As statistics suggest that liver disease is on the rise, our experts reveal how you can support this, often overlooked, part of your body
We all joke about the fact our livers need a rest after the alcohol-fuelled festivities of the Christmas period, but this hard-working organ does so much more than simply process and detoxify alcohol – and, according to research, it’s an area of our body we really should be paying more attention to. “The liver is the waste disposal unit of your body, not only for toxins, waste products, drugs and alcohol, but also for hormones,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville (marilynglenville.com). “The liver performs other important functions that have a bearing on your health too. Among its many tasks are the storage and filtration of blood, the secretion of bile, and numerous metabolic functions, including the conversion of sugars into glycogen (the form in which carbohydrates are stored in your body). On top of this, it plays a vital part in breaking down fat and it helps to use up fat to produce energy.” The problem is that many of us in the UK don’t take the steps necessary to look after this organ. In fact, according to the British Liver Trust, liver disease is the biggest cause of death in those aged between 35 and 49 and deaths due to this condition have increased by 400 percent since the 1970s. The facts are shocking, but what can we do about it?
First of all, it’s important to understand why our liver might not function to the best of its ability. We all know that excessive alcohol can have a damaging impact on this part of our body, but issues can also arise when we eat too many processed foods, as these can cause problems with blood-sugar levels.
“Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an increasingly recognised health problem,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk). “Some estimates suggest it affects as many as one in three people, although many cases are mild and remain undiagnosed. It is most common in people who are obese, have type 2 diabetes or raised triglyceride levels.“
As the name suggests, fatty liver disease is the term used to describe a range of conditions caused by the build-up of fat in the liver. Having a very small amount of fat in this organ won’t cause you any harm, but if it gets worse it can result in the formation of scar tissue or serious damage such as cirrhosis. It can also increase your risk of issues such as diabetes, kidney disease and high blood pressure.
As well as processed food and alcohol, stress and certain drugs can also affect the health of our liver. “Some drugs, such as paracetamol can damage anyone’s liver in excess,” Dr Brewer explains. “In fact, paracetamol is the commonest cause of acute liver failure and it is surprisingly easy to take a potentially deadly overdose unintentionally. Researchers at Edinburgh University have warned that taking just a few pills too many over days, weeks or months could result in a staggered, accidental overdose with possible liver injury.”
Other common pills should be taken with care too. “Because your liver detoxifies your hormones, research has shown that the contraceptive pill and oral HRT could have a negative impact on your liver and experts have suggested that if you are taking either of these that your liver function is checked every year with a blood test,” Dr Marilyn adds. So, how do you know if you’ve got a problem? Because your liver is effectively your inbuilt detox unit, when it is not working to its optimum you can see the effects across your body. “Symptoms can include yellowing of skin and eyes, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, itchy skin, abdominal pain, bruising easily and dark urine,” Dr Marilyn explains, adding that it’s important to see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
It’s clear that we need to do our best to keep this organ in top condition and luckily there are some simple lifestyle changes that can make a big difference…
Eat well: We know we talk about this often, but the importance of a good diet cannot be overlooked. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruit and avoid processed food as much as possible. Broccoli in particular may be beneficial – one study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that this nutritional powerhouse helped prevent the build-up of fat in the livers of mice over a long period. You should also try to steer clear of refined powdered fructose, which is often an added ingredient in foods and drinks (and not the fructose found naturally in fruits). “Fructose triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) in the liver which can, in turn, lead to fatty liver and liver damage but also, an increased risk of heart disease,” Dr Marilyn explains.
Reduce your alcohol intake: “As alcohol is poisonous, liver cells drop their normal house-keeping metabolic reactions and work overtime to eliminate alcohol,” Dr Sarah says. “This means enzymes are diverted from their normal tasks and therefore, liver cells start to accumulate unprocessed globules of fat and become abnormally swollen. Even a single episode of binge drinking can change liver cell metabolism and trigger fatty degeneration.”
Try supplements: According to Dr Sarah, there are a number of supplements that can help support your liver function. “Globe artichoke supplements stimulate liver function to increase bile production, lower cholesterol levels and improve ‘bilious’ symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, nausea and abdominal discomfort. This is my supplement of choice for liver support, as it has even been shown to help reverse fatty liver disease.
“Milk thistle seed extracts are also beneficial,” she adds. “They help to boost levels of an antioxidant that protects liver cells from toxic damage and can even boost its levels by over a third. Extracts have also been shown to stimulate liver cell regeneration by increasing the rate at which new proteins are made and by reducing the formation of scar tissue.”
Up your probiotics: Lots has been said about the importance of good bacteria in all aspects of your health and probiotics can also support your liver function. “They digest dietary fibre to produce short-chain fatty acids, such as propionate, which have an anti-inflammatory effect on the liver,” explains Dr Sarah. “Probiotics may also improve liver function by reducing gut ‘leakiness’ and the amount of endotoxins – produced by other intestinal bacteria – that are absorbed into the circulation and taken to the liver for processing.”
Drink coffee: Interestingly, caffeine helps to stimulate the metabolism of lipids stored in liver cells and decreases fatty liver problems. “Researchers from Duke University have found that consuming the equivalent caffeine intake of four cups of coffee or tea may help to prevent and slow the progression of NAFLD,” says Dr Sarah.
Reduce stress: As stress is closely linked to reduced liver function it is important to lower your anxiety levels wherever possible. “Certain nutrients can help cushion your body against stress,” says Dr Marilyn. “These include the B vitamins, especially B5 for stress relief, magnesium, which helps with relaxation and sleep, chromium for blood sugar balance, Siberian ginseng which acts as a tonic to the adrenal glands and L-theanine for reducing stress and anxiety.”
Eat phytoestrogens: ”Phytoestrogens like lentils, soya, and chickpeas stimulate the production of the sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG),” explains Dr Marilyn. This is a protein produced by the liver that binds sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone in order to control their levels in your blood.
Wellbeing experts from the women’s health website Luna Hive (thelunahive.com) explain how complementary therapies can offer great support for your liver…
We all know this gentle exercise can help our physical health in general, but it can also give targeted support for specific areas – including your liver. Yoga instructor Libby Stevenson says: “Yoga can help your liver stay healthy by stimulating, strengthening and physically stretching it. The cobra pose (or Bhujangasana) is one move which does all of this. To do this pose, lie on your tummy with your legs straight and feet together with toes pointing behind you. Place the palms of your hands on the mat with fingers pointing forward. Your elbows need to start close to the body and your forehead should be on the mat. As you inhale, press your hands into the mat and lift your head, neck and shoulders. Look forward and bring the shoulders back and down.”
As acupuncturist Rachel Sheriff explains, the liver is of key importance in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has an essential role to play in terms of the flowing of energy through our body. “The liver governs the free flow of the body’s qi and if the liver function is compromised it can result in symptoms of stagnation,” she says. “These could include irritability, headaches, constipation or painful periods. The acupuncture point Tai Chong, located between the first and second bones of the foot can be massaged to move the liver qi. Alternatively any exercise that raises the heart rate such as brisk walking can help move the energy.”
If you’re a fan of aromatherapy, you’ll be pleased to know that there are certain oils that can help relieve liver issues. “The best essential oils for liver congestion are rosemary, celery seed (which has a regenerating effect on the liver), and turmeric for jaundice,” aromatherapist Ali Chambers says. “For pregnant women, carrot seed is safe and is considered a strong tonic on the liver and gallbladder, thanks to high concentration of vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. To use any essential oil, dilute no more than 10 drops in a 10ml roller bottle with a base oil and apply to pulse points on your body daily.”
As in TCM, the liver has a huge role to play in ayurvedic teachings and is believed to be key for overall wellbeing. “According to Ayurveda, the liver is the most important organ involved in the transformation and processing of fats,” ayurvedic coach Claire Paphitis says. “To maintain a healthy liver it is important to include bitter tastes in your diet as these are cleansing for the organ – try using some crushed fenugreek seeds in your cooking for a simple way to boost your liver function.”
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