By nature, the liver already has a tough job, tasked with metabolizing fats and carbohydrates, churning up bile to fuel digestion and filtering out all of the stuff that enters our body that we really don’t need. But then we make it even harder on this vital organ by drinking alcohol, eating foods full of unhealthy ingredients and breathing in thousands of noxious chemicals—all of which the liver must work extra hard to process.
“Not only does the liver have to filter pesticides, drugs, plastics and contaminants, but also our own hormones and metabolic waste products,” says Jennifer Potter, ND, of Natural Wellness Clinic in Sunnyvale, Calif. “All that work can lead to a stressed liver.”
Just like any muscle or organ that’s continually stressed, a perpetually overtaxed liver can begin having a tough time working properly. People might joke about having a “pickled liver” after tipping back too many cocktails, but impaired function is no laughing matter. Severe conditions can stem from a hindered liver, including cirrhosis and various kinds of hepatitis.
But according to Potter, poor liver function can also affect related organs and cause problems there, such as gallstones, esophageal varices and hemorrhoids. “All the junk that the liver processes has to leave the body somehow, and most of it exits through bile,” she says. “Bile moves from the liver to the gallbladder, where it’s collected in a little bag and then dropped into the intestines to help digest food.”
When bile is full of toxins, the digestive tract gets irritated, and it doesn’t stop there: “Other toxins accumulated from an overburdened liver get released into the lymphatic system, which spreads throughout our entire body.” Potter says. “Toxic lymph fluid can lead to headaches and joint pain.”
For all its efforts to keep us healthy, doesn’t the liver deserve a little love? Limiting exposure to chemicals in cleaning and personal care products, eating organic foods grown without pesticides and watching alcohol intake are great proactive steps to support liver health. But a few specific foods, herbs and supplements can offer additional support. Here are the top three:
What do duck, yogurt, wheat germ, garlic, cottage cheese, pork and oatmeal have in common? According to Potter, these unlikely food fellows are all excellent sources of cysteine, an amino acid that’s essential for liver support. Our bodies naturally make some cysteine from another amino acid called methionine, but getting additional supplies from diet can ensure we’re getting enough. In supplement form, cysteine often comes as N-acetyl-L-cysteine, or NAC.*
Cysteine helps guard the liver in two ways. First, it is a key component in creating glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that scavenges free radicals, which can ransack liver function, along with pretty much every part of your body, if they go unchecked. Potter says to be sure to also get enough selenium and B vitamins, because these cofactors help the body reduce cysteine to glutathione. Secondly, cysteine binds to heavy metals and other toxins in your body and helps to flush them out, making the liver’s job a bit easier.*
People have relied on this Mediterranean herb for liver support for thousands of years, and it frequently makes headlines today as researchers debate the validity of its effects. Even though a much-publicized study published in JAMA determined milk thistle was no more effective than placebo in improving liver function in people with hepatitis C, several lab studies point to its potential, and naturopathic doctors like Potter rank it as the top herb for liver support.*
“Milk thistle has a component called silymarin, which scavenges free radicals,” Potter says. “It also regulates the permeability of cell membranes, increasing their stability against injury while it works on the toxins. Because the hepatocytes, or liver cells, are vulnerable to the toxins they process, stabilizing their membranes is very beneficial.”*
Milk thistle also combats inflammation to promote proper liver function. “In vivo experiments have shown that high concentrations of silymarin limit and/or block damaging inflammation of the Kupffer cells in the liver, thereby allowing them to do their job,” she explains.
If you’ve eaten parts of an artichoke besides just the soft hearts that come on salads and pizzas, you know that these globular vegetables are very fibrous, even stringy. Although this makes the exterior leaves a bit tougher to gnaw through than the innermost pieces, the texture means you’re getting a healthy dose of fiber—a medium-size artichoke has a whopping 10 grams, more than any other vegetable, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fiber is of course essential for aiding the movement of toxins through the body, so for that, your liver will thank you.
Potter says artichoke leaves also stimulate the flow of bile, toxins’ main mode of transport out of the liver. Evidence suggests artichoke may also have an antioxidant effect and, because it’s a member of the thistle family, it too lends silymarin to help strengthen cell membranes and buffer the liver from the junk it processes.
If a whole artichoke doesn’t tempt your taste buds, you can take artichoke leaf extract in tea or supplement form.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.