Diet for a Healthy Liver
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– What is fatty liver and what causes it?
– Symptoms of fatty liver
– Liver supportive foods
The liver is one of the most important organs in our body. It filters and cleans our blood and converts vitamins, minerals, hormones and neurotransmitters…and does so many other jobs.
We really need to look after our liver.
The words ‘liver support’ can mean many things and apply to numerous different conditions. For example, liver support is needed for conditions such as: fatty liver; cirrhosis of the liver; elevated liver enzymes on a liver function test; hormonal imbalances; toxicity issues; dieback reactions in the liver from a parasitic treatment, antibiotic use, drug, alcohol or caffeine over use; or that someone may feel their liver just isn’t as healthy as it could be.
Whichever condition of the liver you may have, all can be supported with a ‘liver friendly’ diet.
A healthy liver helps us to live ‘r a little longer
What is fatty liver and what causes it?
The accumulation of more than 5% of excessive fatty tissue in the liver can lead to severe liver damage, including inflammation, scarring and finally cirrhosis (hardening).
A fatty liver occurs when you consume more fat and sugar (which is also stored as fat) than your liver can process. As a result, fat builds up in your liver cells, making the liver prone to damage. Obesity, diabetes and alcohol are the biggest contributors to fatty liver as they each have issues with insulin resistance and fat control.
Some studies show that too many bacteria in your small intestine and other disorders of the small intestine may be linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. According to N. Swanson in the Journal of Organic Systems, fatty liver disease is a strong risk factor for liver cancer, so fatty liver is certainly something to deal with before it turns nasty.
Liver problems can also interfere with your body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, which can also lead to weight changes. A consistently poor diet with an ongoing intake of fatty, sugary and salty foods is one of the root causes of fatty liver.
Here we have a chicken or egg theory going on, where sugar and fats can cause liver issues, and liver issues can prevent you from properly digesting sugar and fats.
Symptoms of fatty liver
Have you ever heard of the word ‘asymptomatic’? It means ‘without symptoms’. It could be that that something serious is going on in your body and you’re not even aware of it because there are no obvious symptoms.
For most people fatty liver can be completely asymptomatic. But for some who have fatty liver and symptoms, those symptoms get confused and are often brushed off as the effects of aging.
A dysfunctional liver can cause weakness, confusion, concentration difficulties or fatigue. For some there can be problems like depression and anxiety, due to the livers reduced capacity to produce serotonin, an important mood regulator.
As things get more severe, liver distress shows in the eyes and skin as jaundice. Jaundice is caused when the bile flow from the liver is blocked, which brings out itchy, tiny yellow bumps around the eyelids and on the skin’s surface. These yellow lumps are made up of excess levels of bilirubin in the blood, which cannot be excreted from the body due to diminished liver function. Bilirubin levels can also be seen on blood tests.
If the liver is more than 5% fatty, then urine may turn darker because the liver cannot process the toxins well and subsequently, the toxins are discharged through the urine. Also the urine has an unusually strong smell.
Changes in bowel motions may also occur with the stools becoming whitish or clay-coloured or maybe also black (like tar) from blood in the stool, which produces a horrible odour. These later symptoms are very serious and immediate medical help is vital.
Other symptoms can include abdominal pain, ascites (fluid around abdomen), generalised fluid retention, muscle wastage and tendon and ligament issues due to poor protein metabolism.
Following are some of the influences that can harm your liver.
Any amount of alcohol is toxic for your liver
The same as alcohol – toxic for your liver
Sugar is ahuge issue because it is more damaging to the liver than pretty much anything else we put into our mouths by way of food and drink.
Trans fats, hydrogenated fats, vegetable oils that are heated. Even too many good fats can be an issue. If your body can’t use the fats, then it will store them under your skin as rolls of fat and also in the liver. Generally, the ‘bad’ fats do the damage, but excessive amounts of any fats can do the same.
These convert to sugar, so depending on the severity of your liver condition, you may need to avoid grains as well as sugar.
Particularly endo-toxins (die-off) from bacteria, fungi and parasites
Any inflammation in the body can increase inflammation in the liver. Conversely, liver inflammation can trigger inflammation elsewhere in the body. For more info see the Inflammation Diet.
Poorly digested foods
Gut fermented foods (as opposed to food broken down by enzymes and acids from the digestive system) give off higher levels of gases such as hydrogen, methane, ammonia and sulphur that are poisonous to the liver and the cells of our body
Excess and build-up of vitamins/supplements that the body hasn’t cleared. Nutritionals that the body can’t convert properly such as some synthetic vitamins, particularly if the P450 pathway of the liver isn’t working properly due to genetic defects is very common.
Food allergies create antibodies that can upset the liver. For more info see the Diet for allergies & intolerances
Any toxin from a drug, medication, mixed medications be it prescribed or over the counter, including ‘the pill’, will affect the liver. Hopefully the benefit of the medication will outweigh the effect on the liver. Careful monitoring by your doctor or health practitioner is important
Stress, frustration and anger. Your lifestyle can affect your liver, not only from what you consume, but also from how you live. Stress can lead to frustration, which is a trigger to anger. Anger creates tension within the body, subsequently affecting the functionality of the organs, including the liver. The way you handle stress and your emotions directly affects your body and can lead to illness and disease.
There are more things that I could add to this list, but the priority is to look at what you can do to monitor, support and remove what you have control over, in order to have a healthy liver.
It’s simply about creating a harmonious environment for your body.
While a diet for a healthy liver is not considered a cure for any liver condition, the idea is to eliminate foods considered detrimental, and include foods that support your body to give it the best chance to heal naturally and regain balance and vitality. That’s why it is so important to exclude antagonistic foods and drinks such as gluten, dairy, additives, alcohol and sugar.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Liver supportive foods
Following are foods to support the liver.
Garlic helps your liver activate enzymes that can flush out toxins. It also has a high amount of allicin and selenium, compounds that aid in liver cleansing. Garlic also contains sulphur which can help the liver to detoxify
Can help your liver flush out toxins and carcinogens. This fruit is also high in antioxidants and vitamin C. Be careful with grapefruit if you are on medications as it can keep the meds in your system longer and build excess levels in your body. Otherwise grapefruit is terrific.
Are high in plant-flavanoids, which can improve the function of your liver. Beetroot juice is often used as a detox drink
Leafy greens like spinach and lettuce help to clear metals, chemicals and pesticides that may be in your foods, and act as a protective mechanism for the liver
Avocados help your body produce a type of antioxidant called glutathione which our livers use to filter out harmful toxins
Broccoli and Brussels sprouts increase the amount of glucosinolate in our bodies that helps to create enzyme production for digestion and support for the liver with different pathways to detoxify. They also help the liver to clear excess hormones.
Lemons help our bodies cleanse out toxic materials and aid the digestion process.
Turmeric is a great spice we can add to our food, which helps our bodies digest fats and act as a natural detox for the liver. As a bonus, turmeric is anti-inflammatory.
Are high in glutathione and omega-3 fatty acids, which help support our liver through its cleansing process.
A very special vegetable that is great for the liver as it clears bile to flush out toxins
Sprouts such as broccoli and sunflower seeds have similar properties to the brassica family to help the liver convert toxins so they can be excreted easily
Found in jelly and bone broth, gelatin has glutathione and glycine amino acids which are useful for the liver to detoxify, build a good healthy gut lining, and support the healing of ‘leaky gut’
Dandelion tea or coffee made from leaves or roots has been used for centuries to help the liver detoxify. It’s a great beverage that can be used for added liver support and the leaves can be used in salads. If you are picking dandelion, be certain that you really know what it is, because a similar looking plant is toxic.
Client name and identifying information changed
60 yr old Maggie came to me feeling a ‘bit of a mess’, as she called it. She was quite overweight, bordering on diabetes, had aches and pains in different joints, and the final straw was she had just been diagnosed with ‘fatty liver disease’.
Blood tests showed elevated bilirubin and liver enzymes ((LFT’s). An ultrasound showed enlargement of her liver as well as a few cysts. Maggie’s doctor told her to, “lose weight or else you will get serious complications”. Maggie tried to lose weight by cutting back her food intake, but it didn’t seem to help, so that’s why she decided to see me.
Because we already knew what we were dealing with, I didn’t suggest any more tests at that point. I found that Maggie’s diet was very carb heavy, using packet foods for convenience and lots of sweet foods like scones, muffins and biscuits as well as two teaspoons of sugar in each of her four cups of coffee per day.
I started her on a liver detox. Maggie was happy to ‘do a detox’ as it sounded much better for her than a ‘diet’ which she was afraid of. She had previously attempted many diets to lose weight, only to find that she would put it all back on again, plus much more. So the detox was a great place to start.
The detox comprised of going gluten free, dairy free, grain free, sugar free and alcohol free.
But rather than focus on what she couldn’t have, we focused on what she could have.
For example, Maggie was used to a light breakfast of a coffee with a slice of toast, so we didn’t go for a heavy breakfast. Instead I suggested a super easy to prepare green veg and berry smoothie with protein from some soaked nuts and seeds plus some Spirulina powder to super boost her detox.
Cups of coffee throughout the day were exchanged for bone broth, mineralised with loads of vegetable off cuts, and seasoned with various herbs and spices such as turmeric, parsley and coriander, which would also help her to detox – all strained off to be a clear broth.
Lunch was a mega healthy salad with wild caught, low mercury species fish, like sardines. Dinner was steamed vegetables with a super greens dressing and either organic chicken livers or dry roasted almonds and sunflower seeds. Chicken livers which are very low in fat helped to boost Maggie’s nutrients, particularly B12. Various ways of cooking with herbs and spices make them taste great.
This is known as ‘organ therapy’ where the nutrients from healthy animal organs are used for a period to replenish the underperforming organ in the human body.
Apart from the food changes, I asked Maggie to walk daily up to to where she felt was reasonably comfortable for her body, and to progressively build as she felt able to do so. This was important, because without movement it is hard for the lymphatic system to clear toxins and the liver is the largest lymphatic organ in our body.
Her initial weight was 105kgs/231lbs. Maggie’s weight slowly dropped over a period of three months (the duration of the detox cleanse) to 85kgs/187lbs – a significant weight loss. While still some way to go to reach her optimal weight for her height, she was delighted with the result and felt much stronger and healthier with loads more energy.
By that stage, Maggie was going to the gym for extra help with fitness and lymphatic movement. We adjusted her food plan to a diet for a healthy liver, which is less restrictive than the detox, which still helped her to slowly strip away the extra kilos/pounds over the next six months.
After this time, she returned to her doctor who barely recognised her. With beaming eyes, she requested a new test for her liver which came back clear and healthy. Maggie now weighed 70kgs/154lbs which was great for her height. Not super slim, but healthy and she no longer had pains in her joints.
Maggie managed to drop a total of 35kgs (5½ stone), rid herself of pain and eliminate diabetes and fatty liver. She was encouraged to keep eating for a healthy liver and wanted to continue.