When I suspected liver malfunction in one of my patients recently, he protested. He assumed that his liver was fine since he didn’t drink large amounts of alcohol. His assumption was a common one. Whenever I mention liver problems, most of my patients think of cirrhosis (associated with excessive alcohol consumption) or hepatitis, a viral disease with particular risk factors. They assume there’s not much else to worry about when it comes to liver health. Perhaps it’s an assumption you’ve made yourself.
But just because you are not at risk for cirrhosis or hepatitis, that doesn’t mean you’re doing all you should for your liver. The liver performs many vital functions related to digestion, energy production and detoxification. So there’s a lot more to liver maintenance than avoiding alcohol.
One of the liver’s most important jobs is to produce bile, which aids in the digestion of fats. So it’s no surprise to learn that overeating is the most common cause of poor liver function. If you’ve got a healthy liver, the occasional binge at holiday time isn’t going to cause significant damage. But habitual overeating, which seems to have become common for many Americans, overworks the liver as it struggles to aid the digestion of all that extra food.
A poor diet in general also plays a role in liver malfunction. Too many of the wrong kinds of fats and carbohydrates, fried foods and too little protein all hinder the liver’s ability to repair itself.
If bad habits result in obesity, you may develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The liver cells fill up with fat, and your liver cannot function properly. If there’s no inflammation, it’s called steatosis. The treatment? Lose weight! If the liver becomes inflamed, the disease is then called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Although it can be treated, and sometimes reversed, NASH may lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure. Obesity, diabetes and an inactive lifestyle all put you at risk for NASH.
Get Rid of the Toxins
But, what if you don’t overeat and you don’t eat lots of fat? Is your liver in the clear? Not really.
Your liver also filters out toxins–pesticides, food preservatives, chemicals in tap water, and drugs, to name a few. Too many toxins can overwhelm the liver and cause damage.
But if you lessen your exposure to toxins, you’ll ease the stress on your liver. Eat mostly organic, whole foods, for example, and drink filtered water. Avoid the use of medicines, and seek out natural remedies when possible. And if you find it difficult to avoid toxins or medications, consider doing both a colon and a liver cleanse.
Food for a Healthy Liver
Whether you want to promote healing or simply to strengthen your liver, begin by evaluating your diet. Use the following guidelines and be ready to make some changes.
Include plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens which are high in vitamin K. (People with liver disease often lack sufficient K.) Artichokes contain a compound called silymarin, which supports and protects the liver. And, according to recent research in Japan, avocado protects the liver from damage. Other fruits containing similar properties include watermelon, kiwi, grapefruit, fig, cherry and papaya.
Eat lots of legumes (beans and peas) and seeds, which contain arginine, an amino acid helpful in detoxification.
Get plenty of fiber to avoid constipation. When your colon doesn’t eliminate properly, toxins build up in your body, making your liver work overtime. In addition to raw fruits and vegetables, good sources of fiber include 100% whole grains, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes, beans and prunes.
Plenty of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet provide further protection for the liver and may prevent liver cancer. Eat more grass-fed beef, walnuts, olive oil, flaxseed and cold-water fish.
If you’re trying to heal your liver, there are many dietary and herbal supplements that might help. Primrose oil and L-carnitine, for example, help control fatty acids, and garlic aids in detoxification of the liver and blood. Both vitamin B complex andandrographis aid in proper digestion and nutrient absorption as well as overall protection of the liver. Poor liver function caused by drugs or environmental toxins often responds well to grape seed extract and milk thistle, which both promote detoxification. And if you’re concerned about liver cancer, try glutathione for protection.
Take Action Now
If you have specific liver problems, or suspect liver disorder, see a physician who can order the necessary tests to confirm disease or malfunction. Ideally, find one who will include dietary and herbal guidelines tailored for your condition, in addition to any necessary medications.
As with most diseases and disorders, prevention is the key. So don’t wait until you’ve got symptoms! And please, don’t make the mistake of assuming your liver will be fine just because you don’t drink lots of alcohol. Take steps now to keep your liver healthy.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.