What is liver detoxification?
Our world constantly challenges us with chemicals. The pollutants in the air we breathe, contaminants in the water we drink and the food we eat, biohazards in the workplace and synthetic compounds in the things we wear (clothing, cosmetics and personal hygiene products) expose us to a vast concoction of chemicals 24/7. Not only industrial chemicals, but also naturally-derived ones, can cause toxic injury to our cells, such as carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds from wood smoke, mycotoxins from moulds and acrylamide from the crusts of bread and hot potato chips.
Fortunately, our bodies were designed with self-managing cleaning and detoxification systems, your liver being the main organ that breaks down toxic organic and inorganic chemicals in your blood, makes them water-soluble and sends these metabolites to your kidneys for removal in urine. Our diet needs to be optimal to supply the necessary nutrients to these organs to help process and excrete metabolic waste from the body, containing key foods and phytochemicals to assist with utilising detoxification pathways. When these pathways become overloaded, this impacts hormonal balance and immune function.
The Body’s Filtration Unit – Your Liver
Your liver is responsible for performing over 500 essential functions, relating to digestion, nutrient production and storage, metabolism, immunity, hormone regulation and detoxification. This vital organ has a remarkable capacity to constantly filter out these substances from our blood and break them down so they can be more easily excreted from your body. Liver cells also regenerate, a cycle that takes three months, after which time your liver has completely renewed itself.
Specific nutritional compounds assist this liver detoxification process which occurs in two phases:
Phase 1: Metabolises oil-based toxins into water-soluble fragments by the action of enzymes that contain the amino acid glycine (this process is referred to as glycination).
Phase 2: After a holding phase, these toxic properties are then processed by Phase 2 liver enzymes which require glutathione (a substance made from amino acids) for their activity. This is known by the technical term conjugation or glutathionation.
How your genes influence liver detoxification
Many specific genes influence our capacity to detoxify substances in our livers. For example, some people process caffeine quite quickly through Phase 1 detox, whereas others take much longer and are less tolerant to caffeine as it hangs around in their bodies for much longer, depending upon their cytochrome P450 genes (1). People who are genetically disadvantaged in the metabolism of drugs through their livers can suffer unexpectedly severe adverse reactions to these pharmaceutical compounds.
Symptoms of liver toxicity (chemical overload)
- Fatigue, low energy levels
- Slight creaminess or yellowing of the sclera (white part) of the eyes
- Tongue coated with a creamy/yellow dryness
- Headache – dull and “sick” feeling
- Brain fog
- Nausea without eating
- Cannot tolerate fatty or oily foods
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Muscle aching, stiffness, weakness and/or fatigue
Complications of liver impairment
As liver function becomes sluggish and inefficient due to having inadequate time (rest and sleep) and nutritional resources (poor nutrient intake) to perform its detoxification functions, various health conditions start to arise, depending upon the individual’s past toxic exposure, genetic profile and medical/surgical history.
Allergies can be aggravated and conditions such as eczema and asthma worsen as the liver becomes more impaired, affecting its capacity to metabolise histamine, which then persists and causes more allergy symptoms, such as itchiness and wheezing. Migraines, which can often be related to allergies in many sufferers, can be relieved by undertaking a liver detoxification program.
Sensitivity to your environment
Sensitivity to chemicals can develop if the body retains an excessive toxin load due to impaired liver detoxification. This may cause foggy thinking, headaches, dizziness and nausea.
The liver regulates and detoxifies hormones such as cortisol and oestrogens, as well as assists in thyroid hormone balance, so mood changes (e.g. PMS), stress tolerance and weight regulation can be impacted by poor liver function.
Deep sleep can conversely be disrupted by an overworked liver, affecting your metabolism and serum leptin levels, thus increasing appetite with weight gain (5). Blood glucose levels can also drop if the liver does not supply adequate glycogen from storage between meals to use as fuel and maintain energy levels, which can lead to sugar cravings, increased calorie intake and weight gain as well.
Fatty liver disease
Fatty liver disease is a complication of prolonged liver toxicity, producing fat deposits that marble liver tissue. Causes are alcohol overuse or solvent chemical exposure, obesity and chronic stress (referred to as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD).
Natural Daily Detoxification
In health, our livers process any chemicals overnight that have been inhaled, absorbed and ingested during the day, thereby cleansing and renewing our cells and tissues, ready for the next day.
Focus on your sleep
To encourage natural detoxification, it is important to get plenty of good quality sleep to allow your liver time to process your daily toxin load, diverting blood flow from other organs to prioritise its operation (which Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us occurs from 1am to 3am each morning).
Get your bowels moving
Inactivity or a sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to sluggish bowel/liver activity, slowing essential daily detoxification. Constipation, particularly of a chronic nature, impairs liver detoxification capacity, as the circulation which returns blood from the colon to the liver recycles intestinal metabolic waste back to the liver for reprocessing, giving the liver an additional detox load.
Stress is a major saboteur of detox efficiency. Your liver function requires parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system dominance during certain less active hours of the day so that it can do the body’s housework, but when we are anxious or under pressure, we flip into sympathetic (“fight and flight”) nervous system dominance, which reduces blood circulation in the liver and thus slows up detox processes.
Foods and herbs to support liver detoxification
A clean diet with plenty of colour and bitter flavours, supported by a high intake of cleansing fluids, is the ideal liver detox diet. Phytonutrients and polyphenols support CYP450 metabolism of hormones, especially oestrogen, and regulate gene expression for many liver and cellular functions.
Good food sources of these phytonutrients are:
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, kale, bok choy, radish, and turnips.
- Sulfur-rich foods: onion, shallots, leeks, eggs, legumes, rocket, kale, zucchini (7)
- Vitamin B9- and B12-rich foods: Liver and other organ meats, ham, egg yolk, split peas, rainbow chard, asparagus, banana, peach, dairy yogurt
- Cysteine-rich foods: Pork, beef, duck, chicken breast, whey protein, tuna, oats, sunflower seeds and sprouted lentils.
HERBS: Dandelion root, Globe artichoke, Nettle, Turmeric, Schizandra, St John’s wort.
Benefits of Liver Detoxification
There are many benefits to improving your body's ability to detoxify in a healthy and efficient way.
- Relief from headaches, reduced brain fog, improved mental clarity
- Mood improvement, especially fewer anger outbursts and irritability
- Relief from constipation, haemorrhoids, bloating, flatulence, halitosis
- Acne, eczema and dermatitis rashes clear, itch resolves
- Allergic status improves, especially in children with anaphylaxis and urticaria
- Hormonal regulation, premenstrual syndrome alleviated, thyroid balances
- Sleep quality improves, melatonin and leptin levels restore
- Weight optimisation with an improved muscle-to-fat ratio
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*Always read the label and follow directions for use. If you experience any symptoms or if symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
1. Berthou F, Flinois JP, Ratanasavanh D, Beaune P, Riche C, Guillouzo A. Evidence for the involvement of several cytochromes P-450 in the first steps of caffeine metabolism by human liver microsomes. Drug Metab Dispos. 1991;19(3):561-7.
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3. Ziem G, McTamney J. Profile of patients with chemical injury and sensitivity. Environmental health perspectives. 1997;105 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):417-36.
4. Ridlon JM, Kang DJ, Hylemon PB, Bajaj JS. Bile acids and the gut microbiome. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2014;30(3):332-8.
5. Spiegel K, Leproult R, L'Hermite-Balériaux M, Copinschi G, Penev PD, Van Cauter E. Leptin levels are dependent on sleep duration: relationships with sympathovagal balance, carbohydrate regulation, cortisol, and thyrotropin. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004;89(11):5762-71.
6. Saltzman ET, Palacios T, Thomsen M, Vitetta L. Intestinal Microbiome Shifts, Dysbiosis, Inflammation, and Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2018;9.
7. Doleman JF, Grisar K, Van Liedekerke L, Saha S, Roe M, Tapp HS, et al. The contribution of alliaceous and cruciferous vegetables to dietary sulphur intake. Food chemistry. 2017;234:38-45.
Dr Sandra Cabot, The Liver Doctor https://www.liverdoctor.com/headache-and-migraine/