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 promises to detox your 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.
Much like a calf or chicken liver, the human liver is dark brown to red in color and weighs roughly three pounds. Without understanding the function of the liver, it can be easy to underestimate the importance of this organ and its role in detoxifying our body.
What is the liver?
The liver, the largest organ in the human body (besides the skin), has two lobes that are made up of thousands of lobules. These lobules are composed of many small hepatocytes or liver cells. Sinusoids form the spaces between each row and help to deliver oxygen and nutrients from the capillary walls to the liver cells. (1) Of importance, 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 most important functions of the liver?
The liver performs more than 500 functions within the human body including many we might not yet be aware of. These include the production of bile, cholesterol, and proteins for blood plasma and to carry fats through the body. Additionally, the liver is responsible for:
- Storing glycogen when there is excess glucose present
- Regulating blood levels of amino acids
- Processing hemoglobin
- Processing ammonia to urea
- Processing drugs and other toxins from the blood
- Regulating blood clotting
- Resisting infections
In general, most people are aware of the liver’s role in detoxification. Of the liver’s numerous roles, one that receives the most attention is for the removal of toxic compounds; and for good reason: along with filtering toxins that are produced as a byproduct of our body’s metabolism, the liver also processes pathogens, hormones, cholesterol, and toxins most of us are familiar with—like alcohol, drugs, and chemicals. While we might be aware of some toxins, like alcohol and drugs, there are others that can be unhealthy as well. These include household chemicals like harsh laundry detergents and bleaches, garden chemicals like weed killers, pesticides and insecticides, and garage chemicals like antifreeze. Even when wearing protection these chemicals can be inhaled through the nose or mouth.
Due to the number of functions that the liver carries out, ensuring that our liver is functioning well is vital for good health.
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. But, it is possible to live with part of a liver thanks to its ability to regenerate. 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, and 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. (3)
What foods are detrimental to the liver?
For those who have optimal liver health, there’s no need to strictly avoid certain foods. However, those who may be experiencing symptoms related to liver disease, fatty liver, or other liver-related problems, avoiding foods high in fat (especially foods fried in unhealthy oils like soy, corn, or hydrogenated oils), is crucial.
Beyond fried foods, alcohol is one of the most toxic substances to your liver. Additionally, some supplements can have negative consequences despite their marketed benefits. These include the following:
NOTE: Negative consequences typically occur in very high doses and many of these substances are not regulated, thus the purity of the product is imperative.
- 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 liver scarring or cirrhosis.
- Herbal 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.
- Vitamin A: while excess vitamin C can be excreted through urine, 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.)
- Cigarettes: beyond being linked to cancer and having a very negative impact on lung health, cigarettes can increase the risk of liver cancer.
- Alcohol: lastly, alcohol can have a detrimental effect on the health of your liver. Fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, and hepatic encephalopathy are all dangerous diseases that can occur from the overconsumption of alcohol.
What activities are detrimental to the liver?
Since the liver acts as the body’s filter, breathing in certain substances can have similarly disastrous effects as ingesting substances can have. 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.
How can you improve the health of your liver?
Eating a whole foods-focused diet, avoiding alcohol, and sleeping well is the general advice given for those seeking a healthier liver. More specifically, however, plant foods with high antioxidants are especially helpful. A 2015 study in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine noted that while plant-based antioxidants, which include most fruits and vegetables, are helpful for both preventing and treating liver disease, fumigated, grilled, pesticide-ridden, and rotten produce should not be consumed. (4) On the other hand, cruciferous vegetables and citruses are particularly beneficial in the prevention of liver cancer.
There are, however, several herbal supplements that can be taken safely without risk to your liver. Milk thistle extract—a spiky purple plant related to artichoke— is often suggested to reduce inflammation for those struggling with cirrhosis, hepatitis, and jaundice, while burdock root—an unassuming plant in the sunflower family—is administered to stimulate bile.
Additionally, N-acetyl Cysteine is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to improve liver function in several studies. (5)
It can be worth taking supplements to boost the health of your liver if you’ve consumed fried, fat-heavy foods, smoked, or consumed alcohol more than moderately. In this case, it’s best to consult a doctor before beginning any detox or cleanse to ensure the supplements are safe for you.
How do I know my liver needs help?
If you’ve partaken in activities that are detrimental to the health of your liver but still aren’t sure if your liver is healthy or not, there are several additional symptoms to be aware of. These include:
- Yellow skin or eyes
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal bloat
- Chronic fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain
- Itchy skin
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Spider veins
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. (6) 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.
Can you really 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 keeping your liver functioning well. Herbal supplements can be helpful additions, but the quality of the supplement matters.
Rather than think about detoxing your liver, focus on supporting it. Additionally, the body does not work singularly. Ensuring that there is proper drainage throughout the body—which includes every organ from the liver and kidneys, to the stomach and intestines—is vital.
Think about “detoxing” more as “draining.” Drainage is a more accurate term than detox, since it better describes the process of moving nutrients and toxins through the body, rather than simply detoxing the body, which is what the liver should naturally do every day. As Dr. Jay Davidson explains, having few or no bowel movements can cause a backup in the liver bile duct system; as such, this can prevent the lymphatic system from draining properly. Supporting the drainage system as a whole is paramount to properly “detoxing” the liver, and the best way to do that is through a whole foods-based diet rich in antioxidants, getting adequate sleep, maintaining a low-stress environment, avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, reducing environmental toxins, and adding in quality herbal supplements as needed.