Researchers estimate that most people are potentially exposed to over 100,000 chemicals in their lifetime. Every year, about 1,000 new chemicals are added to that list. They are everywhere: In our food, water, personal products, packaging, prescription drugs, and household and products.1
I’ve talked about detoxification and how when toxins accumulate, they can sabotage the gut, immune system, hormone balance, and overall health. In this post, I’m going to focus on your “ground zero” organ of detoxification — your liver.
If you’re like 45 year-old Martha, you may not realize the symptoms you are experiencing are signs of an overloaded detox system, because you might chalk them up to aging.
You wake up feeling tired and foggy-headed, don’t feel fully awake until that first cup of coffee, and you also need an espresso to make it through the afternoon.
It takes every ounce of energy to make those 4pm calls and answer those last few emails. Every night, you have a glass of wine to “destress,” and you can’t hold back when dessert is put in front of you.
You don’t sleep well, either, so you take CBD oil to help you relax enough to fall asleep and start the cycle back up again the next day.
Your body is literally crying out for a detox, but you don’t realize the power of detoxification or the role it plays in feeling your best self.
Pretty much everything that goes through your body –– the food you eat, water you drink, medications you take, and cosmetics you use –– must be filtered through the liver. Detoxification is the liver’s superpower, but it does a lot of other things, too.
For such a small organ that’s about the size of a football and only weighs about three pounds, the liver is a true workhorse. Among its duties, it:
- Produces proteins that play a role in blood clotting
- Breaks down old or damaged blood cells
- Ensures that your blood sugar level stays consistent
- Converts the amino acids from protein into energy
- Converts ammonia from protein to a much less toxic substance called urea
- Helps fight infections
I can’t talk about liver health without also mentioning the gut. The gut and liver are intricately connected in ways that you might not consider:
- After the gut breaks down and absorbs what you eat, the liver converts food into energy and nutrients.2
- Blood carries nutrients, medications, and toxins from the digestive organs to the liver. This critical organ processes and eventually detoxifies these things, after which the liver releases them back into the blood or to the colon for elimination.3
- The liver gets 70 percent of its blood supply from the intestine via the portal vein, the blood vessel that carries blood from the gut and other organs to the liver. Studies have shown a link between the health of your good gut flora and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).4 More on that in a minute.
- The liver produces bile, a fluid made and released in the liver that the gallbladder stores. Bile breaks down dietary fat and helps eliminate the toxins that are fat-soluble.
Calling the liver a true workhorse organ is an understatement! The daily onslaught of chemicals that can bombard the liver might come from sources you might not think about.
The Daily Challenges Your Liver Faces
Think about a major highway during rush hour. That’s the liver every day, juggling all of its other roles while helping the body manage the toxins we are exposed to through food, beverages, plastics and so much more.
Let’s start with what you eat and drink. Many foods, food additives, and beverages we consume are either the most difficult for our bodies to break down or are the most likely to bog down your liver as it works to detoxify them. Sugary, processed foods, which are high in fructose, are one of the biggest stressors for the liver.
Even things you might consider healthy or safe can create problems for the liver. Most medications pass through the liver, the primary site for drug metabolism. Enzymes in the liver convert prodrugs –– inactive or weakly active substances that have an active metabolite –– to their active metabolites. This is actually how many medications work in the body to exert their desired effect. The liver also converts active drugs to inactive forms.5 If you are on any medications that get processed through the liver, talk to your practitioner about safer medication alternatives for the liver, but never discontinue or modify prescription medications without his or her consent.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are often overused, which take their toll on the liver. These medications include antibiotics as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or NSAIDs such as Advil, Aleve, ibuprofen, and aspirin. Every year, about 56,000 emergency room visits, 26,000 hospitalizations, and 458 deaths occur because of acetaminophen-associated overdoses alone.6 We assume that if something is a medicine, it will help us feel better or get well without untoward side effects, but even OTC medications can have serious potential secondary effects.
The liver helps manage all these chemicals that you ingest every day from the food you eat, water you drink, medications you use. This organ also balances the hormones that your body produces. Whenever the numerous things you are exposed to everyday bog down the liver and create stress on this hardworking organ, these hormones can continue to circulate throughout the body and create problems in hormonal balance, including:
- Eliminating excess hormones
- Regulating hormones
- Metabolizing some hormones, such as estrogen
- Creating proteins such as albumin that can act as hormone carriers
When the liver can’t effectively remove these excess hormones, disruption in the body’s delicate hormone balance can occur. One example of this is cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. While cortisol can serve the body in the short term, when this hormone accumulates it can create problems such as blood sugar imbalances. I’ve talked about this too in regards to oxytocin, your bonding or love hormone, in this blog.
Overall, the liver faces an onslaught of chemicals that it must detoxify. It never gets a break! In my last blog, I talked about how sweat is an often-overlooked way to detoxify, particularly through science-backed infrared heat. However, your liver is without question your body’s main pathway for eliminating unwanted chemicals and substances. For the body to remove those toxins, the liver needs to detoxify properly.
The liver detoxifies in two phases, appropriately called Phase I and Phase II detoxification. Both are critical to completely remove the chemicals and other toxins the body encounters daily. Most toxins are fat soluble, and often congregate in fatty tissues such as the brain and other organs. They can’t dissolve in water, which makes them difficult for the body to eliminate. Generally, they travel in the bloodstream attached to carrier proteins. That’s where the liver steps in, to convert fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble components that can then be eliminated.
Liver detoxification is a complex process, but essentially occurs like this:
- PHASE I. The goal for the liver in this phase is to convert a toxin into a reactive intermediate, which can be potentially more harmful than the original toxin. Phase I enzymes prepare substances to be excreted from the body. Think of it this way. Phase I converts a toxin into what I call a “tagged metabolite.” It’s like collecting trash together and tagging it for removal. If this trash spills out of the trash bags, this is going to create problems. During this process, the liver produces free radicals. If the body doesn’t have an adequate antioxidant defense system, toxins can potentially become more
- PHASE II. In this phase, the liver will attach a molecule to that toxin, such as a sulfur-containing compound, which makes the toxin water-soluble so that the body can then excrete it with the bile or in the urine. Phase II pathways excrete carcinogens, toxins, drugs and steroid hormones. Phase II takes the reactive tagged metabolites I talked about in Phase I that can damage your body – the “trash” – and sorts them (to use the trash analogy) into organized bins for removal. It basically neutralizes those metabolites, which can then go to the kidneys or gallbladder for removal. But if those metabolites aren’t neutralized by Phase II enzymes, they can become more toxic, damaging your DNA in the process.
Think of it this way. Phase I sets the countdown timer on an intracellular bomb, and phase II deactivates that timer so the bomb doesn’t explode.
Phase I is like an Olympic sprinter — it can go super fast.
Phase II enzymes are like a sloth — super slow.
…Phase II enzymes do their best to keep up with Phase I, but if you’re nutrient-depleted, they simply can’t.
If you don’t get enough nutrient support for Phase II, you can get a backup of toxic metabolites that the body can’t eliminate fast enough. The good news is that you can turn that sloth into an Olympic runner by giving it the right nutrients in the form of amino acids.
Many detox cleanses get this wrong, and without the right nutrients, phase II starts to slow down… Now sure, you may get some detox symptoms whenever you start a cleanse, but if these symptoms persist, it’s a sign you’re not eliminating fast enough. You risk exposing your DNA to toxic metabolites.
What Does a Burdened Liver Look Like?
In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Prometheus by having an eagle eat his liver every day. Every time this happened, however, Prometheus’ liver grew back, only to be eaten again. This highlights an interesting point:: The liver is the only organ that has the ability to regenerate itself. Even so, it can only handle so much before things go wrong.
Being overweight, drinking too much alcohol, infections, and poor gut health are like that mythological eagle eating away at your liver. They are a few of the ways that can make it difficult for the liver to detoxify and fulfill all of its many other functions.
What about your gut microbiome? Studies have also shown that dysbiosis – an unfavorable balance between good and bad gut bugs – may also contribute to various liver diseases.7
Unfortunately, a stressed-out or damaged liver often doesn’t show symptoms until that damage is severe enough. When it does, the liver can suffer from several types of potentially irreversible damage.
Every day, the liver detoxifies numerous chemicals that are potential carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals in humans. This process takes a whole lot of energy production. Over time, the accumulation of toxins within the liver can create what we call hepatotoxicity.
This can increase inflammation, free radical overload, impair liver enzymes, and diminish the ability of the little energy plants called mitochondria to function. All of these things increase the body’s risk of disease.8
That risk depends on how much, how often, how long, and when you’re exposed to these chemicals.
Up to 50 percent of people with underlying liver disease have no symptoms. When they do occur, symptoms include feeling frequently tired, lacking motivation, and itching. More pronounced signs of liver disease include yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), dark urine, very pale or light colored stool, bleeding from the gut, mental confusion, and fluid retention.9
When toxins overwhelm the liver, they can create inflammation and damage. The resulting problem, called toxic liver disease, can be mild or severe. Eventually, this can lead to permanent liver scarring, cirrhosis, liver failure, and even death. Prescription and OTC medications are a chief culprit for toxic liver disease. Even using acetaminophen short-term might be enough to cause liver failure.10
Fatty Liver: It’s Not Just an Overweight Problem
When I let Martha know what the biometric body mass scale showed about her visceral fat score (the fat in the middle that surrounds the organs), she was shocked. Optimal is < 5 out of 20. She scored 15! She had fatty liver disease.
One of the biggest liver problems we are facing today is called fatty liver. This condition can occur when too much fat builds up in the liver. Today, fatty liver has superseded hepatitis as the most common reason for liver transplants.
When you hear “fatty liver,” you might think about someone who consumes too much alcohol. Yes, alcohol can create fatty liver, but that’s not always the case. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – when something other than alcohol creates a fatty liver – impacts about 10 – 20 percent of Americans. If inflammation and liver cell damage accompanies that fat buildup, a disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) can occur.11
Overall, studies have shown that about 30 – 45 percent of Americans have excess fat in the liver. This has especially become a problem for children and teens, with research showing that about one in 10 children now has fatty liver disease.
A big driver for NAFLD is fructose. The liver is the only place in the body that can metabolize this simple sugar. Too much sugar, including the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the sodas Martha craved and drank several times per week, can lead to a fatty liver. Shockingly, HFCS often hides in foods you may not realize, such as bread.
Fatty liver is often connected to metabolic syndrome, a nasty cluster of problems that include diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.12
Any problem with the liver, including fatty liver, will impair your ability to detoxify. Removing culprits like simple sugars and alcohol that can harm the liver is critical, but so are adding the right things to keep the liver at peak performance levels.
8 Ways to Cleanse Your Liver
The choices you make every day can dramatically affect liver health. Fortunately, you have plenty of ways to support your liver and keep this hardworking organ working well so that it can undergo detoxification and the many other roles that the liver plays.
This organ works so hard for you, so in return give your liver some loving! These eight strategies ensure that your liver gets all the support it needs to juggle numerous tasks every day.
1. Give up alcohol.
A healthy liver can remove a small amount of alcohol. For people who enjoy “more than a few” drinks regularly, though, the liver can easily become overloaded with processing alcohol. Excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to several problems in the liver, including fatty liver.13 If you drink alcohol, keep in mind your limits: One drink for women and two for men daily. Know your pours, too. One drink is 1.25 ounces of whiskey or spirits, four ounces of wine, or a 12-ounce beer.
2. Cut out the coffee.
Conventional coffee beans are one of the most pesticide-ridden crops, and that toxic overload places a massive burden on the liver. If you swear by your morning dark roast, buy organic beans and drink it black or with stevia and/ or unsweetened nut milk. I’ve written more about coffee and weight gain here. Curious about what causes caffeine crashes? Check out my latest mindbodygreen blog.
3. Start your day with a lemon squeeze.
Give your liver some loving first thing in the morning. Squeeze half a lemon into an eight-ounce glass of room temperature or hot water and drink. This routine wakes up your liver and prepares your gut for its digestive functions for the day.
4. Avoid OTC medications.
If you can’t completely eliminate ibuprofen and other medications, minimize them and determine which ones aren’t absolutely necessary for your problem. More importantly, figure out why you use these medications. Is it out of habit, or do you struggle with a specific ailment like headaches or migraines? Research shows that specific nutrients, including magnesium and curcumin, are natural and liver-friendly options for pain relief.
5. Eat plant-based foods.
That pigment that you see in green vegetables comes from chlorophyll, which can support the liver’s ability to remove toxins and waste. To get more chlorophyll, load up on green vegetables like spinach and asparagus. You can also add parsley, chlorella, and spirulina to smoothies. One of my favorites is raw or lightly blanched dandelion greens. They are high in gut-supporting prebiotic fibers, and are also great for liver and kidney detoxification.
6. Drink green tea.
Green tea is high in antioxidants, which can improve liver enzyme levels, reduce the amount of free radicals that burden the body, and lower fat deposits in the liver.14 The L-theanine in green tea can also promote calm, something that we all need right now! Any kind of (preferably) organic green tea is great iced or hot. I especially like matcha, which is made from stone-ground green tea leaves. By using the whole leaf, it provides a powerful arsenal of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants unmatched by regular green tea. It is a cancer fighter and fat burner.
7. Eat more fiber.
Dietary fiber is an all-around rock star, keeping you full longer so you lose weight, supporting gut health, and even helping prevent recirculation of toxins. Fiber, by acting as a binder, can “flush” out those excess hormones and toxins, creating less of a burden for your liver. Organic vegetables, gluten-free oats, low-sugar fruits such as berries, and avocado, nuts, and seeds are all great sources of insoluble and soluble fibers.
8. Follow an integrated liver detox program.
Without the right nutrient support – including sufficient protein and specific nutrients – the liver cannot perform phase I and phase II detoxification. Over time, the accumulated toxins the liver cannot eliminate properly can disrupt hormones, create mood imbalances, increase the risk of infections, and harm the gut. Giving your liver a little extra support with hypoallergenic plant protein and specific nutrients can help this workhorse organ effectively remove the toxins that can sabotage gut health, immune health, and total wellness.
Let’s face it. With summer here, more of us are reaching for alcoholic drinks at socially distanced cookouts. We’re not always making stellar food choices. Even though the pandemic limits us somewhat socially, it’s still summer, and that means relaxing a bit and having fun.
You don’t need to turn liver support into a new hobby to keep this organ working well. Some of you have been asking about a detox that fits seamlessly into your busy lives. From those suggestions, I’ve created the Happy Gut® Reset: 7-Day Detox.
This custom-designed package includes a gut-healing, fructose-free, hypoallergenic, vegan protein powder designed to support your gut health and promote balanced detoxification. In addition, I carefully selected a series of easy-to-swallow encapsulated supplements to support Phase I and Phase II liver detox, along with a high-potency probiotic to promote healthy gut microflora.
With the Happy Gut® Reset: 7-Day Detox, you have everything that you need to support your liver and optimize all the many tasks it performs, including detoxification. You’re providing all the nutrients to turn Phase I and Phase II enzymes into Olympic runners, so your body can detox properly. This is what I recommended to Martha, as part of an integrated food elimination detox plan, cutting out alcohol, coffee, sugar, and processed foods.
Excess hormones and toxins can slow you down, stall weight loss, and leave you feeling tired and mentally foggy.
A well-supported, healthy liver can prevent these toxins and hormones from accumulating, helping you stay focused, bloat-free, lean and fully energized!