The liver can be aptly described as the most forgotten organ. We take it for granted unless something goes wrong. However, there is a lot we can do to guard against problems, and since it's just in time for spring housecleaning, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what we can do to take care of the liver.
The liver is the largest internal organ weighing from about 2 pounds 10 ounces to 3 pounds 5 ounces, and in some ways it is the most complex organ, performing the functions of a chemical factory. It is located in the upper right portion of the abdomen and is protected by the ribs. It is the only organ to have a dual blood supply - the hepatic artery brings freshly oxygenated blood from the heart, and the portal vein brings blood from the stomach and intestines which contains nutrients from food.
The liver performs many metabolic and regulatory functions.
- Regulates carbohydrate metabolism - turns glucose into glycogen for storage in the liver. Liver glycogen can release glucose into the blood to maintain blood sugar levels as required. The liver can also manufacture carbohydrates from fats or proteins.
- Has storage functions - stores glycogen, vitamin A, vitamin D, many of the B complex vitamins, iron and copper.
- Regulates protein metabolism - manufactures many proteins such as albumin and blood-clotting factors such as prothrombin and fibrinogen that cause the blood to clot when needed. The liver makes sex hormone binding globulin which is the protein that binds the steroid sex hormones. The liver makes many proteins which transport substances such as fats, iron, hormones and drugs around the blood stream. One of these proteins, high density lipoprotein (HDL), is an indicator of risk of heart disease - a high value indicates a reduced risk. This is because HDL transports cholesterol out of blood vessel walls back to the liver for excretion. Thus a healthy liver is beneficial to good cardiovascular health.
- Detoxifies many toxic substances - metabolizes or biotransforms drugs, steroid hormones, fat, alcohol, artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives, airborne pollutants, and poisons in our water and food. The liver breaks down these harmful substances and excretes them as harmless by-products into the bile or blood. By-products in the bile enter the intestine and leave the body in the feces. By-products in the blood are filtered out by the kidneys and then leave the body in the urine.
- Manufactures about half of the body's cholesterol - the rest comes from food. About 80 percent of the cholesterol made by the liver is used to make bile which is secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder until it is needed. Cholesterol is a vital part of every cell membrane and is necessary for producing some hormones including estrogen, testosterone and the adrenal hormones.
While the liver's ability to deal with these toxins is extraordinary, once the limits of its function are exceeded, these toxins accumulate in the organ and cause disease. However, the liver has the remarkable ability to regenerate itself. Up to two-thirds of the liver can be impaired, yet the organ can fully restore itself under the right conditions.
Symptoms of liver dysfunction vary tremendously from very subtle symptoms to major incapacitating symptoms. They include:
- raised levels of blood fats which may be a first indication of poor liver function, e.g. high fasting cholesterol and triglycerides.
- poor digestion, abdominal bloating, nausea especially after eating fatty foods
- weight gain
- coated tongue
- bad breath
- irritable bowel syndrome
- unpleasant mood changes, depression, and a "foggy brain"
- exacerbated allergic conditions such as hay fever, hives, skin rashes and asthma
- high blood pressure and/or fluid retention
- hypoglycemia or unstable blood sugar levels
- inability to tolerate fatty foods
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- excessive body heat
- loss of tolerance to alcohol and some drugs such as antibiotics
There is much we can do to reduce the risk of liver disease.
- Listen to your body - don't eat if you are not hungry, but don't ignore hunger pains either. Ignoring hunger may lead to hypoglycemia.
- Drink at least 8 to 12 glasses of filtered water daily - this helps to cleanse the liver and kidneys.
- Avoid eating large amounts of sugar - especially avoid refined sugars as the liver will convert them to fat. Also avoid artificial sweeteners found in diet soft drinks as these are toxic to the liver and may cause hypoglycemia and fatigue. If you need something sweet, eat fresh, raw fruits.
- Avoid foods you may be allergic to - the liver is affected by imbalances in the immune system which are triggered by allergies.
- Be aware of good intestinal hygiene - avoid water and foods that could be contaminated with bacteria and follow safe food handling procedures.
- Do not eat if you feel stressed or anxious - blood is diverted away from the digestive system including the liver at these times and digestion will be poor.
- Buy organically grown fresh produce if possible - (see our March 2009 newsletter) buy organically grown fruits and vegetables and free-range poultry that is free of antibiotics if you can.
- Obtain your protein from diverse sources, not just from animal products - include legumes in your diet (e.g. beans, chickpeas, lentils), not just animal products such as meat, eggs and fish.
- Choose your breads and spreads wisely - eat only whole grain breads, and avoid those made with hydrogenated vegetable oils and preservatives. Try spreads such as hummus, fresh avocado or tahini instead of butter or margarine.
- Avoid constipation - eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables; drink plenty of water throughout the day. Be sure your diet is high in fibre or supplements with fibre.
- Avoid excessive saturated fats and all trans fatty acids - the unhealthy fats will harm your liver if you eat them excessively. However, remember that you need essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), and that monounsaturated fats are healthy in moderation (see our April 2009 newsletter).
- Follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, including keeping your weight in the normal range.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol.
- Limit your consumption of acetaminophen (or TylenolT, also called paracetamol in the UK). Too much acetaminophen is a common cause of liver failure.
- There are a number of herbs and plants that are known to improve the health of the liver; these include dandelion root ,milk thistle and bitters among others.
Seeing how important an organ the liver is, I recommend cleansing it twice a year. You can contact me for further information
The suggestions and recommendations in this newsletter are not intended to be prescriptive or diagnostic. The information is accurate and up to date to our knowledge, but we are not responsible for any errors in our sources of information.
1. Cabot S. The Liver Cleansing Diet. Scottsdale, Arizona: S.C.B. International, 1997.
2. The Merck Manual of Medical Information Home Edition. Berkow R, Beers MH, Fletcher AJ eds. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.
3.Tanne J. Paracetamol causes most liver failure in UK and US. BMJ 2006;332:628.
Ramilas Healing Arts Clinic