Top 12 Foods To Detox & Cleanse Your Liver

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Handful of walnuts kernels

The liver is the largest internal organ in our body, and for good reason. It has a multitude of biochemical functions to perform, from secreting bile to help digest fats to breaking down some proteins and creating others from different components. More than 500 different metabolic activities are attributed to this mighty organ.

How the liver detoxifies the body:

The liver is the main detoxification hub of our body. All the food entering our stomach has to go through the scrutiny of liver. The hepatic portal vein that carries blood to the liver directly from the gastrointestinal tract and the spleen ensures that.

Many food items contain potential toxins, be it from naturally occurring substances in plants or from the pesticides and herbicides that are liberally sprayed on them. Animal-based foods cooked at high temperatures as in grilling and deep frying undergo chemical changes that create harmful substances like heterocyclic amines. Chemical additives used in food processing also add to the toxic load. Alcohol abuse, cigarette smoke, and environmental pollutants are other major contributors.

The liver has specific mechanisms to detoxify most of these undesirables by turning them into less harmful byproducts through a series of chemical reactions. The objective is to facilitate their faster elimination. In  the phase one part of detoxification, fat-bound toxins are converted to water soluble byproducts with the help of various enzymes, especially a group called cytochrome P450s (CYPs). This is to prevent them from entering the cells through their lipid-based cell membranes and to make it easier to flush them out through urine.

Some of the water soluble byproducts of phase one process may be more toxic than the original substances, many of them highly reactive, so they have to be inactivated as fast as possible. Antioxidant molecules help mitigate the oxidative stress caused by these substances, while a process called enzymatic conjugation in the phase two part of the detoxification further inactivates them. An antioxidant peptide glutathione and an enzyme superoxide dismutase play important roles in this phase, as do UGTs, SULTs, GSTs and other molecules that take part in conjugation.

In phase two of the detoxification process, the conjugates get transported out of the liver to be eliminated through bile or through urine from the kidneys.

Why your liver needs cleansing:

Deficiency of some enzymes and other conjugates may result in partial detoxification and the continued presence of the harmful molecules in the liver. Heavy metals also impair the normal detoxification process of the liver. Certain commonly used drugs such as Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, and Diclofenac are also known to cause liver toxicity. Some toxic substances the liver is unable to metabolize and eliminate may get stored in the liver tissue.

Hepatotoxins get accumulated over time, leading to serious problems such as:   

Fatty liver disease 

Excess alcohol consumption is associated with fatty liver disease in most cases because of the accumulation of triglycerides and fatty acids in the liver. There are other reasons that cause non-alcoholic fatty liver, mainly the toxins that the liver locks away in fat tissue.

Hepatitis 

It is the inflammation of the liver tissue. Viral infections by Hepatitis A, B and C may be the most common causes of hepatitis, but the presence of toxins and oxidative damage also can cause inflammation. Secretion of bilirubin in urine is typical of hepatitis.

Liver cirrhosis 

This is a dangerous condition where scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue, further impairing liver function. Scar tissue formation is part of normal healing mechanism; it can result from any injury caused to the liver tissue by toxic chemicals, including alcohol. Obstructions to the flow of bile, fatty liver, and hepatitis can eventually lead to liver cirrhosis.

Once the liver tissue is irreparably damaged, liver dialysis may provide some temporary relief, but a liver transplant may be the only permanent option. The good news is that the liver is one organ in the body that has an excellent regenerative capacity. If the liver damage can be arrested, or reversed, if possible, the liver may be able to regain most of its functions.

We can benefit from food items that aid the detoxification process of the liver as well as those that help cleanse the liver of toxic deposits.

12 Foods That Cleanse & Detox The Liver

1. Apples

The old adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” must have been based on the hepatoprotective effect of this fruit. The fiber in apples binds to toxins in the digestive tract, carrying them off to the large bowels for elimination, without allowing them to undergo the normal digestive process.

The polysaccharide pectin plays an important role in liver cleansing. Pectin binds with triglycerides and cholesterol and carries them out of the body without getting metabolized. This can reduce the load on the liver and protect against fatty liver disease. Elimination of heavy metals like lead, mercury, and strontium is another beneficial action of pectin. They would otherwise impede the enzymatic action of phase two detoxification.

2. Green Tea

Green tea is considered the best detoxifying food, thanks to the polyphenols in the beverage. The catechins in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in particular, have high antioxidant capacity. They eliminate excess fat from the liver to improve liver function.

If  you replaced  soda and other high sugar beverages with green tea, your liver would thank you. Adding the juice of a lemon to the green tea further increases the liver cleansing effect of both the food items. The catechins are better absorbed from a slightly acidic medium.   

3. Citrus fruits

Citrus fruits like lemon, lime, and grapefruit are rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant molecule that can help ameliorate the damage caused by oxidative stress during the first phase of the detoxification process.

The flavonoids in citrus fruits, especially the naringenin abundant in grapefruit, inhibit the CYP activity, preventing the sudden onslaught of toxic metabolites that can be damaging to the liver tissue. It also reduces fat deposition in liver tissue. The D-limonene in citrus oil increases the enzymatic activity in the liver, facilitating the neutralization and elimination of these toxic compounds.

4. Greens

The greatest advantage of leafy greens is that they can be eaten raw or with minimal cooking. This keeps the beneficial phytochemicals in the leaves intact, and makes them available to the detoxification process. The chlorophyll in the greens can absorb many environmental toxins, especially pesticides and heavy metals in the stomach and prevent their absorption into the blood. This keeps these toxins from reaching the liver.

A chlorophyll derivative called Chlorophyllin can inhibit CYP activity and prevent an overload of toxic phase one metabolites that can harm the liver tissue. At the same time, chlorophyll stimulates GST activity of phase two, helping remove the toxic substances.

A human trial was conducted on the people of Qidong province in China where liver cancer occurrence was high due to aflatoxin exposure. People who took chlorophyllin 3 times a day showed 55% reduction of aflatoxin conjugates, which means a major part of the toxin was eliminated from the body, bypassing the liver.

5. Artichokes

Artichokes have a long history of being used for liver and gallbladder disorders. It is well known as a choleretic that increases bile production. Not only that, it acts as a cholagogue, helping with the free flow of bile into the intestines. This helps eliminate some hepatotoxins via the intestinal tract.

Artichokes contains silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle seed extract that is known to have liver cleansing power. After all, artichokes belongs to the same plant family as milk thistle. Silymarin is known to inhibit lipid peroxidation in the liver cell membranes.

Cynarine, luteolin, and epigenin, are a few of the other anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytochemicals in artichokes that can reduce liver damage and help with the regeneration of liver cells.

6. Beets

Beets contain several phytochemicals that provide excellent antioxidant and liver-protective effect. Beets are rich in beta-carotene that can reduce oxidative damage to the liver tissue. Betaine, betanin, and betalains such as betacyanin and betaxanthin are some of the potent compounds exclusive to this vegetable.

Betaine promotes the elimination of toxins from the liver. It has a protective effect on the bile ducts, reducing inflammation that may otherwise impede the flow of bile. Betalains prevent the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins, helping prevent atherosclerosis. In laboratory studies on rats, beet extract has been shown to reduce fatty liver.

Beet juice is often taken for its blood pressure and blood cholesterol lowering effects. But it is better to take the whole vegetable raw in smoothies and salads for liver cleansing.

7. Avocados

The avocado is a liver cleanser par excellence for a number of reasons. The healthy fats in avocado can lower low-density lipoproteins or the bad fat while raising the good fat. Avocados contain antioxidant vitamins C and E to neutralize the highly reactive radicals that form during the metabolic processes taking place in the liver.

An important contribution of avocados to liver health is the antioxidant substance glutathione. This molecule is considered the mother of all antioxidants. It plays a big role in mopping up the toxic substances produced during the first phase of detoxification. Our body normally has some glutathione in stock, but a sudden influx of toxic substances can deplete this stock quite rapidly. Supplementation via a regular diet of glutathione-rich foods can ensure liver protection.   

8. Cabbage family

Vegetables of the Brassica family, especially cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale are excellent for liver cleansing because of the Isothiocyanates contained in them. These sulfur compounds, especially the one called sulforaphane (SFN), are natural inducers of phase two enzymatic activity that helps reduce the toxic impact of phase one metabolites. They do this by lowering CVP activity on one hand and increasing GSTs and UGTs and glutathione production on the other.

Having 3-4 servings of any of the cruciferous vegetables a week should provide sufficient liver cleansing activity, but red cabbage gives the extra benefit of anthocyanins, which are excellent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant pigments.  

9. Asparagus

Asparagus is commonly used as a vegetable, but its name Asparagus officinalis stands testimony to its medicinal properties. It is usually used as a hangover remedy for alcoholic excesses, but now we have more proof regarding its efficacy.

Laboratory studies have shown that asparagus extract can alleviate cellular toxicity resulting from alcohol consumption as well as exposure to carbon tetrachloride and hydrogen peroxide. Being an excellent diuretic, it can facilitate faster elimination of toxic substances from liver and kidney metabolism.

10. Walnuts

Walnuts make the list of liver cleansing foods mainly on account of the amino acid arginine. This compound is essential to remove ammonia from the liver. It helps convert toxic ammonia into urea that can be eliminated from the body through urine.

Arginine is a non-essential amino acid, except in early infancy, because our body can synthesize it from other amino acids. However, it may become insufficient at times, especially during illnesses. Dietary supplements may be necessary to make up this shortfall, but regular intake of foods containing arginine affords a liver protective effect.

Apart from arginine, walnuts contain glutathione which is involved in the removal of toxins during the second phase of liver’s detoxification process.  The healthy omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts may render extra benefits too.  

11. Garlic

Garlic is usually consumed in small quantities, mainly as a flavoring agent, but such small amounts seem to be sufficient to cleanse the liver. The sulfur compounds in garlic that give it the characteristic strong smell may make the bulb repulsive to some, but these compounds can activate the liver enzymes that help flush out toxic metabolites from the liver and make way for their elimination from the body through urine.

Bile flow impairment, or cholestasis, either due to obstruction in the bile duct or because of liver dysfunction, is one of the major causes of liver damage. Garlic increases bile production as well as its free flow from the liver.

The allicin in garlic is a sulfur compound that promotes enzymatic reactions to detoxify liver metabolites. Selenium is another beneficial mineral in garlic that may offer liver protection since low levels of this trace element is associated with liver diseases.

12. Turmeric

Turmeric is not exactly a food per se, but a spice liberally used in Asian cooking. The underground rhizome of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) is dried and powdered to be used as a spice that adds a golden color and slightly pungent flavor to food. Turmeric has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. The active ingredient curcumin in turmeric is a well known anti-inflammatory agent.

Turmeric is traditionally used for liver detoxification since it increases bile production and bile flow into the duodenum. It can induce enzymes in the phase two detoxification process to break down the toxins more effectively.

Turmeric can be easily incorporated into food during cooking or can be used in smoothies to derive the liver-protective benefits. A teaspoonful of turmeric in a glass of hot milk is a traditional liver tonic usually taken early in the morning or at bedtime. Milk fat increases the absorption of the fat-soluble curcumin and its bioavailability.


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