Do You Really Need A Cleanse To Detox Your Liver?
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
The Truth About Liver Cleansing and Detoxification
In recent years, cleanses and detoxes have become increasingly popular – to the point at which some claim that they’re necessary for optimal health.
While there are many health benefits of eating a plant-based diet and periods of caloric restriction or intermittent fasting (which is often the essence of these detoxes), one organ that actually doesn’t need intensive cleansing is the liver.
But that’s only if your diet is clean as a whistle!
In this article, we’ll discuss the facts about liver detoxification, touch on why a liver cleanse may actually be counterproductive, and discuss a few good dietary and personal habits for a healthy liver.
Table of Contents
A Healthy Liver Doesn't Need to Detox
One of the biggest misconceptions about the liver is that it needs to be cleansed. In reality, the liver actually cleanses much of your body and digestive system.
During digestion, your stomach breaks digests and absorbs carbohydrates, protein, fat, and micronutrients. These macronutrients are broken down into their individual building blocks, including glucose (and other monosaccharides), amino acids, and fatty acids.
During digestion, your liver cells secretes a compound called bile, whose responsibility is to “emulsify” fatty components of your diet so that they are comfortable in a water-rich environment.
Bile is necessary for the full metabolism of fatty acids, protein, and cholesterol. In addition, cells in your liver can break down pharmaceutical medications, which can then be passed through your kidneys and into the toilet.
While it can be tempting to “detoxify” your liver to remove toxins, the truth is that the best way to keep it healthy and maintain full liver function isn’t to try to ‘detoxify’ it using a liver cleanse, it’s to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet on a daily basis.
While it may seem overly simple, the best way to promote optimal liver health is to eat a fiber-and-nutrient-rich plant-based diet every day to provide it with key micronutrients, and avoid foods that are known to increase your risk for chronic diseases like diabetes.
What Causes Liver Damage
There are four major risk behaviors for liver damage:
- Viral infection
- Exposure to pollutants and heavy metals
- Excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol
These risk factors can cause a wide range of different effects ranging from elevated liver enzymes to fatty liver disease.
Types of Liver Damage
There are three main types of liver damage — fatty liver disease, viral hepatitis, and cirrhosis — which are diagnosed differently, resulting in increased liver enzymes, excess liver fat, and liver dysfunction.
Fatty liver disease (also known as non- alcoholic fatty liver disease, NAFLD) is caused by buildup of excess fat in the liver. Fatty liver disease occurs when the amount of fat in your liver is more than 5% by weight, resulting in liver enlargement, which can then lead to liver fibrosis, a condition marked by the formation of scar tissue.
While it’s certainly true that eating or drinking refined sugars like sucrose and high- fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can contribute to fatty liver disease, a growing body of research shows that a high- fat diet results in a progressive decline in liver function over time.
One of the most common side effects of eating a high- fat diet is fatty liver disease, and the consumption of refined carbohydrates is very effective at causing multiple conditions, including:
- Liver insulin resistance
- Fatty liver disease
- Increased LDL cholesterol
- Increased triglycerides
- Increased adipose tissue fat
- Increased muscle fat
Viral hepatitis is a broad term for five different conditions (hepatitis a, b, c, and the less-common d and e) each caused by different viral infection, which causes liver inflammation. Each infection has different causes, symptoms, and duration, which you can explore in detail here.
Finally, liver cirrhosis occurs when connective tissue destroys dysfunctional liver cells. Cirrhosis and other forms of late stage damage are caused by excessive use of drugs and alcohol, pollutants and heavy metals, or from sustained damage from fatty liver disease or hepatitis.
Diets high in saturated fat are also especially dangerous for your liver, as they are extremely effective at promoting fatty liver disease, which can eventually lead to liver cirrhosis and induce an advanced state of liver insulin resistance and liver inflammation.
How Liver Damage Causes Insulin Resistance
Your liver is a crucial part of the insulin resistance equation because cells in your liver are capable of exporting glucose into your blood to provide your brain with a constant supply of glucose at all times.
When insulin is readily available following a meal, your liver decreases the amount of glucose it exports. When insulin is less available after multiple hours of fasting, your liver increases the rate at which it exports glucose in order to drip feed your brain with a stable supply.
Here’s the problem: when you develop insulin resistance in your liver due to the accumulation of excess dietary fat, your liver can’t communicate with insulin very effectively, resulting in a chronically high rate of glucose export, high fasting blood glucose, and high post- meal blood glucose.
When excess saturated fat accumulates in liver cells over the course of time, it increases the rate at which the cells offload glucose and triglycerides into your blood, leading to increased glucose production, increased triglycerides, and increased LDL cholesterol.
In effect, an accumulation of excess fatty acids prevents your liver from accurately controlling how much glucose it releases into your blood.
Ways to Detoxify and Cleanse Your Liver Naturally
In the case of acute liver damage from a disease or chronic stress on your liver, your best bet is always to work with a doctor. However, if you’re simply looking to improve your liver health and detox, the answer is actually very simple.
By improving your overall health, with strategies like a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet and adequate hydration, in addition to losing weight and reducing your alcohol intake, you’ll be able to put your liver in the position to do what it does best: cleanse itself and function optimally over the course of time.
Eat a Healthy Diet
One of the best ways that you can improve not just your liver health – but your overall health – is through a diet high in fiber-rich whole foods, especially those that are unprocessed or minimally processed.
Our favorite detox diet is a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet, which is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. This nutritional approach helps you lose weight and improve your cardiovascular health.
We’ll touch on a few key staples of this diet below.
Citrus fruits like grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, and many others are dense in vitamin C and other key nutrients that help boost your immune system and prevent oxidative stress.
In addition, many citrus fruits have a compound called glutathione, which has been shown to improve the health of people with fatty liver disease.
Although we recommend a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet for improving your overall health, essential omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help fight liver disease when consumed in small quantities on an ongoing basis.
Intact whole grains have a number of different benefits as a part of a plant-based diet, and one is in their ability to combat liver disease. In fact, one study found that inclusion of whole grains into your diet could decrease your risk for liver cancer by as much as 37%.
Green tea has a powerful two-pronged benefit to your liver. In addition to its immunoprotective antioxidant effect, it can also help you lose weight, improve cardiovascular health, and reduce your overall fat content, all of which help prevent liver disease.
Lose Weight, If Necessary
As mentioned above, one of the main risk factors in liver disease is obesity, especially when it comes to fatty liver disease. Excess dietary fat, as well as excess buildup of fat over time due to high cholesterol and a high-calorie diet can both cause liver damage in the long term.
If you’re over your healthy weight, losing weight can be a major benefit to your overall health, especially your liver.
Cut Back on Alcohol
Your liver is a durable organ designed to metabolise foreign substances, drugs, and alcohol, but prolonged binge drinking over time can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and eventually liver failure.
So how much is too much? Though everyone is different, risk starts for men at an average of 1.5 ounces (2 standard drinks) per day, and for women this risk is increased.
The same statistics show that individuals who drink an average of more than 6 standard drinks per day have a drastically increased incidence of liver damage, with individuals who consumed more than 8 standard drinks per day developing cirrhosis at almost a 50% rate.
Drink More Water
There are plentiful health benefits of drinking water, which range from your cardiovascular to immune to mental and physical health. So it comes as no surprise that making sure you’re properly hydrated is also good for your liver health.
In fact, water may be one of the best “detoxing agents” you can consume, simply because with more hydration your liver is able to more effectively filter toxins and foreign substances.
Be Active Every Day
Similar to drinking water, there is an incredibly wide range of health benefits of exercise, to the point where it should be considered a fundamental building block of any health strategy.
Two in particular that benefit your liver health are the fact that exercise helps you cut excess fat and improves your cardiovascular health, which are major factors in preventing fatty liver disease.
If you’re at a high risk for liver damage due to a history of obesity or frequent use of drugs and alcohol, there are a few natural supplements that — if taken in tandem with the lifestyle changes mentioned above — can help you quickly improve your liver health (“detoxifying” as it were).
However, no supplement can replace personalized health care from a professional, so if you’re concerned about your liver health, we highly recommend working with your trusted doctor.
Selenium is a compound found in brazil nuts, cereals, amla, and whole grains that can be very helpful in promoting liver health. By helping reduce your liver insulin resistance and increase tissue elasticity, it helps to prevent damage from happening and repair damage when it occurs.
Another supplement that has shown evidence-based hepatoprotective effects is the milk thistle. Milk thistle has a number of different mechanisms of action both on your liver and overall health, but the research is clear that almost all serve to boost liver health and prevent disease.
Among its many positive benefits, turmeric (or curcumin) has a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect which can significantly improve liver health by cutting down oxidative stress and helping protect your liver from viral, fat-based, and toxin-based diseases.
Amla (Indian gooseberry) has historically been regarded as one of the most powerful plant-based medicines on the planet. But what sets this berry apart is that the evidence shows its many “cure-all” properties are actually supported by the research.
Because amla has a wide range of powerful attributes including antioxidant potency, its immunoprotective nature and its ability to support healthy blood glucose and blood pressure - amla can be a swiss army knife tool you can use to improve liver health.
If you’d like to try amla for yourself, you can get your first batch of 20x concentrated, organic, farm-grown Amla Green entirely risk free. If you don’t like it, just let us know, and we’ll give you your money back.
The Bottom Line
Your liver is one of the most durable organs in your body, and for many people simply exercising, eating a plant-based, balanced diet that is rich in key minerals and hydration, and avoiding excessive drugs and alcohol can be enough to keep full, healthy liver function.
Adding in other techniques like intermittent fasting and calorie restriction, some of the other tools of cleanses, can enhance the benefits of this healthy lifestyle and improve your overall health and immunity, which serve to protect your liver even further.
However, if you’re concerned about your liver health, or noticing any of the symptoms of liver damage, the answer isn’t a detox. Instead, integrate a holistic approach to allow your liver to improve as a convenient side-effect of excellent total body health.
Amla Green has strict guidelines for scientific references in our articles, and we rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, governmental organizations, and reputable medical organizations. We do our best to avoid using non evidence-based references in all articles. The references in this article are listed below.
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Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, is a cofounder of Mastering Diabetes and Amla Green is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002. Using an evidence-based approach to nutrition and fitness, he first reduced his own insulin usage by more than 40%, and has educated thousands of people with all forms of diabetes how to reverse insulin resistance using food as medicine. Cyrus earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, then earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012. He is the co-host of the annual Mastering Diabetes Online Summit, a featured speaker at the Plant-Based Nutrition and Healthcare Conference (PBNHC), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) Conference, Plant Stock, and has been featured on Forks Over Knives, NPR, PBS, KQED, Fast Company, and is the author of the upcoming book Mastering Diabetes.
- Cyrus Khambatta