When it comes to organs, your heart gets all the love. Heck, we even exchange heart-shaped cards on Valentine’s Day. (Seriously… what other organ has its own holiday?) But you know which unsung hero also deserves a lot of love? Your liver.
Odds are, you don’t think much about this hard-working organ. So today, I’d like to explain why it’s so amazing… and then I want to warn you about a new, dangerous, and preventable liver problem that’s becoming epidemic.
Your Liver’s Jobs: “Detoxing” and so much more…
Every organ in your body works hard—but it’s fair to say that of all of them, your liver works the hardest.
For instance, do you know which organ does the heavy lifting when it comes to sweeping toxins out of your body? Your liver. Since you’re exposed to hundreds of toxins each day in your food and water, that’s a huge task.
But that’s not all your liver does. In addition, it converts nutrients in your diet into forms your body can use, stores nutrients until you need them, and ships your cells the nutrients they need.
In effect, your liver processes everything you eat or drink, either prepping it for your body to use or getting rid of it. That’s a big job description, so you can see why this humble organ deserves a whole lot of respect.
What happens when your liver gets sick?
Because your liver juggles so many tasks, you need to keep it in great shape if you want to be in great shape. If you don’t give it some love, and it starts to get sick, very bad things can happen.
A sudden insult (for instance, a big dose of acetaminophen) can cause acute liver damage so severe that a transplant becomes necessary. Ongoing insults, on the other hand—for instance, constant, low-level exposure to toxins—can lead to chronic liver disease that develops over time. This can make you sick all over, causing symptoms ranging from weakness, fatigue, headaches, and “brain fog” to jaundice, rashes, and fluid buildup in your belly and legs.
Two of the most common problems that can affect the liver are:
- Hepatitis. This disease involves inflammation of the liver cells. Acute hepatitis can either heal on its own, lead to chronic hepatitis, or cause acute liver failure. Chronic hepatitis can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. While genes, autoimmunity, and infections are common factors in hepatitis, alcohol abuse and toxic overloads can also cause it.
- Cirrhosis. This occurs when chronic inflammation damages liver cells, which become replaced by scar tissue. Many factors, including alcohol abuse, can contribute to cirrhosis.
Surprise: The Biggest Liver Killer isn’t Alcohol or Drugs
We all know that alcohol is a major cause of liver disease, and you may already know about the dangers of acetaminophen as well. So if you hear that someone has an acute or chronic liver problem, you may think “OD’d on Tylenol” (acute) or “drank too much vodka” (chronic).
But now, there’s another culprit to add to your list. Today, the most common cause of liver dysfunction in the Western world is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)—and it’s a huge and growing epidemic.
NAFLD currently affects an estimated 64 million people in the United States, and people battling Type 2 diabetes or obesity are at especially high risk. NAFLD can progress to a serious condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which occurs when fat and scar tissue accumulate in the liver. According to an article in Scientific American, “By 2020, NASH is projected to overtake hepatitis C as the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.”
And that’s just the start of the bad news. NAFLD can also lead to inflammation, increased belly fat, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, unhealthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and an increased risk for heart attacks.
What causes NAFLD? A typical American lifestyle—and in particular, one loaded with sugar and other junk foods.
Simply put, NAFLD is a lifestyle disease brought on by a sugary, highly-processed diet, a lack of exercise, and other poor health choices. While drug companies are always looking for remedies, the best way to prevent or reverse NAFLD—and to protect yourself from other types of liver damage—is by changing your diet and lifestyle.
Twelve ways to heal your liver
Luckily, there are powerful strategies for keeping your liver going strong or healing it if it’s hurting. When you put these strategies in place, you’ll discover that you look better, feel better, and lose weight more easily.
Here are my 12 favorite ways to love your liver:
Cut out the sugar. One of the biggest culprits in NAFLD is fructose. As my colleague Dr. Mark Harman explains, “Fructose, the most detrimental sugar that heads directly to your liver, actually ramps up lipogenesis. That explains why sugar, especially fructose, becomes the chief cause of liver disease and the leading cause of liver transplants.”
While fructose is the major villain in NAFLD, eating too much of any type of sugar will whack your liver. So reduce the amount of sugar in your diet—or better yet, cut it out entirely except for small doses of healthy fruits and very occasional servings of natural sweeteners like honey and molasses.
Eat liver-healing foods. Here are some of the best ones to add to your diet:
- Eggs are high in choline. Choline is lipotropic, meaning that it helps to carry fat away from your liver so your body can break it down and metabolize it.
- Bone broth is rich in the amino acid glycine, which plays a key role in your liver detoxification pathway.
- Dandelion greens contain the chemical component taraxacin, which stimulates digestive organs and helps your liver and gallbladder release bile.
- Artichokes are loaded with the liver-nourishing compound silymarin.
- The glucosinolates in cruciferous veggies and horseradish increase your liver’s ability to detoxify carcinogens.
- Sulfur-rich foods are liver detox superstars. They include cruciferous vegetables, pasture-raised eggs, raw nuts, chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and scallions.
- Ginger and garlic are fantastic for your liver. I’m also a fan of turmeric, which contains curcuminoids that can protect your liver cells from cirrhosis.
Manage your toxic load. The more toxins you eliminate from your life, the healthier your liver will be. So “go green” when you choose your makeup, soaps, shampoos, cleaning supplies, and other household products.
Choose color. When you pick fruits and veggies, select a rainbow of them. The more colors, the better! That’s because you’ll get a wider range of liver-protecting nutrients that will work synergistically.
Buy organic whenever possible. This is a very effective way to reduce your body burden of toxins. If buying completely organic isn’t affordable for you, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists to find the least- and most-contaminated fruits and veggies.
Eat clean meats. Conventionally raised beef, chicken, and even fish come from animals pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and other potential toxins that—you guessed it—have to make their way through your already-overworked liver. When possible, opt for pastured meat and poultry and wild-caught fish. If that’s out of reach on your budget, cut the fat off meat and take the skin off poultry (since that’s where many of the pollutants wind up).
Drink plenty of filtered water. Water helps cleanse and detoxify your liver. Filter your water to remove chlorine and other contaminants that can make your liver work harder.
Get great sleep. Sleep helps your liver rest and repair itself. If you have sleep apnea, get it treated, because untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk for fatty liver disease.
Ditch the acetaminophen. I know how tempting it is to reach for a Tylenol when you’re hurting. But whenever possible, lay off the acetaminophen and instead reach for natural anti-inflammatory, calming nutrients including curcumin, ginger, magnesium, and essential oils. Above all, DO NOT combine acetaminophen with alcohol. It’s one of the worst things you can do to your liver, and it can put you on the transplant list.
Watch your alcohol. An occasional drink can actually be good for you (I’ll talk about this in an upcoming post), but heavy alcohol use delivers a serious whammy to your liver.
Exercise. One recent study of patients diagnosed with fatty liver disease found that resistance training significantly decreased their liver fat. Animal research indicates that aerobic exercise can help protect your liver, too.
Try liver-protecting nutrients. My favorites include:
- Lipoic acid. This rock star works as an antioxidant in its own right and helps regenerate other antioxidants.
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). This helps your liver build optimal amounts of the antioxidant glutathione. Hospitals give NAC for acute acetaminophen poisoning.
- Silymarin (milk thistle). This powerful anti-inflammatory, liver-protecting herb helps your liver cells regenerate.
The more of these strategies you implement, the happier and healthier your liver will be. So show your liver some love, and make every day a holiday for this hard-working organ!
Keep thinking Big and living BOLD!