The liver, the largest organ in the body, is a hardworking, multi-tasker. It filters a mighty 1.4 litres of blood a minute and performs more than 500 functions within the human body.
These many functions range from processing digested food from the gut, controlling levels of fats, amino acids and glucose in the blood, producing heat, manufacturing bile, activating vitamin D, storing vitamins A, D, E and K, iron and copper and removing used hormones.
One of its most important roles is detoxifying blood. The liver deals with toxic by-products from internal processes in the body such as cholesterol, old hormones and neurotransmitters, used red blood cells as well as the toxins we expose ourselves to such as alcohol, medicines, caffeine, heavy metals, petrochemicals and nicotine. The liver has a sophisticated two-stage process to render these toxins harmless. It is important that the two stages work in harmony with each other as the detoxification process initially makes the substances more harmful before turning them into a state that the body can manage and eliminate. Detoxification generates a large number of free-radicals. Free radicals are a normal by-product of most reactions in the body. They become harmful, however, when there are not enough antioxidants to mop them up and neutralise them.
Given how hard the liver works, it is not surprising that it can become overburdened and need a bit of extra support. When our liver isn’t functioning properly, there are a wide range of symptoms. Some are specific to liver function such as difficulty digesting fatty foods, gallstones, intolerance to alcohol and caffeine, slight yellowing of the eyes, sensitivity to strong smells such as perfumes and poor sleep (particularly between 1am and 3am). Others are more general such as fatigue, dry skin, weight gain, poor concentration and recurrent headaches. By boosting the liver and supporting the detoxification process we may improve our energy levels and our feeling of wellbeing.
As the toxic burden can be so heavy on the liver, it is worthwhile cutting down on processed, fatty and sugary foods. Try eating more organic foods, increasing fibre with whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. A colourful array of fruit and vegetables will provide a fantastic source of protective antioxidants. Brassicas, such as broccoli, spinach and sprouts, are particularly good for the liver as they boost both stages in the detoxification process. Choline helps the liver deal with fats and supports detoxification; great food sources are egg yolks, liver and chicken. Alternatively lecithin, rich in choline, can be sprinkled onto food or mixed into smoothies. Lemons contain limonene which helps support detoxification. Green tea is well known as a great source of antioxidants and studies have shown that it may also help protect against diseases of the liver.
During a detox, it is vital to keep your system moving regularly: drink plenty of fluids to help flush out toxins and to avoid constipation. Try filtered water, herbal teas and vegetable juices and smoothies. With smoothies add brassicas and lemon juice for extra benefit. To rest the liver, it is a good idea to cut down or eliminate alcohol and caffeine. Try getting into the habit of having alcohol free days every week and swapping tea or coffee for herbal teas.
The liver needs specific nutrients to carry out its many tasks successfully. B vitamins are particularly important, as are vitamin C and minerals such as copper, zinc and magnesium. A number of amino acids are important components of the second stage of detoxification: glutamine. Good food sources are eggs, lean meat, fish, nuts and seeds. Some herbs can help too. Milk thistle, which has been used as a liver tonic for many centuries, is much researched and has been shown to be an antioxidant with a particular affinity for the liver.
Many of us can benefit from taking time to look after our liver, especially if we have high consumption of processed foods, caffeine and alcohol. It is fortunate that liver cells regenerate regularly, so by adding liver-friendly foods to our diet and a few well-chosen nutrients, it is possible to improve its function.
Give your liver a helping hand – your liver will work better and you will look and feel better.
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