Do You Need A Liver Cleanse? Here Are 5 Ways To Detox Naturally
The idea of a liver cleanse or detox is often divisive, eliciting thoughts of cayenne-infused lemon water or wacky "liver flushes" that involve consuming nothing but apple juice, olive oil, and Epsom salts. In these cases, people are right to be skeptical—but that's not to say your liver doesn't need some support.
The liver is a workhorse. It's your body's primary filtration system—it converts toxins into waste products, cleanses your blood, metabolizes nutrients and medications, and produces proteins. And while a healthy liver naturally cleanses itself, it may not necessarily be functioning optimally if it's constantly faced with dietary and environmental toxins.
More than ever before, our bodies are bombarded with stressors, from pollution to chemicals in skin care products to preservatives in foods we eat. These can deplete nutrient stores, cause a buildup of dangerous substances in the body, like heavy metals, and lead to chronic inflammation—all of which can make us tired and sick and give our livers a whole lot more work to do.
"In a healthy body, the process of detoxification runs smoothly," Mark Hyman, M.D., functional medicine doctor and New York Times best-selling author, told mbg. "When you become toxic, the mechanism for detoxification in the liver gets sluggish, and certain toxins can remain active longer than we want or than our systems can handle. This makes us sick and impedes normal metabolism. It also causes fluid retention, bloat, and puffiness."
So, helping out this vital organ only seems fair—whether you call that a liver "cleanse" or "detox" or whatever, it doesn't really matter. Even though we can't necessarily control our exposure to all pollutants and chemicals, we can make strategic dietary and lifestyle shifts that counter their effects by reducing inflammation, aiding the liver's detoxification pathways, and lightening our overall toxic load. The truth is, it's a multifaceted approach, but you certainly don't have to buy into expensive cleanses or extreme detox diets.
Here, discover the simple, safe, and effective ways to help your liver do its job better—and boost your overall health in the process.
Signs you may need a liver cleanse or detox.
Think back to the time in your life when you felt the healthiest. How does your current state compare? If you feel significantly less vital, it could be a sign that your liver needs some support or that your diet and lifestyle need a general overhaul. Here are some signs your liver needs a little support:
- You crave sugar often
- You're always tired or "foggy"
- You're frequently constipated
- You have seasonal allergies
- You eat healthy but don't feel healthy
- Your skin isn't clear
- Your skin is itchy
- You have joint pain
- You're overweight
- You're sensitive to chemicals, smells, or medications
- You have bad body odor
- You're stressed or anxious
- You're resistant to weight loss
- You have frequent mood swings
- You have bad breath
- You experience frequent gas and bloating
What could be messing with your liver function?
While most people associate a compromised or damaged liver with diseases like hepatitis, there are plenty of other factors that may put an unnecessary burden on your body's main detoxifying organ, all of which you should take steps to remedy immediately:
"If you are overweight, you are toxic by definition, because most environmental chemicals like pesticides and plastics are stored in your fat tissue," said Dr. Hyman. Plus, extra fat can build up in your liver and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which impedes liver functioning.
Too much refined sugar can also cause NAFLD. Some research shows that sugar can be as damaging to your liver as alcohol, even if you're not considered overweight.
Too much alcohol
About 10 to 15 percent of heavy drinkers will develop liver scarring. Women should aim for no more than one drink per day, and men no more than two.
Taking meds incorrectly
Tylenol (or acetaminophen) is in loads of medications, and too much can harm your liver. Never take more than the recommended dose or combine with alcohol.
Some supplements—vitamin A, niacin, green tea extract, and others—may damage the liver in high doses. Always talk to your doctor before taking one.
Exposure to chemicals
Poor gut health
Leaky gut, caused by unmanaged food sensitivities, antibiotics, poor overall diet, and other factors, leads to the release of pro-inflammatory toxins into the bloodstream that tax the liver.
5 ways to cleanse your liver naturally.
If you've been wondering how to detox or cleanse your liver without compromising your health, read on. Just keep in mind, these strategies aren't about detoxing or cleansing the liver itself—because that's not really a thing. They're more about supporting what your liver does naturally and protecting it from external stressors.
1. Adopt a liver- and gut-friendly diet.
Nope, you don't need a fancy cleanse. What you need is a balanced, healthy diet that promotes weight loss (or weight maintenance, if you're already at a healthy weight) and contains nutrients that promote liver and gut health. In fact, losing just 3 to 6 percent of your body weight could reduce liver fat levels by 35 to 40 percent, according to one recent study, which takes a huge burden off your body's main detoxifying organ.
A good first step: Ditch the processed foods and drink more water. Pass on most processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol, and focus on whole, preferably organic foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, sustainably raised meats, fish, eggs, and minimally processed oils such as olive or coconut oil. This means you'll be taking a break from most of the foods, additives, and pesticide residues that could tax your system, while adding in nutrient-dense foods that will nourish the body. Consider ditching common food sensitivities and allergens such as gluten as well. This can help heal damage to the gut and reduce the number of toxins that enter your bloodstream and stress the liver.
Dr. Hyman recommends eight to 10 glasses of filtered water daily. Some experts believe warm water (with or without lemon) is even better, as it helps promote good digestion and optimal functioning of the lymphatic system, both of which indirectly support liver health.
Next, add in specific liver-friendly foods: Once you've got the basics down, you can start adding in foods that promote healthy liver functioning, i.e., reduce inflammation, boost glutathione production, bind heavy metals and toxins, and stimulate bile flow. Here are 13 of our favorite liver-friendly foods:
Almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, wheat germ, salmon, and avocado are all great sources of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that research suggests may counter the oxidative stress associated with fatty liver disease.
Bile helps to transport toxins so they can be removed from the body, and an impairment of bile flow can result in the buildup of toxins and liver injury. Artichoke contains phenolic derivatives that have been used for centuries to stimulate bile flow and to protect the liver.
Deep-hued berries such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries aren't only loaded with fiber, but they contain phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which are potent antioxidants that have been shown to scavenge free radicals and reduce overall inflammation.
These ruby-hued roots contain pigments called betalains, which may help reduce chronic inflammation and repair cells in the liver thanks to their potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain betaine, which helps liver cells eliminate toxins, and pectin, a type of fiber that may help bind and clear toxins. Consider trying one of these 10 delicious beet recipes for a healthier liver.
Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and watercress contain sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates, which are protective against cancer, anti-inflammatory, and may help the body remove toxins. One study found that a drink made with broccoli sprouts activated enzymes that picked up pollutants from the bloodstream and flushed them out via urine, and another found that broccoli consumption slowed the progression of fatty liver disease in mice.
Lemons, tangerines, and oranges contain a compound called D-limonene, which has been shown to help reverse oxidative damage caused to the liver as a result of a high-fat diet. Sipping on lemon water throughout the day is also a great way to stay hydrated, which helps promote the movement of toxins out of the body.
Dandelion root and greens
Dandelion is known for its cleansing properties, and one study found that both the root and leaf helped rid the body of reactive oxygen species that cause oxidative stress. Reap the benefits by sipping on dandelion root tea, which makes a great caffeine-free alternative to coffee. Dandelion greens (along with other bitter greens such as mustard greens and arugula) are great, too, as they can help stimulate bile production and promote healthy digestion.
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, lacto-fermented pickles, kefir, yogurt, and other fermented foods are loaded with beneficial probiotic bacteria that promote healthy digestion and integrity of the gut lining, thereby helping keep toxins out of the bloodstream. According to functional medicine expert Frank Lipman, M.D., they may also help clear heavy metals out of the body.
Glutathione is an antioxidant concentrated in the liver that helps bind toxins and escort them out of the body via urine or bile. Glutathione can be obtained directly from a few foods, including raw spinach, avocado, and asparagus, and it can also be produced by your body from the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. Foods containing the building blocks of glutathione include bone broth, whey protein, and sulfur-containing foods such as broccoli and garlic.
In addition to reducing inflammation, phytochemicals in green tea may help trigger both phase-one and phase-two liver detoxification. In phase one, toxins are made water-soluble by enzymes, and in phase two, toxins are bound to protective chemicals that neutralize them and allow them to be eliminated via bile or urine.
Dark leafy greens such as dandelion greens, arugula, spinach, and kale contain plant chlorophylls, which help remove chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals from the bloodstream. Specifically, early research shows that chlorophyll may reduce the risk of liver damage caused by aflatoxins (dangerous compounds produced by fungi that may be present on a variety of foods, including peanuts) by activating certain enzymes.
Get enough fiber-rich foods to bind up toxins in the gut and help promote regularity. If you're constipated, toxins from the bowel can be reabsorbed into your system. Try legumes (especially lentils), raspberries, root vegetables, apples, pears, avocados, and almonds.
There are plenty of reasons to get more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, and now the health of your liver is one of them. A recent research review found that omega-3 consumption was associated with lower liver-fat levels and higher HDL "good" cholesterol levels. Other good sources of these healthy fats include sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed.
2. Try a form of intermittent fasting.
A nutrient-rich diet is key. But once you've mastered that, you may want to consider intermittent fasting for additional liver detox support. Research suggests that during periods of fasting, cells in the liver produce more of a protein associated with improved sugar metabolism and reduced levels of liver fat.
More research in this area is needed, but a number of experts promote intermittent fasting for a variety of reasons. "I love the power that intermittent fasting can have on the body's natural detox processes," William Cole, D.C., functional medicine expert and best-selling author of Ketotarian, told mbg. "Periods without food give our body [and liver] a chance to repair and clean itself out since it doesn't have to focus on or funnel energy to our digestive system.
“Think of this as your body's chance to leave work and catch up on some house cleaning. One of the cool self-cleaning tools utilized during fasting is something called autophagy, which literally translates to 'self-eating.' When this process is allowed to do its thing, our body's healthy cells gobble up any unhealthy cells, leading to a true cellular detox."
A good introduction to intermittent fasting is the 16-hour fast, in which you confine all of your daily eating to an eight-hour window and fast for the remainder of the day. Try this for a week or two and see if you notice any changes in energy and mood. For more specific guidance, check out our comprehensive guide to intermittent fasting.
3. Use liver-supporting supplements strategically.
Specific products that tout themselves as liver detoxes, liver cleanses, and liver flushes haven't been evaluated for safety or effectiveness. That said, there are some individual nutrients that hold promise for supporting liver health by reducing inflammation, protecting against injury from chemicals or toxins, stimulating bile production, and more. The following supplements are all generally safe, but you should still talk to your doctor before taking one or more to ensure they don't interfere with your current medications:
By far the most promising herbal supplement for liver health is milk thistle, also called silymarin, which is an extract of the seeds of the flowering milk thistle plant. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and research shows that it helps stimulate the regeneration of liver cells and protect them from injury induced by substances like alcohol and acetaminophen. It's also been shown to boost glutathione levels.
Look for a milk thistle supplement that's standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent silymarin, and follow the dosing instructions on the manufacturer's label (or consult with your doctor).
Turmeric extract and curcumin have been shown to protect against liver injury in animal studies by reducing oxidative stress and increasing glutathione production. Other research suggests it stimulated the production of bile, the fluid produced by our livers that aids in the digestion of fats within the small intestine. Of course, more research on turmeric and liver health needs to be done on humans before any official recommendations can be made, but things look promising.
Look for a turmeric supplement that's standardized to contain 95 percent curcuminoids, and follow the dosing instructions on the manufacturer's label (or consult with your doctor).
Algae, specifically chlorella, is a powerful chelator, which means it can bind to and remove heavy metals and other toxins that might otherwise tax your liver. Lab studies show that it can absorb 40 percent of the heavy metals in a test solution within seven days; while animal studies show that it helps remove toxins like mercury from the body. Chlorella also contains several nutrients with antioxidant properties, including vitamin C, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene.
Like chlorella, activated charcoal can help bind to and remove toxins that are circulating in your system. However, it can also bind minerals and vitamins, so you should take it between meals and away from other supplements. Studies have not been done to determine activated charcoal's long-term safety, so consider it a short-term, targeted strategy when you really need some extra support.
If you take other supplements in the morning, consider taking one activated charcoal tablet between lunch and dinner.
4. Schedule a daily sweat session.
Sweating helps take some of the detoxification burden off of your liver. According to Wendie Trubow, M.D., functional medicine gynecologist, detoxification is dependent on two critical factors: avoiding additional exposure to toxins and removing any toxins that are present in the body.
Ridding the body of the toxins is done through two major pathways. The first is by improving liver function, and the second is through sweating. "The skin is our major detoxification organ, and sweating is the best way to get the toxins out of our body," she says. Additionally, exercise boosts your body's glutathione production, which aids in detoxification.
If you don't exercise already, start with something like walking and build up to 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day. Strength training can also be helpful. In addition to exercise, sweating can be done with far infrared saunas, steam, or Epsom salt baths.
5. Practice self-care on the regular.
Too much stress in your life may negatively affect your liver, with one research review finding that stress seems to exacerbate liver disease. Unchecked stress is also detrimental to your health in a number of other ways, contributing to digestive issues and autoimmune diseases. So it's in your best interest to adopt healthy habits that promote calm in your life.
Something as simple as an aromatherapy bath once or twice a week can do the trick. Try this detox bath recipe featuring ginger Epsom salts, baking soda, and a few drops of your favorite essential oil—it will soothe your senses, relieve achy joints, and help you sweat out some toxins. No time for a soak session? Dry brushing or hot towel scrubbing are two more soothing and detoxifying bathroom rituals that promote calm as well as lymphatic circulation, which helps flush toxins from the body.
Quite simply, anything that brings you joy is a form of self-care. Whether that's yoga, deep breathing, walking your dog, watching a show on Netflix, or even getting rid of a bunch of old junk in your closet (think: Marie Kondo's KonMari method), it's crucial that you make the time. Here are five more daily detoxifying rituals to add to your self-care routine.
Ultimately, a liver cleanse or detox is a lifestyle change.
There's no magic bullet when it comes to a liver cleanse or detox—and anything marketed as such (ahem, a liver flush) is rightfully questioned. However, there are a number of small, research-backed ways to reduce your liver's workload and promote overall health. Incorporate some of the suggestions above (preferably under the guidance of a health care provider), and over time, your body and liver will thank you.
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