The liver is the body’s largest internal organ. It is responsible for many things, most notably metabolizing alcohol and detoxing the body from harmful substances. But it does way more than that.
This article explores the functions of the liver, problems that can arise, and natural ways to support good liver health.
What is the Liver?
The liver is shaped like a half-moon and resides in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. It weighs close to three pounds and is about the size of an American football.
Much like the brain and the heart, the liver is a vital organ that is needed for human survival.
The primary functions of the liver are: (1)
- Detoxing the body from harmful substances
- Breaking down and metabolizing substances (such as alcohol and medication) and hormones
- Filtering blood
- Storing nutrients like iron and copper
- Breaking down fats for digestion
- Producing bile for the digestive process
- Breaking down proteins
- Breaking down ammonia into urea, for removal from the body
- Supporting proper immune function
- Making proteins for blood clotting
- Holding glycogen, the storage form of glucose for energy
- Recycling old red blood cells
The liver does much more but these are just some of the primary and essential functions. It’s such a crucial organ that it can literally regenerate itself if it is damaged from injury or surgical removal.
The cells expand to fill the space, and then new cells begin to regenerate to repair and replace. This process is so efficient that the liver can be back to normal size in a week’s time after losing two-thirds of the organ.
The regenerative capacity of the liver is important. There are numerous complications that can occur in the liver which can have serious health implications.
These are some of the more common types of liver problems and disorders. Overall, there are more than a hundred different varieties of liver issues. (2)
An infection of the liver, there are several types of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is a viral infection that leads to inflammation of the liver.
Hepatitis B is most commonly a sexually or shared-needle transmitted disease that can be short or long-term, depending on how it is acquired and the severity.
Hepatitis C is another form of viral hepatitis that can lead to long-term health issues like cancer or cirrhosis. There is also an autoimmune type of hepatitis where the immune system mistakenly destroys healthy liver tissue. There is no cure for autoimmune hepatitis.
Cirrhosis is a condition that involves liver damage, where scar tissue appears in place of normal, healthy liver tissue and cells. Cirrhosis can be caused by many disorders like hepatitis, alcohol abuse, Wilson’s disease, genetic disorders, and more.
The liver stores extra iron. When excessive iron builds in the body, it can damage the liver and lead to liver disease.
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
While alcohol abuse can cause liver disease, other problems can lead to fatty liver deposits, resulting in disease and damage. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can develop from obesity, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Symptoms of Liver Problems
While the liver can be subject to many types of disorders or problems, most liver issues start with common symptoms that then require a proper medical diagnosis to explain.
Common symptoms of liver problems include:
- Flu-like symptoms that don’t go away
- Jaundice (the yellowing of skin or whites of eyes)
- Dark-colored urine even when not dehydrated
- Poor appetite
- Itchy skin
- Low sex drive
- Joint pain and body aches
- Vomiting and nausea not associated with other illness
- Nose bleeds
- Weak muscles
- Pale-colored bowel movements
If you have any of these symptoms, it’s essential to see your doctor ASAP. Liver disorders can often be diagnosed with blood tests and other imaging diagnostics.
The Liver and Detox
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the liver’s tasks is detoxifying the body. It does so in conjunction with the other detox organs: the kidneys, bladder, intestines, lungs, and skin.
Liver cleanses have become popular wellness trends. These are dietary or supplemental protocols aimed at supposedly increasing the efficiency of the liver or of clearing the liver from extra toxins.
But do they really work?
When it comes to the “need” to detox your liver, science says it’s not actually even possible. You can do things to promote liver health, but you can’t change the way that your body detoxes.
You can make it harder on your liver by consuming things it has to work harder to break down, like alcohol, but you cannot actually “make” your liver detox.
In order to actually promote better detox in your body, you just need to eat and live in such a way that supports overall good health.
This means regular exercise, eating a diet filled with whole foods and nutrients, and avoiding things that make your body feel worse or that are a burden on your health.
So in spite of what internet ads may say, doing a liver detox is NOT necessary and isn’t even possible. Instead, focus on living a life of wellness that supports all of your organs.
How to Keep the Liver Healthy
While you can’t “do” a detox, you can certainly do many things that promote the health of your liver and other organs.
Things that specifically promote liver health include:
- Vaccinating against hepatitis, if you’re at risk
- Practicing safe sex and not ever sharing needles, toothbrushes, razors, or other personal items
- Getting frequent exercise
- Making sure your medications don’t interact with each other, which could lead to liver damage
- Not excessively consuming alcohol
- Eating a healthy diet
11 Foods to Support Liver Health
While most foods that are whole and unprocessed contain nutrients that are beneficial for health, certain foods have specific components that support the liver as it does its job.
The sulfuric compounds in cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are healthy for many reasons. One benefit is that they boost levels of enzymes in the liver that protect it from oxidative damage. (3, 4)
They’re also rich in fiber, vitamin C, and folate which are important nutrients for overall health.
Coffee gets a bad reputation as being unhealthy, but it’s actually one of the foods highest in antioxidants. Antioxidants protect cells in the body from being damaged by oxidative stress.
The liver, because it processes so many toxins, has a greater chance of being damaged by oxidative substances. Foods or drinks that are high in antioxidants are protective of the liver, and coffee is no exception.
Coffee can also help to protect the liver from disease, including cirrhosis and other chronic liver disorders. (5)
It also lowers the chances of developing cancer of the liver and reduces overall inflammation in the organ. (6)
For coffee to be beneficial for the liver, however, it is best consumed black and not loaded with milk or sugar.
Tea is also a rich source of antioxidants that can protect the liver. Green tea especially can support liver health, including improving liver enzymes that can be tested via the blood. (7)
The best green tea benefits are seen when consuming more than four cups per day. (8)
Black tea is also rich in antioxidants and promotes liver health.
While many like to write grapes off as “high sugar” fruits, they’re actually rich in nutrients that protect the liver—most specifically, resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been widely studied for heart health.
Turns out it’s also important for liver health, too. (9)
A berry that is rich in vitamin C and fiber, blueberries also contain antioxidants known as anthocyanins. These are what make blueberries so vibrant in color and also what makes them supportive of liver health. (10)
Eating blueberries protect the liver from oxidative damage and can rev the body’s natural immune response for defense. While more research is needed, blueberries have preliminarily been shown to actually inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the liver. (11)
Another berry with anthocyanins, cranberries are chockfull of antioxidants. They can promote a healthy liver and protect it from oxidative damage. (12)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
They’re so good for the liver that they can prevent fatty deposits from forming in the organ and can even keep liver enzymes in the normal range. (14)
A potent source of antioxidants known as betalains, red beets not only promote heart health but also liver health. (15)
Beets can be eaten whole or juiced for benefits, and should be consumed on a regular basis to achieve the protective results.
One of the nuts that is highest in omega-3 fats, walnuts have numerous health benefits. They’re high in fiber and contain a balance of protein and healthy fats.
They have also been shown to be good for liver health and can reduce the development of liver disease and fatty deposits in the liver. (16)
While some fats are unhealthy, like trans fats, other types are protective of the liver and other organs. These good fats contain antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients.
Olive oil is ones of the best fatty acids for heart, liver, and anti-inflammatory health. It can help to keep fatty levels in the liver normal and can even help to reduce oxidative damage and abnormal enzymes. (17)
Olive oil also promotes a better flow of blood in the body—part of why it’s good for heart health—and since the liver filters a large portion of the body’s blood supply, it is good for hepatic health, too.
It can prevent abnormal fatty deposits from forming in the liver, which is one of the early signs of liver disease.
Another source of good fat, avocados are technically a fruit that is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Avocados support a healthy heart and liver and helps to prevent abnormal fatty deposits from forming in the liver. (18)
They are also high in fiber and can promote natural weight loss. Since obesity can be a trigger for liver disease, they protect the liver in this roundabout way, too.
3 Supplements to Support Liver Health
Some supplements are effective at helping the liver do its job better—but should you take them?
Reasons why you might take a supplement for liver health may vary, but it’s always important to understand that you can’t force the liver to detox, and taking too many liver-stimulating supplements can actually cause harm, not help.
Always speak with your doctor before starting any supplements. They can interact with medications and other supplements and some can be harmful for certain health conditions or when taken for too long.
These supplements have been well-studied for their liver benefits. However, it still doesn’t mean that you need to take them to have a healthy liver.
The most well-studied supplement for liver health, milk thistle is an herb that is rich in antioxidants. It helps to reduce inflammation in the liver.
The active ingredient is silymarin, which can actually help regenerate new liver tissue and protect cells from being damaged. (19)
It can also reduce elevated liver enzymes, which are often tested and used to measure liver disorders and disease. (20)
Literally the root of the popular dandelion weed, dandelion root has been used for many thousands of years to treat liver problems.
It hasn’t been as well-studied as milk thistle but is thought to work in a similar way to reduce oxidative damage to liver cells.
Another potent antioxidant substance, curcumin—the active ingredient in turmeric—can reduce inflammation throughout the body and supports the liver through its two-phase detoxifying process.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.