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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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March 2018 (Vol. 3 Issue 1)

How to boost your liver and beat fatigue

About the author: 
Dr Libby Weaver

How to boost your liver and beat fatigue image

Tired all the time? Nutritional biochemist Dr Libby Weaver explains why you need to look after your liver

The health and efficiency of the liver plays a significant role in whether we feel energized or not. The ways in which our liver functions are some of the most critical to our health and longevity, and how spritely we feel across our life span.

In conjunction with the gallbladder, the liver works tirelessly to help us excrete substances that the body no longer needs, including old hormones, pesticides and stored body fat. If these substances are allowed to accumulate, energy can be significantly hampered.

Physiologically, the liver sits behind your right ribcage. Its primary role is detoxification, a concept that has had much confusion surrounding it. A simple way to imagine the detoxification power of the liver is to picture a triangle shape: inside that triangle are billions of little circles, each one of them a liver cell. Imagine that inside each liver cell is a spinning wheel. Each turn of the billions of little wheels is driving your liver function.

When we treat our liver unkindly, cells can die, and for a time the liver can regenerate a new cell to replace the dead cell, but after a while this is no longer possible, and a globule of fat can take up residence where that fat-burning little 'wheel' was once working. The liver cannot keep up with the load coming its way, and, now that it has less function—with liver cells dying—it can't work as well. So how will it keep up with the load if the load doesn't change? The answer is that it won't, and the fatty deposits will continue to be made.

When many fat globules take over (a situation known as 'fatty liver'), our health and energy can suffer significantly. Less efficient detoxification processes can lead to poor thyroid function, sex hormone imbalances, congested skin, lousy cholesterol profiles and impaired blood glucose management, which often show up as sugar cravings. Moreover, the areas where the body wants to lay down body fat can also shift. For the first time, people may notice that they have a fat roll quite high up on their abdomen. For women this is just below their bra line, and for men, just beneath their pectoral muscles. It can come and go, and sometimes there is a point right in the center of the torso that is tender. This can indicate gallbladder issues; if your gallbladder has been removed, your liver has to make the bile on demand, as the gallbladder is no longer there to store it, so additional liver support is often required.

In the not-too-distant past, only people who regularly over-consumed alcohol developed fatty liver disease, but now we are seeing teenagers develop it simply from eating diets high in processed foods and drinks. This has become so common that a new disease has been established, called 'non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.' Imagine a liver that looks just like one that has been chronically battered by alcohol, but instead processed food and drinks have created it.

How to improve detoxification

Detoxification is a process that goes on inside us all day, every day. The choices we make influence how efficiently the liver is able to do its job, and this significantly contributes to how we feel. Detoxification is essentially a transformation process. Any substance that would be harmful to you if it accumulated in your body must be changed into a less harmful form so that it can then be excreted safely from your body. To feel your best, you want this to be a highly efficient process.

Here are my top tips for supporting the liver and improving your body's detoxification processes.

Boost B vitamins

There are two stages to the detoxification process: phase 1 and phase 2. In phase 1, waste chemicals become 'activated' by a family of enzymes called 'cytochrome P450,' which makes them more harmful than they were to begin with. In phase 2, a group of 'carrier' molecules 'deactivate' the waste chemicals so they can be safely transported out of the body.

Both phases require certain nutrients to function, and dietary choices can influence how efficiently each phase is able to work. For the first stage of detoxification, numerous nutrients, especially B vitamins, are essential.

Whole grains are supposed to be a rich source of B vitamins; however, many people feel much better with fewer or none of these foods in their diets. Some people decrease or cut grains out of their diets for weight loss reasons, while others avoid grains because they cause reflux or bloating. If grains feel good for you and energize you, then enjoy them in unprocessed form; some are best soaked prior to consumption.

If they don't suit you, don't eat them. Your body knows best what works for you. Simply be aware that if you have a low intake of B vitamins, your phase 1 liver detoxification processes may not function optimally unless you are obtaining adequate B vitamins from other food sources, such as liver. You may also choose to take a good quality supplement that contains a range of B vitamins.

Sources of B vitamins: lentils, nuts, seeds, tuna, pork, beef, chicken, liver, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, eggs. Choose organic whenever possible to minimize your exposure to pesticides.

Pile up on protein

There is one road into the liver and five pathways out of the liver. Just as for phase 1 reactions, phase 2 liver pathways also require certain nutrients to function; in particular, specific amino acids.

We get our amino acids from protein-rich foods. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are then used as the building blocks for all the proteins that your own body needs to survive.

Amino acids are also critical to the cells of your immune system, which defend you from infection, and they're also used to create the neurotransmitters that influence your mood and clarity of thought as well as coordinating all your muscles. Of the 20 amino acids, 10 are considered 'essential' (some research papers suggest nine are essential), meaning that you need to consume them in your diet as your body is unable to create them from other substances.

A protein food that contains all of the essential amino acids is referred to as 'complete.' Most vegetable-based protein sources are not complete; however, when you combine protein sources from different botanical families, you complete the list, as the essential amino acid lacking in one of the foods will be high in the other. An example of this is adding sesame seeds to a vegetable stir-fry that you serve with brown rice: the seeds and the rice are from different families, and their amino acid profiles complete each other.

Sources of protein: meat, fish, eggs, milk, chia seeds, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa

Stock up on sulfur

For further phase 2 support we need sulfur, a natural compound found in protein-rich foods and certain vegetables. Sulfur is part of glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants produced by the body.

Sources of sulfur: eggs, onion, garlic, shallots and Brassica vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower

Avoid 'liver-loaders'

There are many substances that can hamper the detoxification process; I call them 'liver-loaders.' Here are some of the key ones to watch out for.

1. Caffeine

Some people's health and energy are definitely better without any caffeine, and, for those who need to decrease their adrenaline production, changes to caffeine consumption are essential. Sometimes that means no caffeine, sometimes it means less. The best support for some people's nervous systems, depending on their symptoms such as anxiety and stress, is, without a doubt, no caffeine at all.

However, the liver has a role to play with caffeine as well, and decreasing the liver load can be another reason to cut back on caffeine intake or omit it completely.

Like the other liver-loaders, caffeine arrives at the front door of the liver needing to be changed (detoxified). It is not, however, known to congest phase 2. Instead, it upregulates (increases the speed of) phase 1.

Although this might sound like a good thing, for too many people today, their phase 2 is inefficient, congested or simply overwhelmed with the load. Imagine phase 2 moving slowly, like traffic crawling along a motorway, and now you have sped up phase 1 with the caffeine. What seems to occur is that you process substances like estrogen and cholesterol faster along phase 1, but they have nowhere to go because phase 2 is so overwhelmed, and they hit a road block.

You create a scenario where there are more partially changed substances being generated, and, because they cannot be taken straight into phase 2 processes to be fully detoxified and finally excreted, you wind up recycling even more problematic substances. This can have major consequences for your health and your ability to prevent diseases, as well as for your energy.

So, if phase 2 is moving well, upregulating phase 1 seems to pose no real problem. But if phase 2 is congested, upregulating phase 1 adds to the problem.

Sources of caffeine: coffee (even decaf), tea, energy drinks, soda, chocolate, certain painkillers and weight loss pills

2. Alcohol

If you wake up tired every morning and you tell me that you drink alcohol every day—even if it is only two glasses—I will tell you that this very habit might be the thing robbing you of your energy. Alcohol is a poison to the human body because we can't excrete it. We consume alcohol, but the liver has to transform (detoxify) that alcohol into another substance called acetaldehyde, which is what you are then able to excrete. This process utilizes energy, and your body will prioritize this detoxification over supplying you with energy to enjoy your day.

Because of the way alcohol is broken down in the body, it can lead to sex hormone imbalances, fatigue, anxiety and fat storage. Many alcoholic drinks are also very high in sugars (carbohydrates) and hence require insulin; again, this can lead to fatigue and body fat storage. It also leads to excess cortisol production—another depleting and fat-storage signaling message to the body. You can see how many of the body systems involved in feeling energized can be disrupted by alcohol.

Many people over-drink without even realizing it. A US standard drink contains 0.35 oz (14 grams) of pure alcohol, in whatever form that comes. That's equivalent to a 12-oz can of 5 percent beer, a 1.5-oz shot of spirits or a measly 5 oz of wine. Next time you pour yourself a glass of wine, measure it, and see what your natural pour is. For most, it is considerably more than 5 oz.

The current recommendations provided by numerous heart foundations now suggest, for those who already drink alcohol, it is safe to consume no more than two standard drinks per day, for both men and women, adding that the evidence suggests that this must include two alcohol-free days per week. The National Institutes of Health differs slightly, recommending no more than two drinks per day for men and one per day for women. However, consider the position statement on alcohol endorsed by many cancer organizations around the world, which says that if you have a family history of cancer, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

3. Trans fats and refined sugars

Trans fats and refined sugars, commonly found in processed foods like cakes, cookies, granola bars and foods with long shelf-lives, can overwhelm the liver. Try to stick to fresh, whole foods instead.

4. Chemicals in skincare and cleaning products

Anything you apply to your skin can be absorbed into your body. You only have to look at the way nicotine patches work to realize that the skin provides a direct route to our bloodstream, carrying the blood that the liver will need to 'clean.'

To reduce the amount of work your liver needs to do, opt for skincare products and toiletries made without synthetic ingredients. Check out WDDTY's Healthy Shopping section for some 100 percent natural skincare products (page 74), or you can even make your own. You want to be able to recognize the words on the label of your skincare, just as you do with food. The same applies to the ingredients in laundry and cleaning products, which can enter through your skin or respiratory system.

5. Pesticides

It is also important to do what we can to minimize our exposure to, and consumption of, pesticides and herbicides. First, a number of these synthetic chemicals mimic estrogen and can bind to the estrogen receptors in the body, which has consequences for males and females of all ages.

Research suggests that a significant and growing number of girls in the United States are now starting to menstruate at the age of eight. It is difficult to explain how this is so without contemplating the role of environmental estrogens.

Another concern with the consumption of pesticides and herbicides is the risk of their storage in the fatty tissue of our body. We don't know the long-term consequences of this, or of being exposed to these substances for an entire lifetime, as we are essentially the first generation of people to be exposed to some of them for such a long period. We don't know the extent of their cumulative impact on our energy and metabolism, let alone other aspects of our health.

Try to buy organic products as much as possible and use natural alternatives to pesticides in your home and garden.

Love your liver

Remember, it is what you do every day that impacts your health, not what you do sometimes. Be honest with yourself about the liver-loaders in your life. We only have one liver. Love it accordingly.

The mechanisms behind detoxification

It is important to understand the mechanisms of detoxification and elimination that your body utilizes, because when they are compromised, typically energy is as well. There are numerous organs and body systems involved in detoxification.

They include:

The liver, which transforms substances that, if they were to accumulate, would harm you, altering them into less harmful substances you can then excrete

The colon (digestive system), which contains bacteria that produce both healthy and unhealthy substances, so you want to keep your bowel moving regularly, as one of its roles is to release waste and problematic substances to prevent them from accumulating

The kidneys, which are constantly filtering your blood and getting rid of anything you don't need, including toxins, in the urine

The skin, which not only protects and houses your organs, but allows problematic substances to leave the body via perspiration

The respiratory system, which plays a key role in the detoxification squad—even the hairs inside your nose help filter the air you breathe in, while the lungs are responsible for filtering out fumes, allergens, mold and airborne toxins

Signs your liver needs support

  • The following are symptoms that may indicate your liver needs support:
  • a roll of fat high up on the abdomen
  • a tender point in the center of your torso
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • cellulite
  • congested skin or skin outbreaks related to the menstrual cycle
  • skin rashes
  • eczema or rosacea
  • overheating easily
  • 'floaters' in your vision (can also be a sign of iron deficiency)
  • waking around 2 am
  • poor sleep on an evening you consume alcohol
  • waking up hot during the night
  • not hungry for breakfast when you first get up in the morning
  • preference for coffee to start your day
  • elevated cholesterol
  • bloating easily
  • daily alcohol consumption
  • daily long-term caffeine consumption (although green and other teas are more favorable than coffee, soft drinks and energy drinks)

Adapted from Exhausted to Energized by Dr Libby Weaver (Hay House, 2018), available from Amazon and from March 27

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