Optimizing Liver Detoxification for Better Skin and Hormones (and Digestion, and Mood, and Energy, and…)

Today we’re going to talk about detoxification and your liver, and the steps to optimizing liver detoxification for healthier skin and more balanced hormones.

Now maybe you’re already thinking, YAWN. But I promise you, this is exciting and useful stuff!


If you’re struggling with skin, energy, hormones, metabolism, and more, it’s time to think about your liver

I’ve said this before on the blog, but I’ll say it again – if you struggle with skin and hormone issues, you have to think about your liver. The issues themselves might vary – PMS, acne, thyroid problems, estrogen dominance, skin aging, blood sugar problems, fatigue, low libido, and more – but a consistent common denominator is that your liver needs more help.

And that help doesn’t have to mean a cleanse or a detox or a flush. There are raging debates over the necessity of specific ‘detoxes’ and whether or not they promote health. My perspective is that there is power in real, whole foods, and supporting your body’s ability to naturally detoxify with real, whole foods shouldn’t be underestimated.

What’s that, you say? My body already HAS the ability to deal with toxins! Yes, absolutely. And being smart and kind about the food choices you make can go along way to supporting those natural systems.

Quick refresher on what your liver DOES NOT find useful

Your body has built-in systems, the liver being a significant one, to help you deal with harmful substances or unwanted chemical compounds. You might encounter these harmful/unwanted things in your day-to-day life or they might be produced normally INSIDE the body.

Here’s a quick little refresh on some of the things that need to be ‘detoxified’ by the liver:

  • pesticides, herbicides, and the like
  • caffeine
  • chemicals like those in paints, cleaning products, or make-up/body care products
  • nicotine from smoking
  • pharmaceutical drugs like ibuprofen
  • preservatives, food flavourings, additives and colourants

Your body also makes toxins and unwanted substances on a regular basis. Breathing creates carbon dioxide, a waste product; cellular division creates free radicals; microbes in your gut are busy releasing metabolites as part of their growth cycle – it’s part of being a living body.

In addition to the toxins we encounter in day-to-day life, and those produced just by being alive, certain imbalances or health concerns in the body can also contribute to your overall toxic load.

Your body might have to contend with a few more toxins if you’re struggling with:

  • dysbiois – when your gut bacteria is out of balance, there are two liver-burdening outcomes: 1) certain unfriendly microbes can produce waste products that are more burdensome for the liver to manage. More of them = more toxic wastes; and 2) certain friendly bacteria can actually help detoxify your body. Less of them = less help to your liver. If you’d like to boost your gut health, check out my post on the 6 key steps to supporting your microbiome. 
  • poor digestion and bile problems – the liver produces bile, and in addition to bile’s role in fat digestion, the liver uses bile as a handy place to put toxins and wastes so that they can be eliminated from the body (via poop).
  • constipation – and of course, if the liver stores toxins and wastes in bile, and that mix gets sent out in your poop, and you aren’t going poop, well…The result is that the unwanted stuff has all kinds of time to sit in the colon and be re-absorbed into the bloodstream. This is what we call, counterproductive.

Your liver wants to detoxify but it might have other things to do

As noted in my previous liver-loving post, the liver has numerous tasks in the body – it’s there for your immune system, your blood, your energy levels, your cholesterol, your hormones, and, as we already mentioned, for the detoxification of harmful substances from your body.

Like anything with a lot of jobs, the liver rigorously prioritizes. Anything it can’t deal with at the time gets put back into the bloodstream where it will continue to circulate (and potentially cause damage) until it comes back to the liver again.

This includes toxins.

If toxins continue to build up, there is additional stress on the body’s other detoxification organs – the kidneys and also the skin. As you might imagine, burdening your skin with more toxins does not add to its glow. It adds to skin issues like acne, ezcema, and psoriasis, but it does not add to glow.

The Liver Detoxification Pathways (in as close to a nutshell as I can ever do)

Please, don’t glaze over just yet! I know, I know, I never do anything in a nutshell. It isn’t my nature – I want you to know and understand this stuff! But I’ll try to hone in on the key info. 🙂

Your liver has a cool two-step (or arguably 3-step) process to dealing with toxins.

Phase 1 

Simply put, your liver takes the toxins and breaks them down into components that will be more easily excreted. Then the liver moves to phase 2. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these components, called “intermediaries” are actually MORE toxic than the initial toxins were. The process of breaking the toxins down into these intermediaries also produces a lot of free radicals. So effectively, phase 1 produces more toxins and more free radicals.

Phase 2 

In theory, Phase 1 is no big deal though, because in Phase 2 the liver – using a variety of enzymes, amino acids, minerals, and antioxidants – takes these toxic intermediaries and turns them into yet other forms so that they can be excreted via the kidneys or bile.

The key HERE though, is that:

  1. the liver has the capacity to move to this step in a timely fashion so all that doubly toxic stuff isn’t sitting around causing more damage AND
  2. that is has an ample supply of the enzymes, minerals, and antioxidants it needs to convert the toxic intermediaries into these other ‘excretable’ forms (excretable is not a word but it should be).

Bonus: Phase 3 

Not everyone considers phase 3 an official phase in the process, but to give it a nice end-point, let’s say phase 3 is when you go to the bathroom and excrete the toxins from your body via your pee or poop. Donzo.

The Garbage Collection analogy

If you’re struggling to picture how this actually plays out, picture it like this:

  • Phase 1 is like gathering up all the garbage in your house and getting it collected in bags
  • Phase 2 is like taking those bags out to the curb
  • Phase 3 is when the garbage truck comes and takes it away

(I borrowed this analogy from Chris Kresser, who borrowed it from Charles Poliquin)

You need all three phases working properly for healthy happy skin and hormones (and energy, and mood, and so on).

  • If Phase 1 isn’t working, you have a whole bunch of toxins that the liver can’t deal with that are left to circulate in the bloodstream.
  • If Phase 2 isn’t working and Phase 1 is chugging merrily along, you have a bunch of EVEN MORE TOXIC compounds piling up and possibly also circulating in the blood stream.
  • And of course, if Phase 3 isn’t working, you’re in danger of reabsorbing things you were intending to get rid of.

Moral of the story? The liver’s detoxification success requires each phase to be working optimally. And each phase has its own unique nutritional requirements.

Nutritional Support for the Detoxification Phases

As discussed, your liver requires certain substances to carry out the stages of taking a toxin and getting it ready to leave the body. And where can we get those substances? Whole foods baby!

Supporting Phase 1 – Eat more…

  • Cruciferous veggies: cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choy all contain compounds such as indole-3-carbinole which helps stimulate Phase 1 and Phase 2 enzymes. If you’re struggling with acne issues, PMS, or hormone imbalances like estrogen dominance, this is a food group for you.
  • Vitamin B rich foods and/or a Vitamin B complex: good B rich foods are lean animal proteins, whole grains, legumes/beans, nuts and seeds, salmon, leafy greens, and eggs.
  • Antioxidants: high antioxidant foods are important, since, as noted, Phase 1 activities produce free radicals. Great options are green tea, blueberries, kale, apples, and any of your vibrantly-coloured foods. Brazil nuts are also a great choice for selenium, an important antioxidant.
  • Vitamin C: bell peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, kiwi, mango, strawberries
  • Turmeric: a super antioxidant that can help enhance glutathione levels (glutathione being the ‘master’ antioxidant for your liver and hugely important). Turmeric has also been found to have liver-protective properties. Here’s a great recipe for a turmeric and ginger tea. Or maybe a turmeric creamsicle smoothie.
  • Minerals like zinc, iron, manganese, copper, and molybdenum. Good sources are animal products, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and leafy greens.
  • Omega-3-fatty acids: chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are helpful plant sources, while salmon, anchovies, and fatty fish would be great animal sources. Also consider grass-fed meats, and of course there are lots of supplement oils out there too.

Supporting Phase 2 – Eat more…

  • Glutathione-rich foods: asparagus, avocado, spinach, broccoli. Remember glutathione is your liver’s master antioxidant.
  • Nutrients that support the manufacture and recycling of glutathione: Brazil nuts (selenium), almonds and nuts/seeds (vitamin E), and kiwis/strawberries/bell peppers (Vitamin C)
  • Lipotropic factors: lipotropic factors help metabolize fats and basically help the liver function better. Good food choices are beets, egg yolks, nuts, organ meats, and whole grains like brown rice.
  • High sulfur-foods: onions, leeks, eggs, asparagus, and garlic
  • High quality proteins: these provide a source of amino acids (which you also need for Phase 2 processes). High quality usually means organic, grass-fed, pastured, free-range, certified humane, etc.
  • Cruciferous veggies – yup, they’re on here again. Cabbage, bok choy, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, etc, all help support Phase 2 detoxification pathways and also help in the manufacture/recycling of glutathione.
  • Flavanoids: these health-promoting compounds are liver-supporting and are found in things like pomegranates and berries (ellagic acid), green tea and red grapes (catechins), and cruciferous veggies (glucosinolates).

Supporting Phase 3 – Eat more…

Again, this may not be an official phase, but we definitely want that garbage at the curb to be taken away. You can support healthy elimination by:

  • drinking lots of water to support the kidneys
  • eating lots of fibre, particularly soluble fibre, to help bind to wastes and support easy, smooth, regular elimination (bowel movements). This might mean eating beans, lentils, oats, chia seeds, apples, and flax seeds, as well as some starchy vegetables (like sweet potatoes) and lots of non-starchy vegetables (greens & lettuce, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, and so on).
  • getting regular movement (to stimulate the ol’ peristalsis and get those bowels moving)

You’ll notice lots of repetition between Phases 1 and 2 in terms of supportive foods and nutrients.  Foods in their natural whole state contain different compounds, substances, and antioxidants that help support different body processes at the same time.

What about Supplements?

There are some important supplements and botanicals out there as well – things like milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and schizandra have been shown to support different phases of liver detoxification as well as liver repair and overall liver function.

Certain whole foods also have compounds that have been turned into supplements like curcumin (from turmeric) and calcium-d-glucarate (from those cruciferous veggies). These can be very powerful and can play an important role in supporting your liver, along with your whole-food choices.

If you’re looking for a supplement, make sure you:

  1. have testing done to show if you need Phase 1 or Phase 2 support (or both) and your supplement supports the appropriate one; or
  2. are taking a supplement that supports BOTH Phase 1 and Phase 2 (and not just one of them). As you’ll recall, you don’t want to boost one phase if the other isn’t working well

And start with whole foods. Whole foods support the liver overall and help balance all body systems. That means your risk of boosting one part of liver detox without supporting the others is minimized. Supplements can play a role, but whole foods are a great place to start.

Are there other ways to support your liver in its detoxifying work?

In addition to helping your body effectively manage the toxins it encounters, you can also help by reducing the number of toxins it has to deal with in the first place. In other words, reducing the total amount of garbage that even needs to be collected/managed.

Less garbage = less work. You can achieve this by:

  • purchasing organic foods
  • focussing on eco-friendly beauty and body-care products
  • using only eco-friendly natural cleaning products
  • trying to avoid processed foods with weird unpronounceable ingredients or obvious chemical additives (like food dye #6)
  • minimizing alcohol intake
  • avoiding overeating
  • not smoking

To Sum It Up:

Your liver works hard in the background to keep your body ticking. It has more than 400 functions, one of which is detoxifying your body from harmful or unwanted substances.

It does this in three phases, and each phase must be working properly for the process to work as a whole. When any of the phases ISN’T working optimally you might see some health issues like estrogen dominance, poor digestion, low energy, blood sugar issues, PMS, chemical hypersensitivities, allergies, mood issues, problems sleeping, acne, and fatigue, among others.

So it pays to support your liver. And how can that be done?

Starting with a variety of vibrant, whole-foods. Options like cruciferous veggies support the processes needed for all three phases of detoxification. Other great options are antioxidant-rich foods like green tea and turmeric. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium are also important, as are options that provide quality amino acids like good quality proteins.

And of course, you can also support the liver by reducing the amount of work it has to do in the first place. Try to minimize the toxins in your life in your personal care and cleaning products, as well as your food. Also try to eat a little less, avoid alcohol, and definitely avoid smoking.

And lastly, if you haven’t already done so, I’d encourage you to check out my other liver post for some additional awesome background information on the liver and its work: Acne? Hormone Imbalances? Blood Sugar Problems? TRY 6 WAYS TO LOVE YOUR LIVER

To your liver!

© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly

2 responses to “Optimizing Liver Detoxification for Better Skin and Hormones (and Digestion, and Mood, and Energy, and…)”

  1. Hey Emily, Great article, very well organized and easy to read. What are your thoughts on jucing for liver health? Would you suggest including cruciferous vegetables in the juice or no because they can block absorption of iodine? Thanks!


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