Optimizing Liver Function and Detoxification to Avoid Illness and Disease

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

The liver, second to skin, is the largest organ in the human body.   At any one time, over one third of the total blood volume is in this organ. In humans, the liver is located below the diaphragm in the right upper quadrant of the abdominal cavity and is close to the stomach and the gallbladder. The liver has multiple functions and plays a major role in metabolism, including glycogen storage, decomposition of red blood cells, plasma protein synthesis, hormone production, and detoxification. It is also one of the very few organs that has the ability to repair and regenerate. For the purposes of this article, though, we will focus more on the liver’s essential and remarkable ability to filter and clean the blood as it passes through the entire body, including other organs. Total liver failure leads to death. Unlike the kidneys, which also filter toxins, there is no dialysis available to aid in detoxification to circumvent liver issues. While, thankfully, true liver failure is relatively rare, it is important to understand how good function of this amazing organ is essential to health in all arenas.

The Basics of Liver Function

Some of the major functions of the liver include:

  • Production of bile: This breaks down fats and certain vitamins for absorption. Inadequate bile production leads to malabsorption and deficiency syndromes.
  • Vitamin storage: Particularly the fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
  • Blood sugar regulation: Glycogen, a form of glucose, is stored in the liver, and released when signaled for energy. Impairment of this process is not uncommon in hypoglycemia and diabetes.
  • Immune function: Certain immune cells, called Kupffer cells, are responsible for fighting infection and disease. These Kupffer cells are fixed macrophage cells (white blood cells that engulf and digest anything that does not have the proteins indicative of healthy body cells) that line the fine blood capillaries of the liver and act like scavengers, removing aged-red blood cells, bacteria, and other foreign material.
  • Filtration or “detoxification”: The liver directly and indirectly filters, sequesters, and facilitates the removal of harmful substances from the body.

Liver Detoxification

We are going to focus this article on the filtration role of the liver, because all of the abovementioned duties become impaired if the liver’s ability to detoxify is compromised. As blood passes through the liver, multiple, specialized cells convert toxic substances into more water-soluble substances, so that they can then be cleared by the kidneys and excreted through urine. Other substances are bound with bile, also produced by the liver, and passed into the intestinal tract to be removed by the bowels. If any of these processes are impaired, hampered, or overutilized due to exposures, then partially broken-down substances can be reabsorbed back into the blood stream and recirculated throughout the body. These substances may include the byproducts of normal metabolism such as the build up and break down of hormones, pathogens–viruses and bacteria, or toxins, like alcohol, drugs, chemicals and other external toxins.

There are two phases of liver detoxification, and we simply refer to these as Phase 1 and Phase 2. For a visual of what is happening biochemically, think of Phase 1 as bagging up the trash and Phase 2 as taking the trash out to the dump. Imbalances between these two phases can cause a build-up of undesired byproducts or toxins; i.e., you can bag it up but not get it out, or you can carry it out with great vigor, but the ineffective collection beforehand still retards the process, or leaves much of the trash littering the path.

The Essentials of Liver Support

There are specific nutrients that help to support both phases of liver detoxification. While these nutrients are quite important, the total picture needs to be considered for optimum function. In other words, we DO have control over what goes into the system, and to whatever extent is it possible for us to control that, this is where all liver support should start. To break this concept down further, I will list the top 4 things to consider FIRST when you want to support and optimize your liver function:

  1. The air that we breathe and the substances that are immediately absorbed through the skin are the largest sources of continual toxins. We live in an industrialized society. Many toxins cannot be avoided, and our livers work hard to clear these. Our goal is to reduce what we can by assuring that the air that we breathe is as clean and clear as possible, particularly in our homes and places of work. We have discussed much about the impact of mycotoxins from molds in home and work places, and it is essential that these be remediated. Besides the multitude of effects on the system as a whole, the liver becomes overwhelmed and simply cannot keep up.
  2. Eating organically as much as possible reduces the continual inflow of pesticides, preservatives, coloring agents, and other chemicals. Keeping your diet full of good-quality proteins and fats preserves cells in better working order. Reduction in alcohol intake, alcohol is a liver toxin, de-stresses the system. Keeping phytonutrients high from vegetables and fruits also aids in detoxification. I tell my patients to “think color,” as the more natural colors that foods contain, the more phytonutrients that are present.
  3. Avoidance of chemicals. Try to be more conscious of all of the exposures you may not normally think of, and eliminate them wherever possible. For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most-used chemicals in the world, found in plastics, particularly plastic water bottles. Perfluroinated compounds (PFCs) found in nonstick cookware have far-reaching effects including hormonal disruption and issues with insulin/blood sugar. Try to stop using items, like plastic water bottles for drinking and non-stick pans for cooking to lessen your toxic load.
  4. Avoiding the use of non-essential medications. While I am not “anti-medication”, if there are more natural alternatives, including diet and exercise, than adding medications that could contribute to the total body load, then these should be tried first for the good of health and liver!

Does this all seem to bring up a recurring theme from other previous articles? YES! Back to the mantra of clean air, clean water, clean food we go! It truly is the starting point of health. But beyond that, what are effective treatments to keep the liver in good functional order?

Liver-Specific Treatments and Interventions

In my practice, I do like to be quite specific and individualized in my approach to recommendations. There are both blood and urine tests that help me determine, not only the things that may be helpful to restore or maintain liver health, but also the order in which they should be approached; so, in my mentioning of specific nutrients or procedures, it is preferred that you not embark on any liver treatment strategies without knowing what you are treating. Besides the guidelines above, other things we may recommend according to patients’ specific needs include the following:

  • Far infrared sauna. Done carefully and with good support, this allows the skin and sweating to reduce the toxic load on the liver.
  • Ample hydration of filtered water. Water should always be stored and ingested from glass or stainless-steel bottles.
  • Liver-Specific vegetables and herbs. Safe for anyone are garlic, turmeric, cilantro, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage. These foods and herbs help to naturally enhance both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of liver detoxification. Studies have shown that non-desirable estrogen break-down products are decreased from circulation and storage in the body by the ingestion of these cruciferous veggies leading to better breast and prostate health.
  • Antioxidants. Glutathione, lipoic acid, green tea extract, resveratrol. These are taken orally but can also be administered via IV in a functional medicine office
  • Methylating vitamins. Forms of Vitamin B12, folate, MSM, but balance here is very important.

Liver Health

There are many other major and minor players in liver health, but if we can all think in terms of eliminating the liver-harming substances we put into our systems, then there is far less that has to be removed after the fact! While it is impossible to control every aspect of our environment, to the extent that we can keep that load down, we should certainly try. With increased vigilance and simple interventions, it only makes sense that better health should follow.

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