The importance of supporting liver function cannot be underestimated in our modern world. We are constantly bombarded with a huge array of chemicals from food, water, cleaning products, gardening products, cosmetics, skin care products, perfumes and personal hygiene products including toothpaste. All this before we even consider drugs and alcohol.
There are also the frequent dietary indiscretions to consider. The worst offenders in our diets are fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine and artificial additives such as colourings, flavourings and antioxidants (the latter added to preserve the food and not to be confused with the naturally occurring antioxidants, which are found in fruits and vegetables such as vitamins A, C and E, resveratrol, lycopene etc).
The liver performs many roles. In fact hundreds of different functions are carried out by the liver constantly. These include –
production of bile to aid in the digestion of fats
regulation of cholesterol and triglyceride levels
conversion of many drugs and natural medicines into a useable form before they enter the blood stream
processing toxins, normal metabolic waste products, drugs and hormones so that they can be easily excreted from the body
storage of glucose (for energy) in the form of glycogen
production of glucose from protein and fats for use as energy
production of clotting factors that prevent excessive bleeding
storage of vitamin B12, copper and iron
production of red blood cells for the foetus during early pregnancy
So you can see the liver is an extremely important organ, so important in fact that nature has done its best to ensure healthy functioning. For example, if a portion of the liver is removed by surgery as a result of accidental injury or disease it can regrow to its original size.
One of the major functions of the liver is to ensure the excretion from the body of toxic substances. There are two well-known detoxification pathways in the liver (and possibly more waiting to be discovered) and these are simply known as phase I and phase II liver detoxification. It is essential that both of these pathways are functioning well.
One of the major functions of phase I detoxification is to change many drugs into an active form that is often much more toxic than the original. It is then the job of the phase II pathway to neutralise this more toxic bi-product ready for excretion. For example, a tablet of Paracetamol as you know it is not an active pain reliever. It has to be changed in the liver to an active form. One of the breakdown products of this process is extremely toxic to the liver and requires active phase II detoxification to safely remove it from the body.
If phase II is overloaded or not working efficiently, this toxic bi-products will stay in the body causing harm to the liver. If excessive or frequent doses of Paracetamol are being consumed, or if it is being consumed in association with alcohol (e.g. to treat hangover) it is much more difficult for the liver to prepare it for excretion and liver toxicity can occur.
What can we do to ensure optimal liver functioning?
We can begin by reducing the chemical load on the body. We can avoid, as much as possible, highly processed foods, those that contain excessive sugar, fats or artificial additives. We can reduce chemical exposure as much as possible by reducing chemicals around the house. For example, instead of using a vast array of cleaning products, which contain toxic chemicals (for us and the environment) choose safer options. These can include bicarb soda (excellent for cleaning around the kitchen and bathroom). Vinegar is another excellent cleaner or you could use a good quality microfibre cloth.
Avoid chemicals in the garden by using more natural methods for pest and disease control. If you do need to use chemical garden products make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully and wear appropriate protective clothing. Avoid the use of pharmaceutical drugs as much as possible. Do not combine the use of Paracetamol and alcohol and do not treat a hangover with Paracetamol. In many cases the use of pharmaceutical drugs for the treatment of medical conditions is unavoidable, however sometimes liver protecting herbal medicines can be taken to minimise liver damage, particularly for drugs which are known of have a detrimental effect on the liver.
Toxins do not only occur in the body from the external environment. They are also produced in the body from natural metabolic processes. It is the liver’s job to ensure these are safely broken down and excreted from the body.
A diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables is essential for a healthy liver and for good health generally. Where possible use organically grown food but if this is not always possible be sure to wash it well. Fruit and vegetables are high in naturally occurring antioxidants, which are essential for health and longevity. Also include a variety of whole grains, nuts and seeds in your diet. These are high in B vitamins and many minerals. Drink plenty of filtered water and keep caffeinated drinks to a minimum.
Sometimes, due to our immediate environment (city living for example) or special occasions such as Christmas/New Year (increased socialising often means an increase in food and alcohol consumption), it can be difficult to avoid liver overload, try as we might. However, all is not lost! There are a number of herbal medicines that can help to maximise functioning of the detoxification pathways in the liver and protect the liver from toxins.
Important Herbal Medicines
One of the most important and well-researched liver herbs is St Mary’s Thistle (Silybum marianum), also known as Milk Thistle. It helps to heal damaged liver tissue as well as having a protective action on the liver. St Mary’s Thistle has potent antioxidant activity and has been shown in clinical trials to improve liver function in a number of different situations including alcoholic liver damage; drug-induced liver damage; and occupational toxic liver damage caused by paints, solvents and glues. It was also shown to improve survival rates in patients suffering from cirrhosis of different causes, especially alcoholic cirrhosis.
St Mary’s Thistle can improve liver detoxification pathways indirectly by improving liver health overall and is an important herb to use in any liver disorders. Some herbs have a direct effect on improving both phase I and phase II liver detoxification pathways. These include Schisandra (a Chinese herb), Turmeric and Ginger (well-known spices) and Rosemary (a commonly used culinary herb). Turmeric, Ginger and Rosemary can easily be incorporated into the diet and I certainly encourage this. However, depending on the demand being put on the liver, dietary sources may not give high enough doses of these herbs. There are times when higher doses are needed and one of the best ways to achieve this is in the form of a tablet, which can be taken for a short period of time to really assist the liver in times of increased detoxifying requirements.
I often prescribe a high quality tablet (containing the herbs St Mary’s Thistle, Rosemary and Schisandra) that has been formulated to specifically improve liver detoxification pathways, and to improve liver health generally. However in many cases it is important to strengthen and nourish the liver before including the herbs that directly stimulate the detoxification pathways. In these cases I prescribe a high dose St Mary’s thistle tablet alone in order. This will ensure a certain level of liver health before beginning to stimulate any of its processes. Sometimes the digestive capacity of the liver (e.g. bile production) may also need to be enhanced and in such cases I would use slightly different liver herbs to achieve this.
You will now have a better understanding of the importance of the liver in eliminating these toxins and how this assists in achieving and maintaining optimal health. You will also appreciate why, with our demanding lifestyles, it is often necessary to give the liver a helping hand!
Article by Berris Burgoyne ©
I am passionate about helping people improve their health and well-being.
I believe that the human spirit has the potent ability to bring about healing when it is given the necessary support to do so.
This support can be achieved in a number of ways including dietary and lifestyle adjustments and natural medicines.
These address any imbalances, and by adopting healthy habits and attitudes that nourish your spiritual, emotional and physical well-being you can achieve optimal health.