Your liver is the undefeated detoxifier. Along with your kidneys, it's the organ that detoxes you, and there's only so much you can do to help detox it. That being said, while a liver flush is not as simple a concept as, say, clearing out your rain gutters with a high-powered spray of water, there are things you can do to support your liver's natural detoxification processes, so it can flush itself and your entire body of any toxins swirling around in your bloodstream. This article details what substances can harm your liver and which liver aids have scientific reasoning behind them.
Liver Flush: Fad vs. Fact
Your liver is your largest internal organ. As big as an average football, the liver resides on the upper right side of your abdomen, above your stomach but beneath the divide separating your lungs from your guts: the diaphragm.
Many homemade liver cleanse concoctions involve fruit juice (organic apple juice, lemon juice, grapefruit juice), along with epsom salt and extra virgin olive oil. Some go so far as to suggest a coffee enema, but which one if any of these ingredients actually benefits your liver, and how? Let's first dispel some misconceptions, and then read on for a list of foods and beverages that are proven to benefit your liver.
Is There Anything Useful in Liver Supplements?
Your liver is unique among your organs because it has the ability to heal and regenerate itself that other vital organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys simply do not have. While you need to consume certain substances such as antioxidant vitamins to support even your most basic functions, most of those nutrients can be found naturally in whole foods.
Many supplements on the market are sold without clinical testing or FDA approval, but there are certain ingredients that have been proven scientifically to help the liver do its job.
- Essential amino acids: Hypertriglyceridemia is a condition characterized by high blood levels of triglycerides, which are associated with atherosclerosis and a greater risk of heart disease and fatty liver disease. Research shows that a normal weight-maintaining diet supplemented with essential amino acids can lower triglyceride levels in the blood and liver, as well as total cholesterol and VLDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Find the best amino acid supplements for the liver here.
- Milk thistle: The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers of milk thistle are known to have a positive effect on your liver's health.
- Turmeric: Another anti-inflammatory agent, turmeric can help not only reduce the risk of developing liver disease, but can also improve your entire body's well-being by reducing pro-inflammatory molecules.
Can a Liver Flush Help with Weight Loss?
There really is no quick shortcut to losing weight. There are only two ways to shed body fat: one is burning more calories than you consume and the other is consuming fewer calories than you burn.
Because there are so many questionable claims surrounding liver cleanses on the market, studies have actually looked into and found that certain supposed liver-cleansing diets actually succeed in lowering your metabolic rate, therefore impeding weight loss rather than aiding it.
Instead of trying to find a shortcut to weight loss via your liver, focus on more tried-and-true methods of healthy weight loss (which in turn benefit your liver by cutting down on fatty deposits that may lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease). You can do this by:
- Reducing caloric intake. It's recommended that women eat 1,600-2,400 calories per day, and men 2,000-3,000. Staying closer to the lower end of the appropriate range is ideal for both your waistline and your liver's health.
- Burning calories through exercise. To burn off the body fat you already have, especially dangerous abdominal fat that could be negatively impacting your vital organs, take up regular exercise. Even evening walks or gentle at-home morning yoga can help get harmful fat deposits off your body and away from your liver.
- Upgrading your diet. The better foods you choose, the more you can eat. If you want to lose weight without feeling like you're starving yourself, eat superior foods from each food group: whole vegetables and fruits, unrefined whole grains, lean proteins like fish, chicken, and eggs, and healthy fats like those in nuts and olive oil.
Will a Liver Detox Diet Help Prevent Liver Disease?
Liver disease can arise from many different conditions, the most well-known being hepatitis (from infection by the hepatitis A, B, or C virus), alcohol abuse (leading to inflammation of the liver, scarring, and ultimately cirrhosis), and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can come about through poor exercise and diet. The best way to prevent liver disease depends on the cause of it, and includes:
- Safe sex and hygiene practices: Hepatitis can be contracted through unprotected sex, needle-sharing, or from mother to child during birth.
- Alcohol moderation: The best way to prevent alcoholic fatty liver disease and other adverse health conditions (like kidney damage) is to drink alcohol in moderation or not at all.
- Proper diet and exercise: To prevent the buildup of fat in your liver (not to mention your arteries), eating well and exercising regularly are key.
While the liver can recover and repair itself, once there is scarring of the liver tissue, that scarring cannot be reversed. Severe scarring of the liver is known as cirrhosis, and can ultimately lead to liver failure and death.
Avoiding fatty foods by choosing a liver detox diet can only prevent some of the risk factors for liver disease, not all, so be careful with your liver—unlike your kidneys, it's the only one you've got.
If you have a family history of liver disease, consult a health care professional for medical advice on how to maintain optimal liver function.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Liver
There are foods and substances that can help cleanse or flush your system and aid liver health, but before we get to dietary solutions, here are other things you can do to maintain a healthy liver.
1. Vaccinate Against Hepatitis
Some forms of hepatitis are incurable, and preventing infection is the best way to make sure your liver does not have to suffer damage from the disease. Hepatitis viruses are not just sexually transmitted; they can be caught during travel to countries with unsanitary conditions, by healthcare workers who work in close proximity with infected patients, or from tattoo parlors with unsafe needle practices. The proper hepatitis vaccinations may save you from infection no matter how you're exposed to these viruses.
2. Take Medications Cautiously and as Directed
No matter whether it's a prescription or nonprescription drug, your liver must process the medication you take. If it's possible to use natural remedies instead of pharmaceutical drugs, you may want to try those first.
If you need certain medications, take them as directed by your doctor (don't stop a course of antibiotics for example when you start feeling better, as this can lead to drug-resistant viruses), and do not mix any medications with alcohol, including and especially over-the-counter medicine like Tylenol (acetaminophen), which should never be taken within 24 hours of imbibing alcohol, and vice versa.
3. Limit or Avoid Alcohol Intake
Liver damage from alcohol use is one of the most preventable conditions around. Alcohol is a poison, a toxin that your liver has to clean up. In fact, your liver has the lion's share of the responsibility, as 90% of the alcohol you ingest is metabolized by your liver. The recommended limit is no more than 1 drink per day for women, and 2 drinks per day for men.
It's not just liver disease you need to be concerned about with alcohol. When the liver metabolizes alcohol it converts it into acetaldehyde, which is a cancer-causing agent. While a glass of red wine with dinner is connected to heart health, excessive drinking and hard liquor consumption can cause inflammation, fatty buildup, and permanent scarring, which compromises your liver's ability to detox your body, and no liver flush or cleanse can reverse that kind of damage.
4. Protect Yourself from Needles (and with Condoms)
If you need to use needles regularly for insulin injections or other medications, if you're a healthcare worker who frequently handles needles, or if you are in the market for a tattoo, be proactive in making sure your needles are properly sterilized and never shared. Should you get stuck with a previously used needle, seek immediate medical attention, and do not take street drugs at all, especially if they involve injection.
Many viruses can be transmitted not just by blood, but via other bodily fluids as well. When engaging in intercourse, practice safe sex precautions like condom usage, dental dams, regular STD testing, and preventative medications like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).
5. Handle Chemicals with Caution
Household chemicals, paint, insecticides, fungicides, etc. are all toxins you can inhale or ingest, and it is up to your liver to process and eliminate those toxins. Protect yourself by wearing gloves, a mask, and protective skin coverings (like long-sleeved shirts and pants) to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals you're exposed to in any given situation.
6. Reduce Unhealthy Food Consumption
Salt, sugar, and processed foods can all be detrimental to your liver's health. For example, consuming excessive salt can lead to fluid retention, water weight gain, and extra stress on both your kidneys and your liver. If you don't consume enough water along with the salt, your body may produce an antidiuretic hormone (vasopressin) that prevents urination, and you'll retain the water instead of using it to flush toxins from your system. In this situation, more water intake, decreased salt intake, or increased potassium could help, as potassium helps balance out the effects of sodium.
When it comes to sugar and processed foods, it's a metabolic nightmare. Added sugars like refined sugar and corn syrup are permeating processed foods, from cookies and candies, to salad dressings, pasta sauces, and even granola bars. High sugar consumption not only can lead to the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but can also contribute to other chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Maintaining a healthy weight via diet and exercise can help prevent gallstone formation, which arises when you have too much cholesterol in your bile. Your gallbladder is attached to your liver courtesy of the common bile duct, and acts as a storage site for the necessary bile your liver produces. Bile that is thick with cholesterol can form stones that block your gallbladder or your liver (making them liver stones), and interrupt or damage the liver's normal functioning.
Replacing junk foods with healthier alternatives, as well as eating more whole foods instead of processed ones, invariably leads to better health for you and your vital organs.
Healthy Foods for Liver Cleansing
So here we are: one of the best ways to help remove toxins from your bloodstream and your liver is to avoid consuming them in the first place. However, that begs the question, "What foods are good for a liver flush?" Here's a list of foods and beverages that are particularly suited to promoting your liver's health and helping it eliminate toxins.
Good news: coffee is an excellent drink for liver health. It can protect against the development of liver disease, even for those who already have compromised liver function. For instance, multiple studies have shown that regularly consuming coffee lowers your risk for cirrhosis, even for those who already have chronic liver disease. Researchers urge those with liver disease to drink coffee, as many as 3 cups per day, because it may even lower the risk of death.
These amazing benefits are attributed in the above-linked studies to coffee's ability to block collagen and fat buildup, two huge contributors to liver disease, and to aid in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant that helps guard against the oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Coffee comes with many health benefits, including improved liver function.
Darker grapes (purple and red) are famously well-known for containing resveratrol, the compound that makes red wine a heart-healthy beverage. Grapes and grape juices have been shown to benefit the liver in various animal studies, preventing damage from toxins and lowering unhealthy inflammation.
One human study conducted in 2010 found that supplementing with grape seed extract for 3 months improved the liver function of participants with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, leading to the supposition that consuming concentrated, unsweetened grape fruit juice could help those with even severe liver conditions feel better.
Another fruit that can provide natural hepatoprotective (liver-protective) antioxidants is grapefruit, thanks to its concentrations of naringenin and naringin. These antioxidants have been shown to help guard against liver damage and help reduce dangerous inflammation. They can also discourage the development of hepatic fibrosis, a condition wherein connective tissue excessively builds up in the liver and causes chronic inflammation.
Naringenin specifically has been shown to increase fat-burning enzymes and prevent metabolic dysregulation, while naringin is known to improve alcohol metabolism and mitigate alcohol's adverse side effects. So if you find grapefruit juice in a liver flush recipe, it has scientifically backed reasoning to be included, not to mention it's a great source of vitamin C, another antioxidant that's known to help prevent cold and flu infection.
Full of the antioxidant vitamin E and high in healthy fats, nuts are great benefactors for heart health and possibly the liver as well. This observational study conducted in 2015 found that consuming walnuts helped improve liver enzyme levels of 106 participants with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. And an observational study from 2014 demonstrated that men who consumed nuts and seeds in large amounts had a lower risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in the first place.
Tea (especially green, black, and oolong tea) has been shown to consistently improve the health and longevity of those who consume it regularly. Tea consumption has also been found to benefit the liver in particular, as can be seen in this study of Japanese men who drank 5-10 cups of green tea each day and had improved blood markers of both cardiovascular and hepatic health. In another study of 17 participants with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, drinking green tea for a 12-week period decreased fat deposits in their livers, reduced their oxidative stress levels, and improved their liver enzyme levels.
Green tea has also been found to help prevent the development of liver cancer, and black tea too has been observed reducing the negative liver effects of a high-fat diet while also improving liver health blood markers. If you have an active liver condition, consult your doctor before supplementing with green tea extract, but if you're just looking to flush your liver of toxins, drinking green tea is a strong place to start.
6. Dark Berries
Deep-colored berries like blueberries and cranberries contain antioxidants known as anthocyanins. This compound gives berries their rich colors and is connected to improved liver health. For example, cranberries can help prevent toxic liver injury, and blueberries can help positively modulate T-cell activity in the immune response to your liver.
Blueberry extract has even managed to inhibit human liver cancer cell growth in laboratory studies, and may someday have practical anti-cancer application in humans.
7. Beetroot Juice
Beetroot juice contains betalains, nitrates that function as antioxidants for heart health. When it comes to the liver, beetroot juice also serves to increase your production of natural detoxification enzymes, improving your liver's detox capacity. It also lowers inflammation levels in the liver and blocks oxidative stress damage.
8. Prickly Pear
The prickly pear, aka Opuntia ficus-indica, is an edible cactus that you may remember from the song "The Bare Necessities" in Disney's The Jungle Book. A long-standing staple of traditional medicine, the prickly pear is used in modern medicine to treat wounds, ulcers, liver disease, and even hangovers.
That's right: those who overindulge in alcohol and wake up the next morning with symptoms like dry mouth, nausea, and lack of appetite may lessen the severity of those ill effects according to this study from 2004. This is thanks to the detoxification-enhancing abilities and anti-inflammatory properties of the prickly pear. A more recent study from 2012 on rat models found that prickly pear helped protect the liver from the after-effects of alcohol consumption as well.
9. Fatty Fish
You might not think nonalcoholic fatty liver disease could be helped by eating more fat, but it's the quality of fat that counts, as well as the omega-3 fatty acid content. Eating oily, fatty fish like salmon or halibut is well-known to be good for heart and cholesterol health, and consuming fish oil may help alleviate arthritis inflammation.
Fatty fish are good for your liver health as well, because they can help balance your ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (most people in the modern world get far too much omega-6 and nowhere near enough omega-3 fatty acids), which is important because an imbalance between the two may help promote liver disease development.
10. Olive Oil
Olive oil can not only replace unhealthy refined vegetable oils in your diet, but it can also improve your liver enzyme levels, as was seen in this 2010 study of 11 nonalcoholic fatty liver disease patients. As with fatty fish, olive oil is a healthy fat that can improve your metabolic rate, optimize insulin sensitivity, and even increase blood flow to your liver.
Liver, Laugh, Love
When it comes to optimal liver function, it's half about what you add to your body, and half about what you abstain from adding. Avoid overtaxing your liver with poison like alcohol and drugs, but do be sure to make a habit of consuming detoxification aids like green tea, grapefruit juice, healthy whole foods, and the occasional nutrient supplement designed to provide the liver-protective nutrients you don't naturally gain from food.