Can you really detox your liver?

The answer to this question varies based on how you approach the cleanse and what “working” looks like to you. 

The liver is your detox organ. If what you are looking for is a strong, functional liver, to support an all-around healthier you, then yes. A liver-support health regimen can provide positive benefits to your body’s detoxification pathways.

However, the word “cleanse” has meanings. Malnutrition is not healthy and forcing your body into starvation mode is not healthy. You do not need to starve or deny yourself to support your liver. In fact, you can feed your liver to cleanse it. We will explain how.

First, do I even need a liver detox?

We can’t say whether you “need” to do anything. However, if you’re like many Americans, the past couple of years have been associated with a lot more time at home. And, for many Americans, this change was also associated with an increase in alcohol and comfort food consumption. 

It makes sense! In stressful times, food and alcohol provide instant gratification, they’re a lot less expensive at home than in a restaurant or bar, and you don’t have to drive anywhere. The downside of this upswing in indulgence is that it can negatively impact your health, especially when it becomes a habit. 

Making healthier choices for the longevity of your liver is universally a “good decision”. Of course, the level of damage that your liver has incurred due to age, genetics, lifestyle, and disease will vary significantly from person to person.

Why focus on the liver for a detox program?

The liver is a great target for a detox or cleanse because it is the natural detoxification center in the body. We can survive in a world full of pollutants and toxins because our livers do an excellent job straining that stuff out of our blood and converting it to waste. 

When there are more toxins in our body than the liver can easily filter, they circulate and cause damage throughout the body. 

When we add to the liver’s workload by purposefully ingesting toxins like alcohol, chemically processed foods, and medications, it can get overwhelmed. Of course, we would never suggest you stop taking a prescribed medication that supports your health, but excessive alcohol and processed foods do not benefit anyone.

Another important job the liver does is activation, metabolism, and storage of certain nutrients. The liver helps to regulate the availability of necessary nutrition for target tissues. After absorption from the gut, products of digestion such as glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids are directed to the liver. 

Liver cells (hepatocytes) must be able to assess the abundance of those nutrients in the body and alter their function to either process, store, or make waste of each nutrient based on that measurement. Unfortunately, if the liver is damaged or overloaded by toxins, its ability to process nutrients from the diet can suffer. 

What’s the best way to detox the liver naturally?

There are both lifestyle changes and dietary changes you can make to benefit your liver health. The most obvious change –which may affect both your diet and lifestyle– is reducing the input of toxins. This includes cutting out alcohol, drugs (with the exception of necessary medications), processed foods, refined sugar, caffeine, and nicotine.

Dietary Changes

We’ve mentioned what to avoid several times (ahem… processed food, unnecessary drugs, and alcohol!). What you should consume when detoxing are organic, seasonal fruits and vegetables, organic animal products, more whole grains, and lots of filtered water. 

Switching to all organic foods is important for a detox. Many synthetic pesticides found on produce are classified as “safe” to humans in tiny amounts. However, if you continue to have tiny amounts every day, they “bioaccumulate” (build-up) in storage tissues, including the liver. Some of these “safe” pesticides are known to disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system, leading to fertility issues, and can contribute to cardiovascular disease and the development of cancer [1].

Drink up! Clean water that is…

The water you drink may not be as clean as you think. The quality and safety of tap water can vary dramatically depending on where you live. If you are curious about the state of your local tap water, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has a website where you can learn about your water quality by entering your zip code (https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/). 

We also know there are dangers associated with drinking water from plastic containers, even if the water was pure when it was bottled. When plastic gets hot (in a storage room, sitting in the sun while in transit, in the trunk of your car, etc.) it can degrade and leach toxic chemical components into its contents [2]. 

To make sure you are drinking clean water, the best solutions are reverse osmosis systems or high-quality charcoal filtration with non-plastic storage. 

Check out Berkey filters (https://www.berkeyfilters.com/) for your countertop or Home Master filtration systems for under the sink (https://www.homemasterfilters.com/undersink.html). These brands top the charts for producing clean water at home. 

Supplements for Liver Detox

Silymarin is an extract of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), the most common supplement taken to support healthy liver function [3]. Silymarin expresses membrane-stabilizing and antioxidant activities, promotes hepatocyte regeneration (growth of new liver cells), reduces inflammatory reactions, and inhibits fibrogenesis [3]. Silymarin extract may also reduce the toxic effects of other drugs [3].

Apoptosis, or the death of hepatocytes (liver cells), has emerged as a fundamental component of virtually all acute and chronic liver diseases [4]. Silymarin supports cell survival by interfering with cell cycle regulators and proteins involved in apoptosis [3]. 

Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) and N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) are both naturally occurring thiol antioxidants that play many, diverse biological roles.

ALA is a potent antioxidant, a detoxification agent, and a regulator of inflammation [5]. It also decreases the storage of fat in the liver [6]. ALA is an amphipathic molecule meaning its antioxidant effects can take place both in hydrophilic (inside cells or blood) and lipophilic (inside cell membranes or fat cells) environments and has been shown to provide benefits in liver disease models [7]. 

N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) consistently inhibits apoptosis and interferes with oxidative stress pathways [4]. NAC is also a precursor for glutathione synthesis and plays a role in its regulation. 

Glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant,” is essential for a healthy liver for a variety of reasons. Glutathione scavenges free radicals and other reactive oxygen species; it reacts with various electrophiles, physiological metabolites (e.g. estrogen, melanins, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes), and xenobiotics (e.g. bromobenzene and acetaminophen) to form mercapturates; it regulates cellular lipid, glucose, and amino acid utilization; and aids in the removal of toxins like formaldehyde from cells [8]. 

Silymarin, described above, is also known to increase hepatic glutathione and may also contribute to the antioxidant defense of the liver [9].

All of the above can be found in Metabolic Maintenance’s Metabolic Detox capsules. 

If you are interested in a liver-supportive meal replacement formula, Metabolic Maintenance’s Metabolic Detox Complete provides a daily multivitamin/mineral complex, plus silymarin, in a naturally flavored shake powder. 

Vitamins C and E are also potent antioxidants that boost glutathione production and help fend off and repair free radical damage in the liver and throughout the body.

Detox Your Lifestyle 

While reducing the toxins you put in your body is a great start, you can also reduce destructive chemicals produced within your body by reducing your stress level. 

Circulating levels of stress hormones and free radical production both increase when your body is in a state of chronic stress, anxiety, or depression. As such, an important part of your detox should be taking care of your mental health. 

If your use of social media has increased in the past couple of years, that can be an unexpected source of stress. Try adding a “digital detox” to your liver detox to cleanse your thoughts and focus on being mindful and living in the moment. If this sounds difficult, try downloading a meditation app or finding a youtube guided meditation that works for you (there are thousands). Research has shown that mindfulness can help to reduce anxiety and depression [10]. 

You may be tired of hearing how important exercise is… but honestly, exercise is really important. Exercise decreases stress on the liver, increases energy levels, and helps to prevent obesity (particularly, abdominal or central obesity), which is a major risk factor for liver disease. 

Specifically, regular cardio (aerobic) exercise strengthens your mitochondria and increases your metabolism, a combination that supports healthy liver function [11]. Studies have shown that regular cardiovascular exercise may protect the liver against fatty deposits and inflammation (signs of developing liver disease), even after chronic alcohol exposure [11]. 

Get Some Sleep

Sleep is incredibly important for detoxification. According to the results of a 2018 study, losing a single night’s sleep may affect the liver’s ability to produce glucose from glycogen stores and process insulin [12]. This increases the risk of metabolic diseases such as hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease) and type 2 diabetes [12].

While there are still some mysteries when it comes to the science of sleep, we do know that sleep deprivation contributes to reduced mental health and cognitive abilities. Part of this effect may be related to the brain’s ability to clear out waste products created by thinking and functioning during wakeful hours. In a paper published in Science Translational Medicine, they dubbed this the “glymphatic system,” because it acts like the body’s lymphatic system but is managed by brain cells known as glial cells. 

During sleep, the glymphatic system clears away toxins or waste products, such as amyloid-beta, that may cause neurological diseases and disorders if left to build up [13]. Permeability of the blood-brain barrier (the gates that filter what chemicals from your blood can and can’t enter your brain) can also change, based on how well-rested you are [14]. Scary!

So, go get some rest, go for a brisk walk, listen to a meditation, eat your greens, and drink some water. Detoxifying your body should feel good, and feeling good in your body is a great way to cruise into summertime!

References

  1. Nicolopoulou-Stamati, Polyxeni, et al. “Chemical pesticides and human health: the urgent need for a new concept in agriculture.” Frontiers in public health 4 (2016): 148.
  2. Westerhoff, Paul, et al. “Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used for bottled drinking water.” Water Research 42.3 (2008): 551-556.
  3. Fehér, János, and Gabriella Lengyel. “Silymarin in the prevention and treatment of liver diseases and primary liver cancer.” Current pharmaceutical biotechnology 13.1 (2012): 210-217.
  4. San-Miguel, B., et al. “N-acetyl-cysteine protects liver from apoptotic death in an animal model of fulminant hepatic failure.” Apoptosis 11.11 (2006): 1945-1957.
  5. Shay, Kate Petersen, et al. “Alpha-lipoic acid as a dietary supplement: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential.” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-General Subjects 1790.10 (2009): 1149-1160.
  6. Park, Keun‐Gyu, et al. “Alpha‐lipoic acid decreases hepatic lipogenesis through adenosine monophosphate‐activated protein kinase (AMPK)‐dependent and AMPK‐independent pathways.” Hepatology 48.5 (2008): 1477-1486.
  7. Moini, Hadi, Lester Packer, and Nils-Erik L. Saris. “Antioxidant and prooxidant activities of α-lipoic acid and dihydrolipoic acid.” Toxicology and applied pharmacology 182.1 (2002): 84-90.
  8. Wu, Guoyao, et al. “Glutathione metabolism and its implications for health.” The Journal of nutrition 134.3 (2004): 489-492.
  9. Vargas-Mendoza, Nancy, et al. “Hepatoprotective effect of silymarin.” World journal of hepatology 6.3 (2014): 144.
  10. Kind, Shelley. “Facts about the effects of mindfulness”. Anxiety.org. Accessed Dec. 3, 2020. https://www.anxiety.org/can-mindfulness-help-reduce-anxiety#:~:text=Research%20has%20shown%20that%20mindfulness,may%20be%20driving%20that%20decision.
  11. University of Missouri-Columbia. “Aerobic fitness may protect liver against chronic alcohol use: Higher metabolism from aerobic activity could prevent liver inflammation.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 February 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160216123453.htm>.
  12. American Physiological Society. “Losing just six hours of sleep could increase diabetes risk, study finds: Sleep deprivation alters liver metabolism and fat content.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 September 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180905083901.htm>.
  13. Xie, Lulu, et al. “Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain.” science 342.6156 (2013): 373-377.
  14. Esposito, Pamela, et al. “Corticotropin-releasing hormone and brain mast cells regulate blood-brain-barrier permeability induced by acute stress.” Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 303.3 (2002): 1061-1066.