Updated: Sep 3, 2019
1. Cut back on alcohol
It’s not news to anyone I’m assuming. Yes, alcohol is damaging to your liver. Having a drink or two may not be damaging, or the occasional excessive-sided drinking episode (FYI, every Friday night is not occasional). But yes, generally speaking, alcohol is a toxic substance. If you’re considering giving your liver a little winter holiday, you may want to consider cutting back on alcohol. Here’s why. The liver converts alcohol into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is a short-lived, but very damaging, intermediate. And the more you drink, the more you produce. Alcohol can also cause fat to build-up in the liver (aka fatty liver). The reason this happens is because when you drink, your liver is too busy metabolizing (and prioritizing) the alcohol and fat metabolism becomes impaired and gets stored in the liver.
Another thing that happens is that fatty acids are a by-product of ethanol (alcohol) metabolism so it’s kind of a double-whammy. And finally, ever wonder why your friend can drink and drink and seem normal (or “normal”), while you’re seeing double with two or three drinks? It’s because one’s tolerance to alcohol is largely influenced by genetics (i.e. the number of alcohol breakdown enzymes you have, etc.), as well as your age, gender, your drinking speed and your food intake prior to drinking. Regardless, taking a break from this social adhesive is never a bad idea.
2. Take a holiday from sweets
Alcohol is not the only substance that is bad for your liver. Sugar is another. In fact, the most common liver disorder in North America is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and the number one cause, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is obesity.
Like alcohol, your body can handle a little sugar. And again, like alcohol, our society consumes too much of it. The worst type of sugar is called fructose. Fructose is naturally occurring in fruit but in tolerable amounts. So just to be clear, fruit is good. Eat fruit. At least 2-3 servings daily. The danger is when fructose is extracted and isolated, as in high-fructose corn syrup. This is when we run into trouble. This stuff is found in juice, pop, cereal, you name it. Even sweeteners like plain ol’ table sugar, cane sugar, and beet sugar are high in fructose.
Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, whereas glucose can be used up by other cells such as muscle cells. The liver can only process so much fructose at a time. In result, excess fructose gets turned into fat and stored in the liver. High fructose intake can also lead to high LDL “bad” cholesterol, high triglycerides, and insulin resistance. This is why it's important to cut back on sugars if you have high cholesterol, and not just saturated fats.
So if you want to be kind to your liver and you find yourself reaching for the sweet stuff often, consider taking a break. Drink water, eat fruit, take a pass on dessert. Have some plain yogurt and fruit with a touch of honey, home-made muffins sweetened with fruit, dark chocolate, or banana with almond butter.
3. And from fried foods while you’re at it
When you hear that saturated fat is bad for your cholesterol levels, it’s this type of saturated fat that is a killer, literally. Fried foods- especially from restaurants- are just plain and simple bad for you. And your liver.
Firstly, heating any type of oil or fat to very high temperatures damages them. The oil/fat becomes oxidized and forms free radicals. Secondly, when starchy foods (like potatoes) are heated to very high temperatures, they form a toxic, cancer causing compound called acrylamide. Thirdly, over time, excess fat from fried foods can lead to fatty liver. This leads to inflammation which leads to impaired liver function. Some of its very important jobs include having to deal with the extra fat, detoxifying other harmful substances, and processing important nutrients for the body’s use.
Ditch the French fries and have healthy, liver-loving fats instead like extra-virgin olive oil (cold or moderately heated), omega-3 fats from fatty fish and flax oil, and monounsaturated fats from avocadoes and nuts.
4. Ditch the white bread
Refined flours are high glycemic, and when consumed in excess, get converted to fat by the liver. Refined flours and grains, such as white breads, crackers, cereals, rice, have their fibres stripped from them and are of poor nutritional quality. When you eat whole grains such as whole grain wheat, spelt, rye, quinoa, brown rice, oats, you are also consuming the fibre, bran and germ (containing healthy oils, nutrients and phytochemicals). In addition, adding fibre lowers the glycemic index which is better for blood sugar control, satiety and weight.
Love your liver and swap the white grains for their wholer versions. For example, dark rye versus light rye, brown rice versus white, steel cut oat versus quick oats, and so forth.
5. Eat Dandelion
Your liver loves this bitter greens. Dandelion helps improve the flow of bile which helps the liver break down fats and detoxify more efficiently. Better bile flow also helps improve conditions like liver congestion, hepatitis, and gallstones. Dandelion is also high in fibre, vitamin A, C and antioxidants.
If you have a juicer you can juice a handful with a small piece of apple and lemon. If, like me, you don’t have a juicer, blend a handful with a little water and strain it. Have it 15 minutes before meals.
6. Try a Milk Thistle supplement
Milk thistle has been used for over two thousand years for the treatment of liver disorders. Milk thistle, Silymarin, contains potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-fibrotic properties. Silibinin, the main component of Silymarin is an antioxidant which specifically targets and protects liver cells. Several studies found that milk thistle helped improve symptoms and liver blood markers for patients with viral hepatitis. Other studies have found that Silymarin protects the liver from toxic chemical damage. One of the proposed mechanisms for milk thistle’s liver protective properties is by preventing the depletion of glutathione, an antioxidant essential in the detoxification process, which gets quickly depleted with alcohol and other liver toxic substances (i.e. Tylenol).
If you’re looking for some extra liver support, I highly recommend a milk thistle supplement. You can find it in tincture or capsule form. Follow the dosage instructions on the label, and take on an empty stomach or haf hour before meals.
7. Antioxidants are your new best friends
When we drink alcohol and eat fried foods, we subject our liver to oxidative damage (pro-oxidants). One of the most important antioxidants in the liver detox process is glutathione, which gets depleted with heavy alcohol consumption. Glutathione is synthesized in the body but we get its precursors via the diet. Nutrients that support glutathione production include sulfur found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, onions and garlic. Taking at least 500mg of vitamin C daily also supports glutathione production. In addition, vitamin C is an antioxidant itself and is important for those who consume alcohol as it gets depleted.
As you can see, antioxidants are fundamental in loving your liver. Get a wide range of antioxidants from brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, green tea and dark chocolate. Other sources of glutathione precursors, besides cruciferous veggies (i.e. broccoli), include whey protein; B vitamins from chickpeas, spinach, lentils, beets, asparagus; selenium-rich foods like Brazil nuts and sardines, and vitamin E (avocado, wheat germ).
8. Drink lots of water
This is really important. Adequate water intake ensures optimal elimination of toxins. Not drinking enough water can also lead to constipation slowing down the elimination of toxins. If you’re still drinking juice or pop, drinking and switching to water is particularly important. If you’re one of those people that doesn’t like water on its own, squeeze some lemon or orange into it or throw in a citrus wedge. Drink herbal teas, let them cool down, whatever works for you. Aim for at least 1.5 litres every day. There is no set amount for how much water a person needs but if you’re urine is a light, almost clear colour, then you’re probably good to go. If you pee three times a day and it’s bright yellow, you’re dehydrated. Drink up!
Final Note: Remember, loving your liver doesn't mean giving up these foods completely. Not at all. If you're looking to take a break from less-than-healthy foods (and drinks), then avoiding these foods for a couple of weeks or even a month or two is a great idea! You can always just cut them down instead of avoiding them altogether. Whatever works best for you. You know your body best. For example, some people are totally okay with having a small slice of pie while others are "all or nothing" (i.e. 2-3-4 slices of pie). Same goes with alcohol. The latter might benefit from cutting them out completely for some time. Your liver is a hard-working organ so it's important to give it a little loving once in a while!