11 Foods to Rejuvenate Your Liver
Updated: Jul 12, 2018
Weighing approximately 1.5 kilograms and residing in the upper right abdominal cavity, the liver is the human body's prime detoxification agent, and is responsible for the metabolism of various toxins, hormones and chemicals. As the largest of the human body's digestive organs, the liver metabolises carbohydrate, protein and fat while synthesising cholesterol into bile to support fat digestion (Salmond, 2012). This hardworking organ’s job description doesn’t stop there: the liver also stores glucose as glycogen, manufactures albumin and other clotting proteins, filters blood at a rate of approximately 1.4 litres per minute, and is a storehouse for fat-soluble vitamins and minerals such as iron and zinc (Salmond, 2012).
On the detoxification front, the liver’s tasks include metabolising drugs, hormones, heavy metals and other harmful compounds into water-soluble metabolites so they can be eliminated from the body in faeces and urine. Liver detoxification is a two-phase process in which cytochrome P450 enzymes oxidise drugs, alcohol, hormones and other poisonous matter into less harmful metabolites (phase 1) before conjugating these toxic by-products into a water-soluble form (phase 2). B vitamins and nutrients such as glutathione, choline and sulphur are essential for detoxification, with deficiencies being associated with increased risk of hormonal disorders such as premenstrual syndrome and oestrogen dominance in addition to reduced immune function (Hodges & Minich, 2015).
Other factors that impair liver function include alcohol, stress, and excess consumption of rich, spicy food, which can leave you bloated, irritable, overweight and feeling less than fabulous. Cholesterol is both produced and excreted by the liver, and any disturbance in liver function can skew the ratio of HDL (good cholesterol) in favour of LDL (bad cholesterol), thereby increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease (Salmond, 2012). Moreover, high cholesterol is an associated risk factor for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes due to impaired intrahepatic glucose metabolism (Hoenig & Sellke, 2010).
A predominantly plant-based diet is key in rejuvenating an overwhelmed liver and supporting cholesterol management alongside better hormonal health, so take a gander at these 11 detox-worthy foods and get ready to show your liver some love!
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but are you aware of the science behind the saying? Apples are abundant in phytochemicals such as quercetin, phloridzin and chlorogenic acid, all of which exert strong antioxidant potential and whose benefits have been documented in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease and lung disorders (Boyer & Liu, 2004). Apples are also rich in a soluble fibre called pectin which is associated with improved fat metabolism and lower levels of hepatic lipotoxicity (Jiang, 2016). Regular apple consumption has been reported to lower plasma and liver cholesterol while simultaneously boosting HDL courtesy of apples' pectin and phytochemical content respectively (Boyer & Liu, 2004). Now then...dow do you like them apples?
One of the key signs of a dysfunctional liver is impaired fat metabolism, which results in a higher LDL-to-HDL cholesterol ratio, weight gain and obesity. Fat accruing from a congested liver tends to be concentrated around the abdomen, and is a predictor of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other types of metabolic dysfunction. Oats are a key nutritional intervention in cholesterol management due to their content of beta-glucan, a type of a soluble fibre that forms a viscous gel within the gut and binds cholesterol to support its elimination as faeces (Salmond, 2012). As an added benefit, oats also contain ergothioneine, an antioxidant compound similar to glutathione which protects liver cells against oxidative trauma (Ey, Schömig & Taubert, 2007).
Though the orange variant is most widely cultivated worldwide, carrots also come in yellow, white, purple and red varieties. Rich in health-protective compounds such as beta-carotene, kaempferol, luteolin and quercetin, carrots owe their liver-protective properties to falcarinol, a bioactive phytochemical with anti-tumour and immune-enhancing benefits (Dias, 2014).
Animal research examining falcarinol’s hepatoprotective effects on mice with elevated liver enzymes due to carbon tetrachloride poisoning revealed that these liver enzymes decreased markedly alongside serum bilirubin and urea levels following carrot extract consumption (Bishayee, Sarkar & Chatterjee, 1995). Carrots are also packed full of provitamin A for beautiful skin, which tends to lose its luster when a congested liver purges its toxins through skin pores in the form of pimples, blackheads and blemishes.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the liver regulates emotional flow, with stress and ‘hot’ emotions such as anger aggravating liver qi and disrupting the liver's physiological function. Visual disturbances are also common in liver congestion, as TCM believes the liver “opens into the eyes”. In women with aggravated liver qi, hormonal imbalances manifesting as premenstrual syndrome, oestrogen dominance and uterine fibroids are common due to the liver’s governance over menstruation and reproductive function (Qiao et al., 2008).
When the natural flow of liver energy is obstructed and allowed to accumulate, it develops into further imbalance known as Liver Fire Rising, which then spreads to cause disharmony in the stomach and spleen. In addition to bitter foods which cool an overheated liver, sour foods such as lemon and lime nourish the liver and disperse blocked qi, restoring balance to hormones, digestive function and mental well-being (Wu & Liang, 2018).
Drinking lemon juice in warm water is a common practice in Mediterranean cultures, and is believed to stimulate bile release from the gallbladder after a night of fasting. If you find it hard to get in the mood for breakfast, this simple remedy performed first thing upon waking decongests your liver of stagnant bile, initiates peristalsis for a healthy bowel movement, and primes gastric juices to boost appetite and digestion.
You can’t beat beets when it comes to liver health! Beets are rich in betaine, a compound which has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol in patients suffering fatty liver disease. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are associated with marked increases in blood glucose levels due to poor carbohydrate metabolism by the liver, as well as an increase in VLDL cholesterol which causes hypertriglyceridemia and a corresponding drop in protective HDL levels (Tiihonen, Saarinen, Alhoniem, Mitsuya & Yamaki, 2016).
Betaine’s liver-supportive properties lie in its ability to inhibit triglyceride accumulation within liver cells by increasing the activity of liver-protective enzymes such as glutathione and S-adenosyl methionine (Tiihonen et. al, 2016). Furthermore, beets' content of betalaine, polyphenols and nitrate has a supportive effect on blood glucose levels by stimulating insulin release from the pancreas and modulating glucose output within the liver (Wooton-Beard, Brandt, Fell, Warner & Ryan, 2014). Together, these influences safeguard against insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes by ensuring more stable blood sugar levels.
Cabbage (and all vegetables belonging to the Brassica family) are abundant in indole-3-carbinol, a biologically active compound that inhibits liver tumour formation while supporting phase 1 cytochrome enzyme activity and phase 2 conjugation mechanisms (Hodges & Minich, 2015). In phase 1, indole-3-carbinol enhances CYP1A enzyme activity, thereby enabling oxidisation of heavy metal residues, hormones and xenobiotics in preparation for phase 2, where nutrients such as glutamine, glycine and choline are added to these toxic by-products to make them water-soluble (Maruthanila, Poornima & Mirunalini, 2014).
Disruption to either of these detoxification phases results in accumulation of toxins within hepatic tissues, and hormonal overload leading to conditions such as oestrogen dominance, premenstrual syndrome and endometriosis. To keep your liver’s detoxification capacity in top form, aim for four servings of sulphur-rich Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, collard greens and brussels sprouts each week.
Though it may make your pee smell weird, research recommends regular consumption of glutathione-rich foods such as asparagus for maintaining liver health. Glutathione is a superstar antioxidant made and regenerated in the liver, and helps modulate immune responses to infection and inflammation while protecting liver cells from oxidative damage from alcohol, heavy metals, hydroxyl radicals and superoxide anions (Pizzorno, 2014). Given the close association between poor liver health and alcohol consumption, consuming asparagus before and after a night spent chugging back a few may prove beneficial due to the biochemical compounds in asparagus which enhance alcohol metabolism and staves off the risk of alcohol intoxication (Kim et. al, 2009).
Curry lovers, rejoice! Known for its sunny orange-yellow hue and widely-touted health benefits, turmeric is an antioxidant superstar whose prowess is well-established in liver cancer prevention as well as the treatment of diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research reports that turmeric’s chief compound curcumin inhibits pro-inflammatory cytokine activity within liver cells, and acts within the mitochondria of cells to neutralise free radical activity to protect hepatocyte integrity (Nabavi, Daglia, Moghaddam, Habtemariam & Nabavi, 2014). Additionally, its use in cancer prevention lies in curcumin’s ability to regulate tumour suppression genes to safeguard against liver cancer as well as other types of carcinoma (Nabavi et al., 2014).
As highly revered as ginger for its medicinal uses in Eastern and Western medicine, garlic contains health-promoting phytochemicals such as allicin and saponin for antimicrobial and cholesterol management benefits respectively. In terms of detoxification, garlic contains various organosulphur compounds which support glutathione synthesis for enhanced phase 2 liver mechanisms. Other benefits include garlic's ability to counteract toxicity caused by prolonged ingestion of aminocetaphen (paracetamol), a popular pain-relief medication that causes liver damage following excessively high or long-term use (Ezeala, Nweke, Unekwe, El-Safty & Nwaegerue, 2008).
Animal research reports that prolonged aminocetaphen ingestion in mice is associated with significant increases in liver enzyme activity alongside a corresponding decrease in serum albumin (Ezeala et al., 2008). In support of garlic's liver-healing powers, the same research revealed that both types of abnormal liver markers in affected mice gradually returned to normal following therapeutic administration of garlic extract (Ezeala et al., 2008).
There’s nothing quite as comforting as a calming cuppa, so if you’re a tea aficionado, here’s your chance to experience the wonderful healing benefits of rooibos. Produced from a South African plant, rooibos is high in antioxidant flavonoids that help counteract the effects of oxidative stress. Liver cells are under constant biological duress due to their multiple roles in physiological homeostasis which include fat and carbohydrate metabolism, synthesising bile from cholesterol, and detoxifying hormones, xenobiotics and toxic compounds via phase 1 and phase 2 mechanisms (Canda, Oguntibeju & Marnewick, 2014). The same liver-supportive flavonoids in rooibos have also been shown to support blood glucose management (Sasaki, Nishida & Shimada, 2018), making it an excellent choice of beverage for diabetics!
Though few people gravitate towards bitter flavours, traditional wisdom holds that bitter foods are key to improving digestive function. Due to the liver’s close relationship with metabolism, Ayurveda ascribes the liver’s physiology to Pitta (fire) energy, an imbalance of which manifests as diminished appetite, epigastric pain, acid reflux, low stomach acid, halitosis, and a yellow coating on the tongue (Dubey, Pandey & Kar, 2015). Both TCM and Ayurveda recognise that excess heat generated by aggravated Yang and/ or Pitta is soothed by cooling, bitter tastes (Zhao, Wang, Dong, Chen & Li, 2018), and advocate a diet rich in foods such as cucumber, bitter melon, rocket leaves and spirulina to bring respite to an overheated liver.
Insulin resistance, oestrogen dominance, premenstrual syndrome and high cholesterol are just a few indicators of an low-functioning liver. In addition to these issues, if you're struggling with low mood, digestive discomfort, acne, and weight that just won't budge, it may be time to treat your liver with a little TLC. Book a consultation with me for a personalised liver detox protocol in tandem with lifestyle guidance to get your body's most hardworking organ back into shape!
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