Check out the tea aisle in your favorite health food store, and you’re almost guaranteed to see half a dozen teas catering to liver health. Move into the supplement aisle, and you’re bound to find even more bottles with liver detox promises.
But why does your liver health even matter?
What Is the Liver?
Your liver — the large organ that sits between your rib cage, wedged beneath the diaphragm and seated above the stomach and small intestine — is shaped like a halved circle or half-moon.
Besides the skin, the liver is the largest organ in the human body. It works alongside other organs — like the gallbladder, kidneys, and pancreas — for digestion and detox. (1)
Interestingly enough, the liver has a large amount of blood flowing through it at all times. Most estimates place this at 13% or one pint of blood. (2)
What Are the Liver's Most Important Functions?
The liver performs more than 500 functions within the human body, including many we may not know yet. These include the production of bile, cholesterol, and proteins for blood plasma and to carry fats through the body. The liver's main functions include: (1)
- Activating enzymes
- Detoxing and purifying blood
- Metabolizing carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Processing drugs and other toxins from the blood
- Producing and excreting bile
- Regulating blood clotting
- Resisting infections
- Storing glycogen, minerals, and vitamins
In general, most people are aware of the liver’s role in detoxification. Of its numerous roles, one that receives the most attention is the removal of toxic compounds. Along with filtering toxins that are produced as a byproduct of our body’s metabolism, the liver also processes cholesterol, hormones, pathogens, and toxins most of us are familiar with — like alcohol, chemicals, and drugs.
While we might be aware of some toxins, like alcohol and drugs, there are others that can be unhealthy as well. Even when wearing protection these chemicals can be inhaled through the nose or mouth. These include: (3)
- Garage chemicals like antifreeze
- Garden chemicals like herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, and weed killers
- Household chemicals like bleaches and harsh laundry detergents
For example, glyphosate, a common herbicide, has been linked to hepatotoxicity, liver cell DNA damage, and liver congestion. (4)
Since the liver performs so many essential functions, it is extra vital to give it the support and care needed to succeed.
Can You Live Without a Liver?
In short, no. With hundreds of necessary tasks to carry out, the liver is an integral organ in the body.
At the same time, it is possible to live with part of a liver thanks to its regeneration ability. For those suffering from chronic viral hepatitis, liver disease, or liver failure, the ability to receive part of a healthy, functioning liver can be the difference between life and death.
A liver transplant allows for that to happen. Due to the regenerative abilities of the liver, a donor can donate between 25% and 65% of their healthy liver to a recipient and have it return to a healthy functioning state within a few months. (5)
What Foods Are Detrimental to the Liver?
For those who have optimal liver health, there’s no need to strictly avoid certain foods. However, for those who may be experiencing symptoms related to fatty liver, liver disease, or other liver-related problems, certain substances can harm your liver health.
Alcohol: Alcohol is one of the most toxic substances for your liver. Alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver disease, hepatic encephalopathy, liver cancer, and liver cirrhosis are all dangerous diseases that can occur from the overconsumption of alcohol. (6)
Cigarettes: Beyond being linked to cancer and having a very negative impact on lung health, cigarettes can increase the risk of liver cancer. (7, 8)
Herbal teas and supplements: Green tea is healthy (in fact, you can drink up to 10 cups a day with no ill effect on the liver). But green tea extract in high doses can be toxic. Additionally, comfrey, typically used for healing wounds or treating rheumatoid arthritis, can be damaging to the liver. Knowing the quality and sourcing of herbal supplements matters. (9, 10)
High-fat foods: Foods high in fat — especially foods fried in oils like corn, hydrogenated, and soy oils — put a negative load on the liver. (11)
Iron: While adequate levels of iron are necessary, high doses can be dangerous since the body is not able to excrete excess iron. The result? Iron is stored in organs and tissue, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver scarring. (12)
- Vitamin A: Excess vitamin C can be excreted through urine, but most of the body’s vitamin A is stored in the liver. High doses are typically considered as more than 40,000 IU daily, though chronic moderately high doses can also lead to issues. Avoid the overconsumption of animal or fish liver (such as cod liver oil.) (13)
Note: For supplements and vitamins, negative consequences typically occur in very high doses, thus the amount and purity of the product is imperative.
What Activities Are Detrimental to the Liver?
Since the liver acts as the body’s filter, breathing in certain substances can have similar disastrous effects as ingesting certain substances.
For example, toxic chemicals that are taken in by the body through skin contact, the nose, or the mouth can also end up in the liver. While the liver can help to break down dangerous substances and chemicals, taking steps to protect your liver is the best way to ensure that everyday toxins make their way out of our bodies. (3)
How Can You Improve the Health of Your Liver?
Avoiding alcohol, eating a whole foods-focused diet, and sleeping well is the general advice given to those seeking a healthier liver.
More specifically, plant foods with high antioxidants are especially helpful. A 2015 study noted that plant-based antioxidants, which include most fruits and vegetables, are helpful for both preventing and treating liver disease. Citruses and cruciferous vegetables are particularly beneficial in the prevention of liver cancer. However, watch for fumigated, grilled, pesticide-ridden, and rotten produce. (14)
Along with an antioxidant-rich diet, several herbal supplements can be taken safely and support liver health:
Burdock root, an unassuming plant in the sunflower family, is often administered to stimulate bile, vital to liver function. (15)
Milk thistle, a spiky purple plant related to artichoke, is often suggested to reduce inflammation for those struggling with cirrhosis, hepatitis, and jaundice. (16)
N-acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to improve liver function in several studies. (17)
- TUDCA, a water-soluble bile acid you naturally produce in small amounts, can also be taken as supplementation. Although it has a wide number of benefits, it primarily supports bile production and detox organs. (18, 19)
How Do I Know My Liver Needs Help?
If you’re unsure if your liver is healthy or not, there are several additional symptoms to look out for. These include: (20)
- Abdominal pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Easy bleeding and bruising
- Itchy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Spider veins
- Weight gain
- Yellow skin or eyes
Liver function tests (often called liver chemistries) are the best way to determine the health of your liver. These tests measure the amounts of proteins, liver enzymes, and bilirubin in your blood. Typically, two liver enzymes, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), are monitored; if high, it’s likely that the liver is in need of support. (21)
Can You Detox Your Liver?
It is possible to detox your liver, but focusing on whole foods and avoiding smoking and drinking are the best ways to keep your liver functioning well. Herbal supplements can be helpful additions, but the quality of the supplement matters.
Rather than detoxing your liver, a better starting point is supporting it. Ensure that there is proper drainage throughout the body — which includes every organ from the liver and kidneys, to the stomach and intestines.
Having few or no bowel movements can cause a backup in the liver bile duct system. This in turns puts extra strain on the liver, making it harder to perform its essential processes.
Supporting the drainage system as a whole is paramount to properly “detoxing” the liver. Overall, the best way to do that is through avoiding alcohol and drugs, eating a whole foods-based diet rich in antioxidants, getting adequate sleep, maintaining a low-stress environment, reducing environmental toxins, and supplementing with quality herbs as needed.
A healthy liver can make or break your wellness journey. What will be your first step in supporting it?