Chances are, you never give a second thought to the health of your liver unless you got a little too festive and overdid it on the alcohol the night before. A hangover is a painful reminder of all the wonderful things your liver does to take care of you and keep you feeling good.
Consider the complex job the liver has in helping your body eliminate toxins such as alcohol:
There are three phases that foreign compounds pass through on their way out of the body. The first two happen in the liver and the third happens in the kidney.
In phase 1 detoxification, the liver filters toxins by removing them from the blood. Toxins are fat-soluble, which means that if you have an overload of toxins, they will be stored in fat tissue. In this first phase, the toxin gets attached to a vitamin (usually an antioxidant). This new compound is still very toxic and can cause a lot of oxidative damage to tissues if not shuttled into phase 2 detoxification right away. To prevent this free radical damage, you need to provide the body with an abundance of antioxidants.
In phase 2 detoxification, the new molecule produced in phase 1 binds with an amino acid or sulfurous compound and gets converted to another molecule, which is water soluble and easier to eliminate. Now the liver passes it’s job off to the kidney to perform phase 3 detoxification.
In phase 3, the water-soluble compound is sent to the kidney for elimination. It is excreted through the urine or feces. In order for this elimination process to occur, you need to ensure you are drinking enough water and consuming adequate fiber.
Now, consider that detoxification is just one of the many jobs your liver takes on:
It regulates blood sugar levels, releasing glycogen (sugar) stores to give you energy.
It produces enzymes and proteins involved in metabolism and fat burning It regulates immune function and fights infections.
It plays a role in balancing hormones and stores vitamins and minerals.
With all the wonderful things the liver does, you’d think more people would want to ensure tip-top liver function! Unfortunately, due to the increase in poor dietary choices and obesity, liver problems are skyrocketing in the western population: As much as 30 percent of the population has fatty liver disease, which is a precursor to cirrhosis (a fatal liver disease), and a condition that used to only occur in alcoholics. Known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), it has a bunch of gnarly effects on health:
1. It increases fat storage, especially around the abdominal organs, leading to belly fat.
2. It causes mitochondrial dysfunction so your body isn’t able to produce energy efficiently.
3. It makes your cells resistant to insulin so that you can’t burn sugar effectively and you drastically increase your diabetes risk.
4. Inflammation builds up, exacerbating fat gain and insulin and mitochondrial dysfunction.
The good news is that because the liver plays a vital role in the metabolism of carbs, fat, and protein, a healthy diet can protect your liver. The following are 10 foods to plan your diet around for a healthier liver:
#1: Broccoli & Other Cruciferous Vegetables
Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage contain sulfurous compounds that attach to toxins and set them on the road to elimination from the body. They also contain nutrients that activate enzymes so that the liver is better able to get rid of stuff you don’t want circulating around and causing damage to cells.
How To Get Them: Eating cruciferous vegetables at every meal will provide fiber along with other liver-protecting nutrients for better detoxification. Additional cruciferous veggies are bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens like kale and collards.
#2: Garlic & Onion
You might not know that garlic and onion are actually “super foods’” because they provide powerful antioxidants that can help neutralize toxins, protecting the liver from a build up of inflammation. They also activate liver enzymes that promote cleansing of the body.
How To Get Them: Cooking with garlic and onions will provide a healthy dose of liver-loving compounds.
#3: Green Tea
One of the most harmful things about the Standard American Diet is the large amount of fructose most people eat in soda and processed foods. Fructose is especially bad news for the liver because unlike other sugars like glucose, fructose is entirely processed in the liver. Too much fructose impairs liver function and leads to fat accumulation in the liver, which decreases insulin sensitivity and causes inflammation.
Green tea can counter all of these effects, aiding the liver both in its job eliminating toxins and performing metabolic activities. For example, drinking green tea after consuming a large amount of fructose has been shown to reduce fat deposition in and prevent injury to the liver caused by the excessive fructose load.
How To Get It: Drinking unsweetened green tea is a great way to get a healthy dose of antioxidants.
Turmeric may be the most popular spice right now due to a little compound it contains called curcumin that has incredible anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is especially beneficial for liver function, having an ability to improve activity of detoxification enzymes while also suppressing the activity of enzymes involved in fat gain. For example, curcumin supplementation can prevent the abdominal fat gain that typically coincides with a high-fat, high-fructose diet.
How To Get It: When cooking with turmeric, always pair it with black pepper because this improves absorption of the liver-promoting compounds in the gut. For greater liver protection, try a curcumin supplement that contains piperine—the black pepper compound that aids efficacy.
When most people think “cleanse” they picture green smoothies with no animal protein in sight. Actually, a high-quality protein is an absolute must for any cleanse because the body requires the amino acids in protein in order to complete the second phase of detoxification. Without adequate protein, you’re stuck with a bunch of toxic compounds traveling around in your blood causing damage to cells.
Eggs are a perfect protein source that provide choline, which is a nutrient that helps liver to detoxify and avoid accumulating fat. Eggs also contain loads of antioxidants and B vitamins, which attach to toxins before they get sent on their way out of the body.
How To Eat Them: Whether hard-boiled, over easy, or steamed with greens, eating three eggs a day has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and improve insulin health in multiple studies.
#6: Olives & Olive Oil
You probably know that olive oil is one of the healthiest fats on the planet due to its high concentration of antioxidants that are protective for the liver, but it also contains oleic acid, which can prevent fat accumulation and the related fatty liver disease. Olive oil also has compounds that improve liver enzymes for faster removal of toxins.
How To Eat Them: Olives are a great addition to salads and can be tossed on a stir-fry after you’re done cooking for a fresh, cool flavor and texture. Olive oil can be used raw in salad dressing or for light to moderate cooking temperatures.
Probiotics are live active cultures present in fermented foods such as yogurt, pickled ginger, kefir, and Korean kim chi. Best known for their ability to improve gastrointestinal health, probiotics also have an antioxidant effect on the liver, improve insulin sensitivity, and can prevent fatty liver.
How To Get Them: Including probiotic foods in your diet is a good start, but if you’re seriously concerned about GI function or liver health, it’s worth it to invest in a high-quality probiotic because there’s no guarantee the live cultures in food will survive the production process in sufficient numbers. You need a LOT of these little guys to make a difference, which is why a high-potency probiotic supplement that contains a minimum of 1 billion active live cultures is recommended.
#8: Resistant Starch
Resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that bypasses digestion and makes its way into the intestinal tract where healthy bacteria use it as food. A diet high in resistant starch has many benefits including having a therapeutic effect on liver function and health. Not only can resistant starch prevent fat accumulation in the liver, it is also a treatment to excess belly fat and can counter liver-related inflammation.
How To Get It: Found in starchy foods like green bananas and potatoes, resistant starch is created any time you cook carbs and then cool them. For example, cooked and cooled rice or spaghetti are both high in resistant starch, but probably the easiest way to get it if you avoid these foods is to supplement with unmodified potato starch, which can be purchased in most grocery stores or online.
Sometimes it’s the little things we forget. Plenty of water is a must for phase 3 of detoxification. It’s very important that the whole detoxification system work to completion and not break down near the end because this will result in harmful compounds entering back into circulation via the blood stream, which can cause havoc on cells and DNA. Therefore, make sure you are getting 2 to 4 liters of water a day—sedentary people can be on the lower end of that range and active people who sweat a lot on the higher end.
How To Get It: Unfortunately, contaminated water is not just a third world problem: Pesticides, animal treated hormones, PCBs, dioxins, benzene, and lead are just the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, it’s worth getting a water filter. Even a Britta pitcher can make the difference in keeping dangerous toxins out of your body so your liver never has to deal with them.
Vinegar has a number of therapeutic benefits for the liver because it automatically increases your cell’s sensitivity to insulin and counters oxidative stress. For example, a series of studies have found that when rodents are given a high-carb, high-fat diet designed to cause abdominal fat gain, including vinegar in the diet protects the liver from damage and fat accumulation. No studies are available yet in humans but it’s safe to say that adding vinegar to vegetable-based meals is an easy way to give your liver some love.
How To Get It: Make a salad dressing out of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and herbs, or add apple cider vinegar directly to mixed greens if you like the sour, tangy flavor.
What To Avoid: Before we say goodbye and set you on your way to optimal liver function, be aware that there are a few key things besides alcohol that you want to avoid:
Excess sugar, especially fructose. Stay away from all sugar-sweetened beverages, any refined foods with high-fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice.
Pollution, pesticides, and chemicals found in skin care and cleaning products. Watch out for the word “paraben” on ingredient labels of shampoo and other personal care products.
Medicines and prescription drugs. Over the counter drugs like Tylenol give the liver a beating and something like a prescription painkiller can cause lasting damage to the liver. NEVER pair these with alcohol or combine different drugs that you haven’t talked to your doctor about.
Unhealthy trans fat. Although healthy fats have a protective effect on the liver, trans fat (commonly identified as hydrogenated oil on an ingredient label) contributes to inflammation in the liver and is associated with fat gain in the liver and belly. Avoid it!