The liver performs myriad essential functions when it comes to our health. Often called the body’s “chemical factory,” this remarkable gland makes various proteins, produces bile and other substances to aid digestion, and stores a reserve of blood sugar in the form of glycogen. Perhaps the liver’s greatest mystique surrounds its role in the detoxification (detox), or breaking down, of harmful byproducts of normal metabolism, as well as environmental pollutants that enter the body.
How Does the Liver Detox?
The liver’s “Phase 1” detoxification enzymes bind with and reduce the toxicity of harmful chemicals. Next, the liver’s Phase 2 enzymes further bind with harmful chemicals, make them water soluble, and prepare them for excretion. Both groups of enzymes depend on various nutrients to do their job.
What Stresses the Liver?
Alcohol, fatty liver (often a consequence of obesity), some medications, and hepatitis C infection can damage the liver and lead to life-threatening liver failure. However, nearly all of us live in a highly toxic environment, with daily exposure to air and water pollution, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, industrial chemicals (including known carcinogens), and thousands of food additives. Given this unprecedented chemical exposure, the liver must work harder than ever before to break down everything. This is where certain nutrients can provide support.
Getting Your Liver Tested
Doctors measure levels of two liver enzymes, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), to assess liver health. Elevated levels of these enzymes are signs of serious liver irritation or disease. However, less severe liver stresses are not likely to elevate ALT and AST.
Conventional Treatments for Liver Failure
Liver failure is usually a gradual process, except in cases of acute poisoning, e.g., from ingestion of poisonous Amanita mushrooms or an overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol). The medical treatment for liver failure is a transplant.
Should You Do a Liver Cleanse?
The term is somewhat of a misnomer. It may be far better to give your liver proper support each day, not just periodically.
Supplements to Support Liver Function
Several supplements can support liver function:
1. N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)
This potent antioxidant is stocked in hospital emergency rooms to treat acetaminophen overdose. Like Amanita mushrooms, acetaminophen damages the liver primarily by blocking the production of glutathione, an antioxidant required for detox. NAC is a precursor to glutathione and can heal the liver if taken soon enough. As a reliable defense against low levels of toxins, take 500–600 mg daily.
2. Milk Thistle
This venerable herb has been used medicinally for at least 2,000 years. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that it is a powerful antioxidant, protects against liver damage, and reduces the toxic effects of drugs and other chemicals. Silymarin is the concentrated extract of milk thistle, and at least 50 percent of it consists of silybin, a potent constituent. Take 100–200 mg daily of silymarin, the concentrated extract of milk thistle.
3. Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Burton Berkson, MD, of Las Cruces, N.M., has long used this antioxidant to treat patients with liver cirrhosis, liver failure, Amanita mushroom poisoning, and other diseases. He often administers it with silymarin and selenium. Alpha-lipoic acid functions as a precursor to glutathione, helps maintain normal liver function, and can help regenerate damaged liver tissue. Take 100–200 mg daily. Amounts up to 600 mg are safe.
The liver uses selenium to make glutathione peroxidase, one of several glutathione-based compounds needed for liver detoxification. Ideally, it should be combined with NAC or alpha-lipoic acid. Take 200 mcg daily, an amount found in many multivitamin/multimineral supplements.
The B-complex vitamins and antioxidants (e.g., vitamins C and E and carotenoids) are needed to support the liver’s Phase 1 enzymes and the initial step in detoxification. Follow label directions in taking a daily multivitamin supplement.
6. Amino Acids
The liver uses these building blocks of protein to support its Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. Methionine and NAC are the most important amino acids in Phase 2 detoxification. You can also opt for a multi-amino acid supplement.
Foods that Support the Liver
Sulfur-containing amino acids, which are most abundant in animal proteins, are essential for the liver’s Phase 2 enzymes. Additional sources of sulfur include garlic and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower. In practical terms, this means eating sufficient protein (e.g., chicken, turkey, fish, and grass-fed beef) and ample vegetables.
Chronic Kidney Disease
The kidneys work with the liver to remove waste from the body. Chronic kidney disease reduces kidney function over many years and has a poor long-term prognosis. A recent study by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, looked at people who ate a pro-inflammatory diet—think junk foods and other types of processed foods. Such a diet was associated with higher blood levels of C-reactive protein (an indicator of inflammation) and reduced kidney function. Some evidence indicates that N-acetylcysteine and vitamin C might help protect the kidneys.
DOCTOR’S BEST Best NAC Detox Regulators
NATROL Alpha Lipoic Acid 600 mg
PLNT BY VITAMIN SHOPPE Milk Thistle