The world is toxic. The liver is under unprecedented chronic stress.
Environmental chemicals, prescription and illicit drugs, excessive use of alcohol and caffeine, poor diet, pollution, metabolic disorders, parasites, etc.
It’s amazing that we live with our livers as well as we do.
Your liver needs lots of help. The number (and kinds) of toxins that your liver has to process increases every day (and shows no sign of slowing down). There are now more chemicals around today than ever before. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are over 70,000 total chemicals that we have the potential to be exposed to every day in production, and around 15,000 of these chemicals are of concern for our health. 1
We are exposed to toxins in the food we eat, in the water we drink, in the synthetic materials we come into contact with (clothing, plastics, building materials, carpeting, etc.) and in the air we breathe. You may also be the source of toxins: If you gut is not functioning well, toxins can be produced by the bacteria that inhabit the gut that can create problems for your health.2
Your liver takes much of the brunt for dealing with this chemical onslaught. These toxins would normally not be much of a problem for a healthy liver, but stress, poor eating habits, lack of vital nutrients, and a busy lifestyle all effect the functioning of the liver.
The liver is best known for its role in detoxification, transforming substances like ammonia, metabolic waste, drugs and chemicals, so that they can be excreted. The liver is also the source of bile, which functions to break down fats. It is a source of energy, storing glucose in the form of glycogen which is converted back to glucose. Metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins and fats, making food available to the body for energy, tissue building, activating enzymes…the list of the liver’s functions is long.
We can take a clue from the past as most traditional cultures practiced some form of fasting or detoxification; fasting itself is a part of many religious practices. In the past, detoxification often meant dramatic fasting coupled with harsh herbs in order to flush out toxins. Today’s modern detoxification programs rarely use fasting at all, but look at diet modification instead. Modern detoxification programs feed the liver’s detoxification pathways, while providing nutrients to optimally repair both the body and the gut.
Liver detoxification is an incredibly complicated process that is actually two distinct processes. Each step in the process changes a toxic chemical into something that is not toxic or something that can be removed easily from the body. It helps to think of these processes as little engines and just like car engines, the liver’s detoxification pathways need the right fuel (nutrients) in the right amounts in order to function properly.
The liver transforms fat-soluble toxins into a water-soluble form so they can be released through the kidneys (for elimination through the urine) and into the bile (for elimination through the colon). This transformation occurs during a two-phase process: Phase I involves a group of 50 to 100 enzymes called the cytochrome P448 and P450 systems. These enzymes play a central role in the detoxification of both exogenous components (such as drugs and pesticides) and endogenous ones (such as hormones), as well as in the synthesis of steroid hormones and bile acids.
A side effect of this metabolic activity is the production of free radicals, which bind to cellular components and cause cellular damage. The most important antioxidant for neutralizing these free radicals is glutathione, which is needed both for Phase I and Phase II. When exposure to high levels of toxins produces so many free radicals from Phase I detoxification that all the glutathione is exhausted, Phase II processes dependent on glutathione cease. This causes an imbalance between Phase I and Phase II activity, which results in severe toxic reactions, due to buildup of toxic intermediate forms.
Phase II detoxification involves conjugation, which means that a protective compound becomes bound to the toxin. Besides glutathione conjugation there are essentially five other processes: amino acid conjugation, methylation, sulfation, sulfoxidation, acetylation and glucuronidation. These enzyme systems need specific nutrients in order to function. If the liver cells are not functioning properly, phase II detoxification slows down and increases the toxic load by allowing the buildup of toxic intermediates.
You can think about these detoxification processes as engines: These engines can be turned up or down by what you are eating and what kind of energy you are providing the liver. Famously, drinking grapefruit juice tends to increase Phase 1 (which reduces the effectiveness of many drugs including antidepressants, high blood pressure medications and others).3
What typically happens when you ingest a toxin is that it passes through the first engine (Phase 1) and then moves on to the second engine (Phase 2) where the toxin is then excreted from the body. The process works great when it works great, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Optimizing Detoxification Engines
You can get your detoxification engines working the best for you if you feed them the nutrients that they need. Here are the nutrients needed for Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification:4
- B vitamins: Riboflavin (vitamin B2), Niacin (vitamin B3), Pyridoxine (vitamin B6), Folic Acid, Cobalamin (Vitamin B12)
- Amino Acids: glutathione, branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine.)
- Amino Acids: glutamine, glycine, taurine, cysteine, methionine
Nutrients that Help Both
- Minerals: selenium, copper, zinc, manganese
- Vitamins: vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin A, bioflavonoids
- Coenzyme Q10
- Sulfur Compounds: thiols found in garlic, onions, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts.
- Milk thistle: Silymarin
Integrative Approaches to Detoxification and Liver Health Assessment
If you are going to go on a detoxification program, it is helpful follow a healthy diet that would include the following:
- Avoid Processed Foods: Stay away from processed foods that contain artificial flavorings, preservatives and additives. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any food with more than five ingredients.
- Avoid: Alcohol, sugar, or any food you might be allergic to (common allergens are dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, shellfish, citrus). Many people find that they are sensitive to the nightshade family of plants as well (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant).
- Vegetables: Your diet should be around 80 percent fruits and vegetables. Eat as much as you can of green vegetables, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, garlic, kale, mixed greens,
- Fruits: The fruits that are the most helpful are those that are very colorful: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries.
- Fiber: In order to remove the toxins from your body, you need to ensure you are eating enough fiber. This is not a problem if you are eating enough fruits and vegetables, but supplement if you need to.
- Water: As always, drink enough water to keep your urine clear or light-straw-color. Use high quality water filters with enhancement media.
- Nutritional Supplementation
- Functional Lab Testing: With functional lab tests liver markers such as Urinary Bile Acid Sulfates and standard blood markers (such as liver enzymes) can be evaluated. As with any health condition or prevention plan, one should devote resources towards doing as much lab testing as possible to identify dysfunction. Get tested.