Your liver is a very busy and very crucial organ. I think it is one of the superstars of the body and yet, I wonder, how many of us could name even two functions of the liver? And if two seems like a lot, consider that your liver has more than 400 metabolic functions. That’s 400 ways your liver is involved in keeping your body healthy, vibrant, and strong.
But that’s also a plethora of opportunities for things to go amiss. And when your liver isn’t functioning optimally, you may experience acne, hormones imbalances, fatigue, blood sugar dysregulation, and more.
What are the Signs of an Overloaded Liver?
If you want to do a quick report card on your liver, check out the signs below that could suggest your liver isn’t functioning as optimally as it could be.
- Fatigue and low energy/sluggish metabolism
- Immune weakness/frequent illness
- Blood sugar issues
- Hormonal imbalances, like estrogen dominance, PMS, or thyroid issues, among others
- Acne, psoriasis, itchy or dry skin, or other skin issues
- Food allergies and sensitives
- Constipation, or trouble digesting fats
- Weak or aching joints
- Blood cholesterol issues
- Depression, anxiety, or moodiness
I know what you’re thinking – this list covers such a huge spectrum! How could one organ in the body be implicated in so many different and disparate health concerns?
To answer that, I first want to remind you that the body is this awesome tapestry in which every part plays a role and many parts work together to make good health happen. When we’re talking about health concerns like fatigue or acne (presuming we’re talking about a general concern and not a specific condition or diagnosis), it’s safe to say that there are likely many factors and body parts at play. That’s where working with a health practitioner can be so helpful, in helping you figure out the root causes (or causes).
That said, because the liver is implicated in so many body tasks, and because we live in a toxic world, it’s a reasonable assumption to conclude that most of our livers need a bit of extra help and that helping our livers may be the boost we need to find better health.
Here are just few of the liver’s more than 400 functions:
- Helps control blood sugar, important for energy, avoiding fatigue, avoiding insulin resistance or diabetes, and basically feeling stable, calm, and balanced.
- Makes 95% of blood plasma proteins, which is important because these proteins are what transport hormones, vitamins, minerals, and waste products around in your bloodstream.
- Metabolizes hormones (as in, de-activates the hormones, ensuring their messages are not being sent more often than required, important for concerns like estrogen dominance).
- Makes your daily cholesterol (critical for hormone-building) and your bile (important for the digestion of fats and healthy elimination, and, important because the clever liver takes many of the toxins it has filtered and, after neutralizing them, turns them into bile – which we then use for healthy digestion).
- Supports your immune system: the liver is busy filtering out undesirable toxins from the bloodstream (see below), things that might negatively impact the immune system and overall health; also, bile itself is very alkaline and therefore contributes to killing pathogens in the small intestine, again helping us avoid infections.
- And crucially, your liver helps detoxify your body and blood from harmful substances. These substances might be endogenous (i.e. sourced from inside the body), such as toxins from gut bacteria, histamines, other wastes or toxic by-products, or exogenous (i.e. sourced from outside the body and taken into the body), such as alcohol, coffee, nicotine, prescription drugs, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and artificial colours/flavours/additives, among others.
The liver is like airport security. It tries to check and neutralize anything that shouldn’t be in your blood or that your body doesn’t want/need. It ensures anything released into the blood stream, and particularly anything that goes to your brain, is safe and trustworthy. This is a very important role and another one of the ways the body, as a whole, valiantly works to maintain best health.
WHAT OVERLOADS YOUR LIVER?
Given how much your liver has to do, it makes sense that it could easily become overburdened and overworked if we continually throw it additional challenges to the already busy schedule it has in just maintaining a healthy body.
Here are a few substances and habits that create extra work for the liver.
- Alcohol: if we know nothing else about the liver, we know that it does something with alcohol after we drink it. And we know that if we drink too much for a long period of time, we could get this disease called cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol is one of the substances that the liver has to manage in order to metabolize, neutralize, and then allow us to excrete it. Effectively, from the liver’s perspective, alcohol is a toxin.
- Dysbiosis: unfriendly bacteria in our gut can produce their own toxins, waste products, and hormone mimickers. This means more toxins in the bloodstream, and more work for the liver.
- Hepatitis/Liver Infections: obviously anything that makes the liver “ill” makes it less able to handle its regular workload.
- Chemical Exposure: this is where those exogenous toxins come in. Any chemicals we take into our body are work for the liver, period. It needs to figure out what to do with them, and how to neutralize them. Anything that your liver can’t handle or any excess toxins may find their way out through other sources, like your skin, leading to things like psoriasis and acne.
- Free Radicals: Free radicals are also something that the liver neutralizes, so more free radicals = more work for the liver. Some free radicals are from good diet and lifestyle practices (exercise, digestion, breathing – we make them all the time naturally) and some from not-so-good sources: trans fats and deep-fried foods, chemicals, pesticides, cigarette smoke, pollution, artificial foods/processed foods.
- Poor Diet: see above, but anything that is rich in free radicals (like crappy, processed foods) and low in nutrients (like crappy, processed foods) is hard on the liver.
- Fructose: in terms of conclusive scientific studies, the jury appears to still be out on whether fructose contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Fructose is naturally found in fruit but is also processed – generally from GMO corn – and added to a lot of things: sodas, syrups, candies, condiments, snack foods, and more. Studies aside, fructose is metabolized entirely by your liver, and in general the holistic world recognizes that fructose is at best something that negatively contributes to your liver’s already busy workload and is at worst another liver toxin.
- Stress: yes, the old stress chestnut again. Bear with me – the explanation makes sense. More stress means we need more of the stress hormone cortisol, which is used to respond to stress in your body. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, meaning it uses cholesterol as one of its building blocks. More stress = more cortisol = more need for cholesterol synthesis by the liver = more work.
I hope by now you’re convinced that the liver is a really important organ in your overall health. In fact, you’re probably more than ready to read the helpful stuff so that you can start taking action to help out your beloved liver. So let’s answer that question! How can we show more love to our livers?
6 Ways to LOVE your LIVER
- Consumer liver supporting foods: certain foods contain indole-3-carbinol, which helps your liver with detoxification, particularly of estrogens. These foods are broccoli, kale, bok choy, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts (basically all of your cruciferous veggies). Beets contain betaine, which is protective of liver cells. Garlic is also a good choice, as are onions (rich in sulfur, again important for detoxification).
- Avoid liver-stressing foods and substances: these include anything that adds chemicals and toxins into your diet – processed foods, trans fats, deep-fried foods, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, and anything with added sugars, particularly added fructose or high-fructose corn syrup.
- Focus on antioxidants, particularly the ones that support liver health: Your liver detoxification process works in two phases: the first phase breaks down toxins into smaller, more reactive intermediaries. The second phase neutralizes those reactive intermediaries using lots of antioxidants. I’ve heard it described as first making the garbage (phase 1), and then taking the garbage out (phase 2). To support this process, it’s important to consume foods that provide the antioxidants needed in that second phase. These include glutathione (found in avocado), Vitamin C (mango, strawberries, pineapple, etc), Vitamin E (almonds, spinach, sunflower seeds, sweet potato), and selenium (Brazil nuts are a great source – just 1 or 2 per day), as a start.
- Incorporate a gentle overnight fast: Consider leaving 12 hours between your evening meal and your morning meal (if blood sugar isn’t an issue and you have no adrenal concerns). There are mixed opinions out there about the value of longer fasts and of more rigorous detoxes, but many see the value in a short, overnight fast. If you end your eating around 7pm and eat your breakfast at 7am, you’ve had a 12 hour fast. The concept here is that this is a period in which your liver can work on detoxification without having to participate in digestion and it can therefore, to extend the work metaphor, “catch up” on its tasks.
- Add in liver-supporting teas: dandelion root tea and milk thistle tea are two excellent examples. The active agent (called ‘silymarin’) in milk thistle has a liver-protective function, while dandelion root tea supports healthy bile flow and liver detoxification, and is helpful for digestion and clear skin.
- Address dysbiosis and eat for gut health: one way to reduce ENDOGENOUS toxins (the ones produced INSIDE the body through various mechanisms) is to improve gut health. That includes eating fermented foods that promote and contain good gut bacteria – like kimchi, kombucha, fermented beets, fermented carrots, sauerkraut, kefir, grass-fed yogurt, coconut yogurt, miso – and it includes foods that contain prebiotics to help FEED the good bacteria, like chicory root, inulin, fibre.
BONUS TIP: anything that helps you manage stress, reduces the workload for your liver! So walk, run, read, meditate, play, stroll, sing, dance, laugh, contemplate, journal, ponder, collect, embrace, garden, write – whatever brings you a sense of some joy and inner calm.
To sum it up:
Anything you do to support your liver will ultimately produce positive domino effect results for the rest of your body and your health. Making small changes to reduce what’s harmful for your liver and to try to do more of what is supportive for your liver may be enough for you start to notice clearer skin, more balanced moods, fewer hormonal issues, more energy, better cholesterol bloodwork, fewer illnesses, and a better metabolism.
© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly
NOTE: ***All herbal teas, including milk thistle, should be checked with your healthcare practitioner if you have other conditions or are taking other medications/supplements.