Think of your liver like your body’s natural filtration and detox system: It eliminates the gunk mucking up your bloodstream and absorbs the good stuff. Unfortunately, today’s high-stress, convenience-driven world contains a lot more of the gunk than the good stuff. Highly processed food, environmental toxins, and yes, too much booze, can overtax your liver. And when the liver is under that much stress, it can’t do its job and process toxins and fat efficiently.
“Everything we eat and drink goes through the liver – it’s responsible for more than 500 metabolic processes,” explains Thomas Pietrowsky, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian at the Henry Ford Transplant Institute who frequently works with patients with liver conditions. Weighing an average of 3 pounds, this brownish, rubbery organ not only converts nutrients from food into essential blood components, but it also produces substances such as proteins and enzymes that keep our bodies in balance.
The liver even receives a constant stream of information from other digestive organs, such as the stomach and intestines, about the availability of nutrients and the presence of potential threats like prescription medications, heavy metals or toxic substances. The organ then removes harmful materials from the bloodstream and promotes healthy digestion. Maintaining a healthy diet is critical to helping the liver do these jobs more effectively.
Here are three do’s and three don’ts to help you nurture your liver and enhance its natural detox abilities.
- Lose weight. An estimated one in three adults in the United States has some type of fatty liver disease, a condition where fat builds up in the liver. While it’s normal to have some fat in your liver, in people with fatty liver disease, more than 5 to 10 percent of liver weight is fat. One of the biggest risk factors for fatty liver disease is obesity. In fact, if you look at the data, the rate of liver disease rises at the same rate as obesity.
Quick tip: Weight loss doesn’t have to be hefty to be profound. “Studies show that even a 5 to 10 percent weight loss can make a big difference in liver function,” says Pietrowsky. But don’t try to drop the weight too quickly. Instead strive to lose no more than 1-2 pounds per week.
- Load up on produce. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with powerful plant chemicals such as antioxidants, which help nourish and support the liver. The fiber-rich variety, including leafy greens, help keep excess pounds at bay by slowing down digestion so you feel full faster. Leafy greens can also help lower your risks of heart disease and diabetes.
Quick tip: Pietrowsky recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- Opt for healthy fats. Heart-healthy fatty acids found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds support liver cleansing. When used in moderation, monounsaturated fats, found in avocados and extra virgin olive oil are great for the liver.
Quick tip: Replace saturated and trans fats with liver-friendly, heart-healthy fats. The most beneficial fats for your liver include avocados, olives, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds. Other nuts and seeds are also helpful, but go easy on oils.
- Drink soda. Evidence suggests that a common sweetener in soda called high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, may be more detrimental to the liver than other types of sugar.
Quick tip: Opt for water over soda, alcohol or caffeinated beverages. Not only will you avoid the bad stuff, the extra H20 will help your body flush out toxins more efficiently.
- Eat highly processed foods. Excess sugar from refined grains, sugary snacks and sweetened beverages can increase fatty buildup in the liver, which can lead to liver disease. Also, it is good to limit sodium intake from processed foods to help keep the liver healthy and to help prevent fluid retention with liver disease.
Quick tip: To get your grain fix, rely on ancient grains such as quinoa and kamut. Both are high in protein, fiber and important nutrients.
- Overindulge at happy hour. Alcohol abuse damages and destroys liver cells, compromising the organ’s ability to eliminate toxins. The reason? Your liver breaks down alcohol so it can be removed from your body. Drink more alcohol than your liver can process and you’ll be bathing the organ in booze.
Quick tip: Limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. “Patients who have active liver disease or hepatitis should abstain from alcohol altogether,” says Pietrowsky.
Mistreating your liver increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and chronic fatigue. It can even impact your ability to fight off infections since the liver prevents the immune system from becoming overloaded. When the liver can’t flush out harmful substances, the immune system can perceive the rising level of toxins as a threat, causing inflammation and autoimmune reactions.
How can you make sure your liver is humming along? Get routine physicals, suggests Pietrowsky. When liver disease progresses, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, abdominal pain and swelling, swelling of the legs, loss of appetite, bruising easily and jaundice. If your doctor finds signs of liver disease, you can work together to develop a treatment plan.
To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Thomas Pietrowsky is a registered dietitian with the Henry Ford Transplant Institute at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.