The liver is both an organ and a gland i.e. it performs both metabolic and endocrine functions.
Its metabolic functions include, but are not limited to (18):
- The breakdown of toxins (including alcohol and medications)
- The production of bile
- The metabolism of fats and carbohydrates
- The regulation of blood sugar levels.
The liver also produces hormones that regulate metabolism, immunity, and the storage of vitamins and minerals (18). In a nutshell, the liver is responsible for a lot of what goes on in our bodies!
Given its importance, it’s no wonder people are looking for ways to detoxify and cleanse their livers.
You’ve probably seen (or even tried) a liver detox at some point in your life. Maybe you did a juice cleanse, or took some herbal supplements, or went on a special diet. But here’s the thing: liver detoxes don’t work.
The liver is an incredibly efficient organ that does an amazing job of cleansing itself. It doesn’t need help from us! This simple rule applies to all organs in the body, by the way – they’re all designed to take care of themselves.
That’s not to say that the liver can’t become less efficient (think: fatty liver disease), or fail (think: liver failure). But even when your liver is operating at less than 100%, a detox will not make it work better.
Read on as we demystify the liver detox and explain what you can do instead to keep your liver healthy and happy.
What Is A Liver Detox?
According to popular belief, a liver detox is a process that helps to cleanse the liver of toxins. There are many different ways to do a liver detox, but most of them include one or more of the following characteristics:
- Avoids or eliminates certain foods from the diet
- Consumes only liquids (usually juices) for a period of time
- Takes supplements or herbs said to support liver function
- Involves fasting
- Cleansing the colon and gut through enemas
Some popular liver detoxes include the Master Cleanse, the Lemonade Diet, and the Liver Cleansing Diet. Unsurprisingly, there is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims.
There is also no evidence that the liver needs help to detoxify itself. In fact, liver detoxes can actually be harmful!
Read More: Choline For Fatty Liver: Potential Roles, Benefits & More
How Can A Liver Detox Be Harmful?
Liver detoxes are dangerous for a number of reasons:
Risk Of Nutrient Deficiencies
Most liver detoxes involve eliminating certain foods from the diet, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
For example, if you avoid all animal products while doing a liver detox, you may not get enough protein, vitamin B12, iron, and other essential nutrients. Without supplementing these nutrients or eating foods that make up for the missing nutrients, you could end up feeling tired, weak, and sick (14).
Risk Of Dehydration
Many liver detoxes also involve consuming only liquids, which can lead to dehydration if you’re not careful. The symptoms of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and more. In severe cases, dehydration can lead to hospitalization (13).
Disrupting Gut Health
Some liver detoxes also involve cleansing the colon and gut through enemas. This can disrupt the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, and lead to diarrhea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal issues (11).
Triggering Eating Disorders
The restrictive nature of most liver detoxes can trigger eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia (12). If you have a history of disordered eating, avoid liver detoxes altogether.
Potential Side Effects Of Herbs And Supplements
Many liver detoxes also involve taking herbs or supplements said to support liver function. But the truth is, there’s no evidence that these herbs or supplements actually work. What’s more, they can come with a host of potential side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (12).
What To Do Instead Of A Liver Detox
So, if liver detoxes are so harmful, what can you do to keep your liver healthy?
Cut Back On Alcohol Consumption
Beer, wine, and hard liquor can all take a toll on your liver. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men (6).
Excessive drinking is bad news for the liver. It can lead to a fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. That’s because alcohol damages the liver cells, causing inflammation and scarring (5). The more you drink, the harder it is for the liver to repair itself.
Follow Prescription Directions
If you take prescription medications, make sure to follow the directions carefully. That means taking the medication as prescribed and not skipping doses. It also means not taking more than the recommended dosage.
Some prescription medications can be hard on the liver, especially when taken in high doses or for long periods of time. These include acetaminophen, antibiotics, antidepressants, and more (7). If you’re concerned about how a particular medication might affect your liver, talk to your doctor.
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You can also protect your liver by getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. These two viruses are the leading cause of liver disease worldwide (9).
Hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids. Both viruses can cause a host of liver problems, including cirrhosis and liver cancer (9).
Hepatitis C is another virus that can damage the liver. It’s transmitted through contact with infected blood, and often leads to chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are effective treatments available (9).
Aside from vaccines, there are some precautions you can take against all three viruses. These include:
- Practicing good hygiene – This means washing your hands often, especially before you eat.
- Washing fruits and vegetables – This helps to remove any contaminants that might be on them.
- Avoiding sharing needles – This includes needles used for drugs, tattoos, and piercings.
- Avoiding unprotected sex – This means using condoms during sex, and limiting your number of sexual partners.
Approach Supplements With Caution
All supplements, just like medications, end up being processed by the liver. So, it’s important to approach them with caution. Some seemingly harmless supplements such as herbal teas and protein powders can actually put a strain on the liver.
Stick to supplements that have been vetted by an organization like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). And always talk to your doctor before starting any supplement, especially if you have a liver condition.
Go On A Liver-Friendly Diet
The saying you are what you eat is especially true when it comes to your liver. Eating a healthy diet is one of the best things you can do for your liver health. Why? Because clean, nutritious foods support liver function and reduce the strain on the liver.
So, what should you eat if you want a healthy liver?
Foods That Are High In Antioxidants And Phytochemicals
Antioxidants are nutrients that help protect the body against damage from harmful molecules called free radicals (4).
Free radicals are produced when the body breaks down food or is exposed to tobacco smoke and pollution. They can damage cells, leading to inflammation (4).
Phytochemicals are plant-based nutrients that have health benefits. The best foods in this category include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts (4).
Foods That Are High In Fiber
Fiber helps the liver by binding to toxins and helping to remove them from the body (8). Foods that are high in fiber include beans, oats, flaxseed, and Brussels sprouts.
Read More: Foods For Liver Detox: 10 Plus Nutritious Options That Are Good For Your Liver
Foods That Are Low In Fat
A high-fat diet can lead to a buildup of toxins in the liver (8). To keep your liver healthy, focus on eating lean protein and healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil, avocados, and fish.
Foods That Are Low In Salt
A high salt diet can lead to high blood pressure, which is hard on the liver (15). To keep your liver healthy, limit your intake of processed foods, which are often high in salt.
Foods That Are Low In Sugar
A high sugar diet can lead to insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (3). The best way to reduce your sugar intake is to avoid processed foods and sweetened beverages.
Hydrating Foods And Beverages
Water is essential for all body functions, including liver function. To keep your liver healthy, make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Other hydrating foods and beverages include herbal tea, low-sodium broth, and fruits and vegetables with a high water content, such as watermelon and cucumber.
Coffee is one of the best things you can drink for your liver. That’s because it’s loaded with antioxidants and phytochemicals that help protect the liver (4). Coffee also helps boost liver function and reduce the risk of liver disease.
There are a number of toxins that can damage the liver. The most common ones are alcohol and drugs. But there are other, lesser-known toxins that can also harm the liver. These include certain chemicals, such as those found in some cleaning products, and pesticides.
For cleaning products, look for ones that are certified by the EPA’s Safer Choice program. And, when it comes to pesticides, try to buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
If you must use chemicals or aerosols, always follow the directions on the label. And, be sure to wear protective clothing, such as gloves and a mask, to avoid inhaling or coming into contact with the toxins.
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Get Regular Exercise
It’s not just your heart and lungs that benefit from exercise – your liver does, too. That’s because exercise helps to reduce the amount of fat in the liver (16).
It also helps to improve insulin sensitivity, which is a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (16). So, make sure to get regular exercise – aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, most days of the week (10).
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is important for all aspects of health, including liver health. That’s because sleep helps the body to repair and regenerate cells. It also helps to reduce stress levels, which can lead to inflammation. Make sure to get plenty of rest – aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night (17).
Chronic stress can lead to a number of health problems, including liver damage. That’s because stress can lead to inflammation (1). It’s important to find ways to manage stress. Some stress-busting techniques include exercise, meditation, and journaling.
Maintain A Healthy Weight
Obesity significantly increases the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (2). If you’re overweight or obese, it’s important to lose weight. Check your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if you’re in the healthy range. And, talk to your doctor about a weight loss plan that’s right for you.
The Bottom Line
Liver detoxes are popular, but there’s no scientific evidence to support their claims. The best way to cleanse and detoxify your liver is to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and avoid toxins. By following these simple tips, you can keep your liver healthy and functioning properly.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A literature review for the mechanisms of stress‐induced liver injury (2019, nih.gov)
- A poor perspective of self weight significantly increases adverse outcomes in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) (2022, frontiersin.org)
- A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes (2016, nih.gov)
- Antioxidant Phytochemicals for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases (2015, nih.gov)
- Associations Between Alcohol Use and Liver-Related Outcomes in a Large National Cohort of Patients With Cirrhosis (2021, wiley.com)
- Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction (n.d., hopkinsmedicine.org)
- Drug-induced liver injury (n.d., medlineplus.gov)
- Food and Nutrition in the Pathogenesis of Liver Damage (2021, nih.gov)
- Hepatitis (n.d., who.int)
- How much should the average adult exercise every day? (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases (2015, nih.gov)
- Is #cleaneating a healthy or harmful dietary strategy? Perceptions of clean eating and associations with disordered eating among young adults (2019, nih.gov)
- Public knowledge of dehydration and fluid intake practices: variation by participants’ characteristics (2018, nih.gov)
- Risk of Deficiency in Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States (2017, nih.gov)
- Sodium Intake and Hypertension (2019, nih.gov)
- The Effects of Physical Exercise on Fatty Liver Disease (2018, nih.gov)
- The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep (2018, nih.gov)
- The Liver and Its Functions (n.d., colombiasurgery.org)