs when the liver stores too much iron and doesn’t release it, sometimes causing scarring (cirrhosis).

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): Fatty liver disease, commonly referred to as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, is a condition in which excess fat builds up around the liver and within its cells. A root cause of other liver problems, it’s estimated that approximately 24 percent of adults and up to 10 percent of children have it in the US. Not surprisingly, it’s most common in people who are overweight.14

There are no early, obvious symptoms of NAFLD, which is why it so often goes untreated. NAFLD can contribute to overall immune system dysfunction, making you more prone to other infections and diseases.

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): NASH is rapidly becoming one of the major drivers of liver transplants in the West. This advanced form of NAFLD is evidenced by inflammation of the liver as well as scarring. Symptoms show up late and are mostly evidenced as pain in the upper right abdominal area, metabolic dysfunction and chronic fatigue. If you’re overweight or obese, if you have type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, high cholesterol or triglyceride levels, and difficulty losing weight, these are common indicators that you might be suffering from NASH.

How to do a cleanse

The vast majority of liver cleanses follow pretty much the same protocol: remove toxic products from the environment; eat organic, healthy, unprocessed foods that are high in potassium; cut the sugar, alcohol and caffeine; eat lots of cruciferous vegetables; drink juice; and take liver supplements.

Although some health experts recommend water or juice fasting for several days to jump-start the cleanse process, a cleanse can easily upset your body’s metabolic balance if carried out cavalierly and should be undertaken with caution and under supervision by a qualified, experienced practitioner.

Many health practitioners recommend a course of colonics or enemas at the same time. Coffee enemas stimulate the gallbladder and liver and increase bile flow. Colonics or enemas, combined with drinking lots of spring water or filtered water, help quickly flush released toxins out of your system during a liver cleanse.

The length of liver cleanses varies. Considering that it takes up to a week of alcohol abstinence just to clear alcohol out of your system, years of alcohol and dietary abuse added to the effects of ongoing exposure to pollutants and toxins cannot be reversed overnight. At the very least, follow your preferred cleanse protocol for a month—preferably two or three.

What to eat for a healthy liver

The liver can filter out only so many toxins. Pesticides and herbicides, chemical cleaners, and toxic beauty and skin products place a heavy burden on the body. Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) used in plastic bottles, phthalates (chemicals used to make plastics durable), heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are in our water and food. They inevitably start to build up in the liver and in the rest of the body’s tissues.

The best thing to do to increase your overall health, liver health, and immune system health is to go for the ultimate liver cleanse: a lifestyle change. Switch to eating only organic foods and produce, reduce or eliminate chemical cleaning products as well as toxic beauty products, and embrace the following recommendations.

If this seems too intimidating, at least give your liver (and the rest of your body) a break and follow this dietary and supplementation regime for two to three months. You’ll be glad you did!

  • Cut carbs to reduce inflammation.
  • Drink pure spring water, filtered water or water treated using reverse osmosis.
  • Drink your water at room temperature. Some experts believe this promotes a healthy lymphatic system and digestion, both of which support liver health.
  • Eliminate alcohol or limit it to one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two per day for men.
  • Eliminate caffeinated drinks.
  • Delete or greatly reduce sugar and highly processed foods that contain artificial ingredients, additives and preservatives.
  • If you’re sensitive to gluten or dairy, cut it out. It can trigger leaky gut, adding to your liver’s toxin filtration burden.
  • Cut out unhealthy trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and replace them with avocado oil, ghee and olive oil.
  • Increase your daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids to balance the modern dietary excess of omega-6.
  • Add more nutritious foods to your diet (see “Liver-boosting foods” below).

Liver-enhancing supplements

Besides making lifestyle and dietary changes, you can try adding supplements that support your liver. There are many liver-cleansing formulas on the market, and it’s important to look closely at the ingredients and avoid those with unnecessary fillers and fancy-sounding, unnecessary herbs.

That said, there are certain must-have supplements that time and clinical tests have proven are effective for promoting liver health.

Milk thistle has been used for centuries to protect the liver and heal liver ailments. It contains a group of flavonoids called silymarin that protect liver cells from toxins. Milk thistle is also an antioxidant. Ideally a milk thistle formula should provide a high level of silymarin, around 70 percent.

Recommended dosage: There has been no standard dosage, but studies indicate that taking 140 mg three times daily for 45 days reduces fasting glucose levels and improves insulin resistance.

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is another powerful antioxidant and is necessary for glutathione production. NAC supports the liver in filtering toxins from the blood.

Recommended dosage: 600–1,200 mg daily.

Burdock helps protect against liver damage from NSAIDs and many toxic chemicals. It supports insulin production, reduces cholesterol levels, and helps reverse alcohol-related liver damage.

Recommended dosage: No specific amount has been recommended. Can be taken as a tea.

Dandelion root (not extract) is a natural liver cleanser rich in antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals and inflammation. It supports the production of bile and the digestion and elimination of fats from the body.

Recommended dosage: Average in liver formulas is 75 mg.

Glutathione removes heavy metals and other toxins from the body. It is produced by the liver but is such a critical detoxifying molecule that supplementation is important even if your body isn’t already struggling under a heavy toxin burden.

Recommended dosage: 500 mg daily.

Choline is an essential nutrient, a small amount of which is produced by the liver, requiring dietary supplementation. It is bioavailable in eggs, dairy, meat and fish. Choline aids in transporting fats out of the liver. Vegans and vegetarians are especially at risk for choline deficiency.

Recommended dosage (for supplementation): 550 mg daily for men, 425 mg daily for women.

Artichoke improves bile flow. Like milk thistle, artichoke contains silymarin plus the compound cynarin, which has liver-protective effects. It also lowers lipids and bolsters immune function. Artichoke leaf extracts are especially potent for liver protection.

Recommended dosage: Clinical trial dosages vary from 600 to 2,700 mg of artichoke leaf extract (divided into two doses) daily for two months.

Licorice root contains glycyrrhizic acid, which helps reduce liver inflammation and regenerate damaged liver cells. It also reduces alcohol-induced fat accumulation in the liver.

Recommended dosage: Suggested daily intake for glycyrrhizin is 0.2 mg per kg daily.

Magnolia extract powder (from the bark) is anti-inflammatory with strong antioxidant properties. It protects the liver from tumors and abscesses. It also helps heal alcohol-induced liver damage.

Recommended dosage: 50–1,600 mg daily with meals.

Selenium has antioxidant properties, and it supports glutathione production and the detoxification of liver enzymes. It eliminates fat-soluble toxins and heavy metals.

Recommended dosage: 55 mcg daily.

Zinc helps flush your liver and control fat deposits.

Recommended dosage: 15–30 mg daily.

Other helpful supplements that have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects are curcumin, vitamin C, vitamin E, ginger, cinnamon and beetroot. Chlorella is a powerful chelator that binds to and helps remove toxins and heavy metals that are overburdening the liver.

Worst liver offenders

Everybody knows that drinking more alcohol than the liver can safely metabolize can cause damage called cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. It can also lead to a condition called “fatty liver” in which high levels of fats get stored, eventually triggering inflammation and even the creation of fibrin tissue in the liver.

The following are other contributors to reduced liver health and function:

  • Obesity
  • A high-fat diet
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Highly processed foods
  • Synthetic food ingredients
  • Fluoridated water
  • Low potassium levels
  • Heavy use of NSAIDs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including paracetamol or acetaminophen
  • Unprotected sex
  • Parasites
  • Tattoo ink, which contains heavy metals that can infiltrate the blood and reduce enzyme levels in the liver, causing inflammation
  • Body piercings
  • Intravenous drug use causing hepatitis and other infections
  • Shared needles
  • Environmental toxins, such as pesticides, herbicides, tobacco smoke
  • Chemicals in cleaning products
  • Chemicals in body and beauty products

Signs of poor liver function

How do you know if your liver isn’t functioning well? Look for these indicators:

  • Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Pale stools
  • Bloating and gas
  • Constipation
  • Acid reflux
  • Inability to lose weight (impaired metabolic function)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Bruise easily
  • Legs swell
  • Itchy skin

Liver-boosting foods

Eat as many of the following foods as you can to keep your liver in top shape.

Potassium is vital to liver function. Try these high-potassium foods:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Beets
  • Bananas
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Peanuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Soybeans
  • Lentils
  • Lima beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Refried beans
  • Crab
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Haddock
  • Pollock
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Turkey
  • Lamb
  • Bone broth

Cruciferous vegetables like the ones below are high in nutrients, minerals, fiber and glucosinolates—sulfurous chemicals that help remove toxins from the body so your liver doesn’t have to work as hard.

  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Watercress

Artichokes and citrus fruits stimulate bile production.

Fermented foods promote healthy digestion.

Green tea has strong antioxidant properties.

Red and blue berries contain antioxidants and help reduce inflammation.


Theresa Gregory’s story

About a year ago, Theresa, a 61-year-old nurse in Maui, Hawaii, did a parasite cleanse and wanted to follow up by doing something for her liver. After much research, she chose the liver and gallbladder flush protocol prescribed by Dr Andreas Moritz in his book The Amazing Liver and Gallbladder Flush.

“You really don’t want to do a liver flush without knowing what you’re doing,” she says. “There is always the risk of getting a gallstone stuck in the bile duct, and that can be really painful and scary.”

She prepared for the cleanse by eating lightly the week before and cutting out carbs, meats, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, refined foods and sugar. Then she dove into the six-day protocol of a light daily diet with 1 L of apple juice per day (those who can’t handle the sugar content of apple juice may substitute water with malic acid dissolved in it).

The rest of the protocol, which is highly specific, includes drinking water with Epsom salts, olive oil, and grapefruit juice and a castor oil pack on the sixth night. (Online recipes vary. Since a home flush requires care, it’s highly advisable to get the book and do it right.)

“I experienced a big increase in energy afterwards,” Theresa says. “My moods stabilized and improved, and my joint pain completely went away!”

Deborah Manzano’s story

Deborah, 63, is a detoxification specialist and the owner of Maui Holistic Garden Center in Maui, Hawaii. Her first liver flush five years ago was a one-day cleanse that a friend wanted to do together.

“It was really hard on my body,” she says. “Really rough with too many electrolytes being pushed out too fast. Plus, stones need time to soften before they’re expelled. The body needs to be prepared, preferably with a week-long light diet.”

When it came time to try another liver flush, like Theresa, Deborah chose the Moritz cleanse. “I feel really energetically light and clear afterwards. I feel younger and more vibrant. I’m not a purist when it comes to what I eat. But no matter what I put in my body, my poor little liver still has to process it.

“I’m happy flushing my liver/gallbladder once every four to six months. I have to say that now my liver and I are best friends!”

What do you think? Start a conversation over on the... WDDTY Community

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