The liver is the Rodney Dangerfield of organs – it doesn’t get no respect. As a holistic nutritionist, I value the liver and want you to know and understand what our largest internal organ does and why we should all love our liver.
If you don’t know much about the liver it could be because it silently goes through its over 500 functions day-in and day-out, serving without complaint. Unfortunately, liver problems do not present themselves until irreparable damage has already occurred.
The liver is the recipient of every substance we ingest, from cigarette smoke to toothpaste to apple pie, even materials we take in through the skin, including pollution and sunscreen.
Among its other functions, the liver serves as a storage depot for vitamins A, B12, D, E and K as well as the minerals copper and iron. Because we have stores of these vitamins and minerals normally, it is relatively easy to overload the liver with them, causing liver damage.
Without a properly functioning liver:
- Our blood would be clogged with fats, glucose and amino acids
- Our bodies would have no defense against infections
- There would be no way to eliminate the drugs and toxins we consume
- No mechanism for processing digested food from the intestine
- Make bile
- Produce enzymes and proteins that heal wounds and clot blood
- Break down food and turn it into energy
- Produce and regulate many of our hormones
When the liver isn’t functioning well, it isn’t efficient at regulating blood glucose levels, energy levels plummet as glycogen, the stored form of glucose, is not easily converted to glucose.
The liver also affects our mental sharpness. When we eat animal proteins the small intestine produces harmful ammonia during digestion and the liver is responsible for converting that ammonia into urea which is then sent to the kidneys for elimination. When the liver is diseased, the ammonia can’t converted properly and builds up in the blood and brain causing a form of mental confusion called encephalopathy.
The first indications of liver problems are pain or distention in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen. This can be linked to a number of ailments but it often signals inflammation or distention of the liver. An accumulation of fluid in the abdomen known as ascites is associated with advanced liver disease. Pruritus, or severe itching is another symptom that can be present due to blockage of bile flow or cholestasis.
Blood tests of liver enzymes, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) will often be markedly elevated as a result of massive liver cell death that can cause hepatic failure. Aminotransferases are enzymes that facilitate certain chemical reactions within cells. Elevation of ALT and AST into the bloodstream indicates a leak from dead or damaged cells, suggesting hepatic death.
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
It should come as no surprise that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), most often found in people who are overweight or obese, is the most common liver disease in the U.S., with an estimated 10 to 40 percent of the general global population affected. Up to 75 percent of obese persons, 50 percent of people with diabetes and 90 percent of morbidly obese people or those weighing more than 200 percent of their ideal body weight are thought to have NAFLD. According to the American Liver Foundation, it is estimated that approximately 25 percent of Americans have NAFLD. It has also been estimated that some 53 percent of obese children have fatty liver disease.
NAFLD develops in two stages. The first, a simple fatty liver, is relatively harmless and reversible and need not ever lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Once it progresses as in stage two, the liver becomes inflamed and then scarred and at this point the disease has reached a more dangerous level leading to cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.
NAFLD can be found in every demographic group though it’s primarily found in women in their middle years who carry too much weight and who also have high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Technically, a liver is found to be “fatty” when fat makes up at least 10 percent of the liver by weight.
Obesity is the major cause of fatty liver because obese people store fat in every area of their bodies, including the liver. Ironically, fatty liver may also occur in people who lose weight too quickly. The liver may not be able to handle the huge task of breaking down all that fat in the tissues, so it simply accumulates, which is an argument for a more measured approach to weight reduction.
Insulin resistance and the other risk factors for metabolic syndrome (High Triglycerides, Obesity, Low HDL, Hypertension, and Diabetes) significantly increase an individual’s chance of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Managing Fatty Liver Disease
Trim down with diet and exercise. The most effective treatment for fatty liver and the most reliable way to avoid future liver disease is from weight loss and exercise. People with a BMI above 25 can reduce the amount of fat stored in their liver with a diet that is high in fiber and low in starchy carbohydrates with minimal sugar intake. Elimination of trans-fats is also required.
Control diabetes. Strict management of diabetes to prevent further damage and possibly reduce the liver’s store of fat.
Avoid toxic substances. All patients with NAFLD should avoid alcohol, exposure to chemicals that cause liver damage, and cigarette smoke.
Effects of Alcohol on Metabolism by the Liver
Excessive alcohol consumption effects its own metabolism plus that of other drugs by the liver. In most people, alcohol is primarily broken down by enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenases. These enzymes speed up the chemical reaction that converts ethyl alcohol to its metabolite acetaldehyde. Alcohol dehydrogenases enzymes primarily work in the stomach and the liver. Hydrogen is released when alcohol dehydrogenase turns alcohol into acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is an important metabolite of alcohol because it is associated with the unpleasant effects such a flushing, nausea and vomiting. It may also play a role in long-term liver damage caused by alcohol. In the body acetaldehyde is metabolized to acetic acid or vinegar, by a chemical reaction enhanced by the enzyme known as aldehyde dehydrogenase.
The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself. In fact, if less than 60 percent of the liver has been removed, the remaining organ can expand, filling its former space until it reaches its original weight and the entire liver can function normally, provided that the remaining 40 percent was not heavily scarred.
How can you not fall in love with an organ like this?
Of all the organs in the body, the liver is truly the strong, silent type. Whether it’s fighting a viral infection or struggling under the burden of excess scar tissue, the liver rarely complains. That is why liver disease can progress for years before it’s noticed. In fact, in most cases of liver disease, the first clues that something is wrong are virtually imperceptible. It is often when the liver is on the verge of collapse and can no longer perform its duties that its deterioration becomes apparent.
This well-known plant has been used for more than 2,000 years to cleanse and support the liver. Its active substance is called silymarin, which is found in the seeds of the plant. Milk thistle not only supports the liver but actually rejuvenates it. It’s a potent antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory properties and has been proven to repair and grow new liver cells.
European clinical studies have found that milk thistle helps in treating alcoholic cirrhosis and aid recovery from hepatitis.
Chlorella is a blue-green algae that has been around at least 530 million years. Its single-celled structure and high content of chlorophyll give it unique abilities to nourish the body while also absorbing small particles. Chlorella can bind heavy metals, toxins, and pesticides and carry them out of the body.
Glutathione is made of three amino acids, cysteine, glycine and glutamine, along with a sulfur group that enables it to bind to free radicals and toxins. A potent antioxidant produced by the body to aid in the liver detoxification process, glutathione can become depleted due to an overwhelming toxic burden. The supplement, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid precursor that can stimulate glutathione synthesis.
Also known as eleuthero. Is said to stimulate the immune system and boost energy as a general tonic. Its benefits to the liver derive chiefly from the polysaccharides that reduce enzyme levels.
Contains large concentrations of catechins, an antioxidant substance that helps to protect cell membranes making it similar to milk thistle.
Curcumin, one of turmeric’s active ingredients, it is believed to be effective in fighting liver toxins.
Move Lymphatic Fluid
The lymphatic system is a network of 6000 nodes and glands that help remove toxins and waste. Common lymph soothing herbs include cleavers, red clover, burdock root and calendula. Dry skin brushing can also help to stimulate the lymphatic system while also improving circulation.
Eat Detoxifying Foods
Artichoke is a tasty vegetable that contains a phytonutrient called cynarin, which stimulates the production of bile improving digestion. Artichoke is loaded with antioxidants including liver-supportive silymarin, vitamin C, potassium, folate, and rich in fiber that helps in moving chyme through the digestive tract.
Other detoxifying vegetables are broccoli, onions, beets and cabbage, also add garlic, cilantro, and parsley.
I hope by now, you have come to appreciate your hard working liver. Give your liver some love and it will work quietly as it loves you back.