Toxins are everywhere and impossible to avoid. They get into your body through your lungs, your skin or the food you eat. Just walking out the door or living and breathing in your own home makes you susceptible.
Thankfully, you have a built-in detoxifier: your liver. Without it, you couldn’t metabolize food, fight infections, break down medication, regulate hormones, store energy or even eat protein safety.
Why are so many of us investing in detox potions to “cleanse” this amazing organ? After all, it takes care of that just fine on its own.
The concept of liver cleansing or detoxing is gaining momentum, especially on social media. As a registered dietitian, I see it in my own patients who are eager to make their liver healthy and assume the way do it is through some sort of product.
On Instagram and Facebook, plenty of “experts” suggest that supplements in the form of pills or smoothies are a key to liver healing. While some supplements — like probiotics, zinc and even antioxidants in supplement form — may help benefit liver-damaged animals in a laboratory setting, there is little to suggest that these options will help humans. What does work is weight loss and a healthy, whole foods diet.
In fact, herbal and supplement use may actually cause harm to the liver. For example, a 2014 study found that liver injury caused by herbal and supplements increased by 7-20% in a 10-year period.
Here are seven things you need to know about a healthy liver:
1. Cleanses come in many forms.
Liver cleanses often come in the form of juices, supplements or even enemas, and often involve avoidance of entire food groups or unsafe fasting practices. Many promise weight loss, but on such restrictive diets, the majority of any weight loss is fluid. Once you go back to your “normal” lifestyle, expect the weight to return. They often also promise an increase in energy, which would be expected anytime you take processed junk or alcohol out of your diet.
2. Liver cleanses are not regulated by the FDA.
A lack of oversight means that unlike a pharmaceutical drug, you may not know exactly what you’re getting or even if others have experienced adverse effects. Further, the cleanse you’re using may actually have herbs that could potentially harm the liver or interact dangerously with medications.
3. A liver cleanse won’t erase a night of poor decisions.
I’ve received many an email on a weekend morning from friends detailing their hangover from the night before and asking what they can eat to reverse the damage. Many turn to “cleansing” as the day-after solution. Clinical trials don’t support this idea, however, and if you have caused permanent damage from one too many hard days and nights, no cleanse in the world will help to reverse it.
4. Some ingredients in liver cleanses may be beneficial, but there are no studies to prove it.
Many of the liver cleanses on the market contain ingredients such turmeric, milk thistle, dandelion root or peppermint — all herbs and roots that may provide direct or indirect benefit to the liver. But many of the studies that have looked at these roots and herbs are not in the context of cleanses, which often have other ingredients or mechanisms. Before we can even claim these options as nature’s remedy to the liver, we need more studies to prove their worth.
The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself, but it can only take so much. Give it enough alcohol or damage it through dangerous lifestyle choices and it will eventually give up on you and rot — literally. This is called cirrhosis and in advanced cases, the only treatment is a liver transplant.
The recent boom of liver diseases may be prompting the need to fix the broken organ. As is often the case with diet, the best answer is often not the sexiest one. If we look at the science, it clearly demonstrates this complex organ needs a simple approach.
5. Being a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your liver.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease now plagues one-third of all Americans. It’s taken over as one of the top liver diseases in the world and is competing to take the lead as the primary cause of liver transplantation. Excess weight, especially in the mid-section close to the liver, stresses the organ and causes a buildup of fat. Too much fat can mean the liver can’t do its job well anymore, including removing those toxins your body is taking in every day.
6. Skip alcohol for coffee for a healthy liver.
The research on alcohol consumption (especially in excess) and damage to the liver is sobering. Studies show a daily pattern of drinking can cause serious damage, and mixing alcohol with certain medications like acetaminophen can be downright deadly.
Further, some studies have demonstrated a weekend of binge drinking is all you may need to cause permanent damage to the liver. When you start drinking may play a role as well. One study found drinking in your teen years may increase the risk of severe liver issues later in life. Keep your consumption at or below the national guidelines, or better yet, don’t drink at all.
A drink you should consider is coffee. Coffee has been shown in multiple studies to provide a major boost to liver health.
7. Most of what you need to keep your liver healthy is in your grocery store, but not the supplement aisle.
Eat plenty of high-fiber plants, colorful fruits and vegetables; choose wild fish and organic produce whenever possible. Take steps to eliminate added sugar. Bottom line: Start eating real food and ditch all things processed.
Make hydration a goal. Water is life, and to the liver, it’s the assistant it relies on to do its job well.
Be choosy about medications, supplements, what you are putting on your lawn or whether you choose to consume uncooked shellfish. All of these things can cause damage to the liver.
8. Finally, avoid unsafe sex.
The sharing of needles, razors or toothbrushes, or even getting tattoos — all of these practices are associated with an increased risk of liver diseases.
The explosion of liver cleanses on the market is perhaps a symptom of a greater problem: the American need for a quick fix to a dreadful Western diet. If you are serious about improving your liver health, spend your money on things that have been proven to actually do just that.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.