Your liver plays an important role in many of your body’s functions. It is a vital organ—meaning without it, you couldn’t survive.
As such, if the health of your liver is suffering, you’re likely experiencing many uncomfortable and even dangerous symptoms, which we will go over in this article.
First let’s get familiar with your liver. It is a dense, reddish-brown organ that resides under your diaphragm, and on top of your stomach, right kidney, and intestines. (Source) Weighing about 3 pounds, it holds about 1 pint (13%) of your body’s blood supply! This makes it the largest solid organ in your body.
The importance of the liver has been well known for centuries, in Ayurvedic (Traditional Chinese) medicine in particular. Even modern medical researchers have noted that “Except the method of presentation, no differentiation is being identified in the development of liver in both Ayurvedic as well as modern perspectives,” concluding that ancient Ayurvedic practitioners had an excellent grasp on the liver’s functionality.
Another unique aspect to note about the liver is its ability to regenerate. If part of the liver is lost, it can restore itself while adjusting to the smaller size to maintain its function and providing full support to the body. (Source)
The Role the Liver Plays In Your Body
The liver plays a central role in all metabolic processes in the body, breaking down all macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein. (Source)
In breaking down fats, the liver produces energy and bile.
When breaking down carbohydrates, the liver regulates blood sugar to ensure it remains steady.
The liver changes amino acids so they can be used as energy, or to produce carbohydrates or fats.
In addition to metabolizing macronutrients, the liver is the major detoxifier of your blood. As we touched on above, the liver holds about 1 pint of blood coming from the digestive organs.
Blood flows to the liver carrying nutrients, medication and toxic substances.
Then the liver gets to work detoxifying, changing, processing, etc., these various substances. Next it either sends them back out into the bloodstream, stores them, or sends them to the bowel to be eliminated.
Another function the liver carries out is producing proteins, with the help of vitamin K, that are crucial to blood clotting.
Common Conditions Affecting Liver Health
Liver disease can take many forms… over 100 in fact. This range of diseases are one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. (Source) We’ll go over some of the most common ones, what causes them, and symptoms signaling that your liver may need some extra attention.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
In the early stages of liver disease, symptoms may be indetectable. However as damage worsens, you may experience some or all of these (Source)
- Skin and eyes that appear yellowish (jaundice)
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Swelling in the legs and ankles
- Itchy skin
- Dark urine color
- Pale stool color, or bloody or tar-colored stool
- Chronic fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Tendency to bruise easily
Types of Liver Disease
- Cirrhosis – scarring from damage to the liver which can lead to liver failure.
- Alcoholic Liver Disease – since the liver is the primary site of ethanol (alcohol) metabolism, alcohol abuse can result in steatosis, hepatitis, and fibrosis/cirrhosis.
- Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease – also called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. The most frequent cause of liver disease in the Western world. Obesity, western diet and a sedentary lifestyle and genetic influences all come into play in the development of this disease.
- Hepatitis – inflammation of the liver caused by hepatitis viruses A, B, C, D and E, alcohol abuse, drug use, and other infections. Can lead to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis or liver cancer.
- Liver cancer – the fourth leading cause of cancer death in 2015. Risk factors are hepatitis infections, alcohol and tobacco use, and metabolic stress due to excess body fat.
- Ascites – accumulation of protein-containing (ascitic) fluid in the abdomen, commonly caused by cirrhosis preventing normal function of the liver and kidneys.
- Cholangitis – inflammation of the bile duct
Causes of Liver Disease
Various lifestyle habits, genetics, autoimmune conditions and more can affect liver health since it has a hand in so many of the body’s processes.
Some causes include (Source):
- Drinking excess alcohol
- Injecting drugs or sharing needles
- Not practicing safe sex resulting in infection
- Using medicine incorrectly; use of certain antibiotics; use of over-the-counter painkillers
- Autoimmune disease
- Inheriting abnormal genes that cause substances to build up in the liver
- Exposure to certain chemicals or toxins like insecticides, fungicides, paint, and more
- Obesity as a result of diet
Thankfully, some liver diseases like hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, fatty liver disease, cirrhosis and alcohol-related liver disease can be prevented.
Steps You Can Take to Keep Your Liver Healthy
It is important to note before we dive into these holistic methods for maintaining a healthy liver:
In many cases, these are not treatments for an already damaged liver!
For example, changing your diet or losing weight does not treat damage caused by a hepatitis infection.
However, if nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the cause of your liver damage, then eating in such a way to lose weight and reduce the amount of inflammatory fat in the liver is absolutely part of a well rounded treatment plan.
Eat These Foods for Liver Health
The title of this study calls coffee the “magical bean for liver disease!” If you wanted a reason to maintain your caffeine addiction, here it is.
The benefits of coffee for the liver have been well known for years, while the exact mechanisms are still being studied.
Coffee appears to reduce your risk of liver cancer, reduce scarring in a variety of chronic liver diseases, and maybe even reduce the ability of hepatitis C virus to replicate.
And don’t forget, coffee enemas can be extremely beneficial for liver cleansing and overall liver function. More on that in a future blog!
Foods High In Folate
Alcoholic liver disease is typically associated with folate deficiency, which is the result of a combination of both reduced intake and a reduction in the body’s ability to use it. (Source)
One study suggests an inverse association between increased folate levels and the development of liver cancer.
Folate is naturally found in many foods:
- Beef liver
- Vegetables (especially asparagus, brussels sprouts, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and mustard greens)
- Fruits and fruit juices (especially oranges and orange juice)
- Nuts, beans, and peas (such as peanuts, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans)
It’s important to eat organic foods to avoid stress on the liver, since it is the liver’s job to rid the body of these toxins.
Always looks for foods that are free from herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers.
Your liver could use the break!
Eat the Ayurvedic Way
In Ayurvedic medicine, the liver is part of the Pitta dosha, which controls digestion and metabolism and is associated with heat.
To balance the Pitta dosha and aid in liver health, they suggest to eat a Pitta-pacifying diet of sweet, astringent and bitter tastes while avoiding spicy or sour foods.
Add In Herbs and Supplements to Boost Your Liver
Silymarin, or milk thistle, suppresses cellular inflammation and is often used for the treatment of liver disease. (Source)
While high quality milk thistle supplements can offer huge benefits and healing properties, poor quality supplements can either frustratingly have no effect at all or even be contaminated with things like mycotoxins and pesticides. (Source)
Do your research when purchasing supplements to avoid at the least wasting your money and at the worst, creating more health problems.
In the case of milk thistle, you can even grow your own plant! You can steep its leaves to make tea, or eat its seeds.
One of my favorite liver support supplements is from Gaia Herbs and is called Liver Cleanse. Proper cleansing involves both detoxification and elimination. Liver Cleanse includes herbs traditionally used to deliver antioxidants and promote bile production to support detoxification.
Elimination of those toxins is then supported with herbs such as Dandelion and Burdock.Ginger root and Rooibus also help aid the inflammatory response while cleansing the liver. You can find this amazing supplement in my online dispensary here.
I’m mentioning folate again here as a potential supplement to first note that if you’re deficient in folate, it could be beneficial to incorporate it as a supplement as well.
I also want to touch on a common point of confusion: what is the difference between folic acid and folate?
You’ll need to know before you look for a supplement!
Folate and folic acid are both different forms of a water-soluble B-vitamin.
However folic acid is often added to fortified foods, while folate is naturally found in the foods mentioned above.
Both have to be converted to 5-MTHF to be used by the body.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Since they’re in different forms, the process for this conversion is different. As one study puts it, the human gut appears to have a very efficient capacity to convert reduced dietary folates to 5-MTHF, but limited ability to reduce folic acid. (Source)
It is hypothesised that the liver, rather than the upper small intestine as in folate, is the initial site of folic acid metabolism. (Source)
This has implications for its use as a supplement since the liver is slow to break down folic acid. It’s suggested that taking folic acid regularly as a supplement or in fortified foods may result in a significant and potentially dangerous level of unmetabolized folic acid circulating in the bloodstream.
Not to mention that 40% of women have a gene mutation called MTFHR that doesn’t allow their bodies to process folic acid—so taking it as a supplement is useless.
Therefore it is best to get folate through our diet, or to look for the broken down version of folate known as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) or levomefolate when finding supplements.
Here is a link to a clean and effective methyl folate.
Create an Active, Healthy Lifestyle
While it is rarely the easiest way out, creating an overall healthy lifestyle full of activity, exercise, whole foods with little alcohol, drugs, and tobacco is ideal for keeping your liver healthy long into life.
This doesn’t mean I’m trying to take away everything “fun.” Trust me when I say feeling lively and healthy for as long as you’re here on this earth is worth it.