Boosting liver health to remove toxins from the body has been an integral part of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine practices for thousands of years. Referred to as the ultimate multitasking organ, ancient practitioners believed that the liver was one of the primary organs that needed to be treated in sick patients. In ancient Chinese medicine, it’s said that “the physician who knows how to harmonize the liver knows how to treat the hundred diseases.”
Today we know that without a healthy liver, it’s impossible to have a properly working metabolism, healthy circulation, balanced hormones, clean blood and strong digestion. Experiencing symptoms like fatigue, abdominal pain, bloating and hormonal imbalances? These can all be signs that your liver isn’t functioning properly. In this case, it might be time for a liver cleanse and other liver-boosting lifestyle changes, such as adding more bitter foods to your diet and using herbal medicines, for example.
What Is the Liver?
What is the liver, and why is it considered one of the hardest working organs in the body?
The liver, the largest internal organ in the human body, is a digestive organ that sits on the upper right side of the belly. What does the liver look like? It’s described as being “meaty” due to its reddish-brown color. If you were to touch your liver, it would feel rubbery and semi-firm.
The liver is always communicating with other digestive organs, receiving information about the level of available nutrients or the presence of threats like prescription medications, heavy metals or toxic substances. As the main organ involved in detoxification, it’s the liver that recognizes toxic substances and converts them into harmless material that can be released. As described in the World Journal of Hepatology in a 2017 article, “Beyond the metabolic functions, the liver recently has been defined as an organ of immune system (IS) … The liver keeps a delicate balance between hepatic screening of pathogenic antigens and immune tolerance to self-antigens.”
The liver is said to be of the “wood element” and is crucial for the transformation of food into energy, or qi, according to Chinese medicine. Since it’s associated with wood qi, the liver is characterized by “upward momentum and the innate desire to be straight.” A healthy liver results in better blood flow upward and outward, throughout our vessels, veins and capillaries, which transport oxygen and nutrients to our cells.
What can improved liver function do for your health? A well taken care of liver can help bring you:
- Increased energy levels
- Clearer skin
- More regular menstrual cycle with reduced PMS
- Freedom from sinus pain
- Fewer infections and stronger immunity
- Less digestive complaints and more regularity
- Fresher breath and oral health
- A positive mood and sharper mind
Liver Anatomy and Structure
Where is the liver located in the body? An adult human liver weighs in just over three pounds and sits in the upper right side of the abdomen, underneath the rib cage, where it’s connected to the gallbladder. The gallbladder is where bile is stored, which is also very important for digestion. The liver takes up the space below the diaphragm and most of the space under the ribs.
There are two large sections/lobes that make up the liver. Within the liver, there’s a specific type of tissue that is made of lobules, which transport blood and cells.
The liver has two main veins, one that delivers blood from the gastrointestinal tract and the other that supplies blood from the heart. The liver connects to other digestive organs via a system of tubes that collect bile, digest foods, and drain waste.
What is the liver’s function? The main functions of the liver include:
- Filtering blood coming from the digestive tract … It’s involved in storing blood, making blood clotting possible and breaking down damaged blood cells so they can be eliminated.
- Producing bile
- Dissecting and converting nutrients available in foods once they reach the digestive system … For example, the liver helps metabolize proteins by changing amino acids so they can be used for energy, or used to make carbohydrates or fats.
- Helping to spread nutrients throughout the body via the bloodstream and keeping the amount of nutrients in the blood supply at optimal levels
- Eliminating toxic waste that’s left behind once foods/substances are broken down
- Breaking down and removing excess hormones
- Storing certain vitamins and minerals for when they’re needed
- Managing the conversion of fats from your diet and manufacturing triglycerides and cholesterol
- Taking the carbohydrates you consume and turning them into glucose, a form of energy, to be stored for later use
The liver also interacts with other organs like the gallbladder, stomach and spleen, since it receives digested particles or toxins and decides what to do with them: circulate them around through the blood, or eliminate them before they can cause damage.
Something that makes the liver unique and amazing is that it has the ability to regenerate after it’s become damaged; in fact, it’s capable of doing this more than any other organ in the body. Tissue that has become scarred or damaged can be replaced when healthy liver tissue grows and takes its place. This occurs with the help of growth factors, cytokines and matrix remodeling.
In extreme cases, even if only 25 percent of the liver remains, regeneration can still happen. When the liver becomes so badly scarred that healthy cells can no longer grow back, this results in liver failure.
When someone undergoes a living-donor transplant, a portion of a donor’s liver replaces the patient’s diseased liver and then regenerates as it grows back to full size.
Liver Disease Symptoms, Signs and Types
Liver disease and liver failure is the result of so much scar tissue forming that the liver can no longer function. There are many different forms of liver disease and damage. According to the American Liver Foundation, one out of every 10 Americans is affected by liver disease, making it one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States yearly. Globally, liver disease is a major cause of illness and death — especially viral hepatitis (predominantly hepatitis C and B viruses), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic liver disease.
Some of the most common types of liver diseases include:
- Cirrhosis, which develops when scar tissue replaces the healthy cells in the liver. This can result in long-term damage to the liver that can lead to permanent scarring.
- Alcoholic liver disease — when the liver becomes damaged by heavy drinking because it is the primary site of ethanol (alcohol) metabolism. Alcohol abuse can lead to steatosis (retention of fats), hepatitis and fibrosis/cirrhosis. Among problem drinkers, about 35 percent develop advanced liver disease.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver, when fat builds up in the liver. This type occurs more frequently with obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. NAFLD has become a leading cause of chronic liver disease in Western countries, with some estimates showing that it may impact about 16 percent or more of the general population in some way.
- Hepatitis, usually caused by viruses like hepatitis B, A and C. Hepatitis can also be caused by heavy drinking, drugs, allergic reactions or obesity.
- Liver cancer, including the most common type called hepatocellular carcinoma
- Liver failure, which occurs when scarring becomes so severe that the liver cannot function anymore
- Ascites, when the liver leaks fluid (ascites) into the belly
- Bile duct infection (cholangitis)
- Genetic disorders such as Wilson’s Disease, Gilbert’s Disease or Hemochromatosis, which occurs when iron deposits in the liver and throughout the body
- Infections including Epstein Barr virus/mononucleosis, adenovirus, cytomegalovirus and toxoplasmosis
Not every person experiences symptoms of liver disease, especially in the early stages. As scarring of the liver and inflammation worsen, symptoms are more likely to become noticeable.
If you’re suffering from liver disease, you’re likely to experience at least some of these liver disease symptoms:
- abdominal pain … Where do you get pain from the liver? Usually liver damage causes pain in the center or right upper part of the belly. If the liver becomes enlarged and swollen, it will also extend across the abdomen and also down toward the belly.
- jaundice, or yellowing of the skin
- fatigue/always feeling tired
- nausea, vomiting, weight loss and loss of appetite
- tenderness over the liver, or enlarging or shrinking of the liver (an inflamed liver in hepatitis may be tender and bigger, while a cirrhotic liver may be small and shrunken)
- confusion and trouble concentrating
- enlarged liver
- bloating and gas
- dark urine
- bruising easily
- excessive sweat
- pale or dark tar-colored stool
- dry and dark patches on neck and under arms
- swelling in the legs and ankles
- symptoms due to hormonal imbalances, such as high cholesterol levels, PMS, irregular periods, acne and mood swings
What are the early signs of liver problems?
The first signs of liver damage tend to be abdominal pain, digestive issues, loss of appetite and bloody stools. As liver damage and scarring progresses, symptoms can include edema, chronic fatigue, cognitive impairment, changes in the skin and other issues.
Causes of Liver Damage
Because it has such widespread roles in the body, just about any form of metabolic, digestive, immune or hormonal disorder can impact liver health. In addition, your lifestyle can make or break the health of your liver.
Some of the major causes of damage to your liver can include:
- Too much alcohol
- Prescription medication or antibiotic use, including use of over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, statins and antibiotics like amoxiciilin-clavulinic, nitrofurantoin or tetracycline
- Unprotected sex that spreads viruses/infections
- High stress levels and hormonal imbalances
- Air pollution and environmental toxin exposure
- Autoimmune or inherited liver disease
- Exposure to chemically sprayed crops
- Using chemical household and beauty products
- Obesity, such as due to eating many packaged foods that contain refined oils and high amounts of sugar
There are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of developing liver problems, some of which are:
- Gastric bypass surgery
- High cholesterol
- High levels of triglycerides in the blood
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome and obesity
- Autoimmune disease
- Sleep apnea
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)
- Being a man, especially over the age of 65 … Aging is a major risk factor for most chronic diseases, including liver disease. In general, men are twice as likely to die from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis than are women.
Why is your liver so vulnerable to damage and the effects of a harmful diet or high toxin exposure? The liver is somewhat like the body’s digestive control center. When substances reach the liver, they’re processed and either circulated, stored, altered, detoxified or flushed away through urine and stool.
Can liver disease be prevented? In most cases, yes. You can lower your risk for liver disease greatly by only consuming alcohol in moderation, avoiding drug use, practicing safe sex, managing stress levels, eating an organic, whole-food diet and maintaining a healthy weight to prevent metabolic problems.
Conventional Treatment of Liver Disease
Which types of doctors treat liver disease? Depending on the condition being treated, a patient might work with a gastroenterologist, hepatologist (a liver specialist), interventional radiologist, surgeon, infectious disease specialist and/or oncologist.
What are liver function blood tests that doctors use to make a diagnosis? If your doctor suspects you have a problem with your liver function, they may choose to do a physical exam and run a number of different tests, including: blood tests to check levels of liver enzymes, a complete blood cell count (CBC), hepatitis virus screen, blood clotting tests, tests to check levels of bilirubin, albumin and ammonia, ultrasound and CT scan.
Blood tests can reveal if the liver is inflamed and not properly making proteins, which are needed for blood clotting. A physical exam, ultrasound and CT scan are also performed to assess the anatomy and structure of the liver and surrounding tissues, in order to check for shrinking, swelling, edema, etc.
What is a liver biopsy? Is it painful? A liver biopsy is done to check for liver problems that can’t always be detected from other blood or imaging tests, and to determine the severity of damage. A liver biopsy involves inserting a thin needle into the liver to retrieve a small bit of tissue that is examined under a microscope. The procedure is usually done with use of a local anesthetic so it’s not very painful. Pain after a liver biopsy is usually only mild and goes away within a week or so.
Once liver disease is diagnosed, treatment options include:
- Abstaining from alcohol, quitting smoking and avoiding any unnecessary or recreational drugs
- Stopping use of medications or lowering the dose.
- Eating less unhealthy foods, losing weight (if needed) and managing metabolic risk factors
- Hepatitis B treatment with antiviral medications
- Liver cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation
- Removal of fluid from the abdomen using an inserted needle
- Intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain blood pressure
- Medications such as laxatives or enemas
- Surgical resection of the liver
- Liver transplant if the liver is no longer functioning … In 2017, more than 8,000 people in the U.S. received liver transplants.
How to Improve Liver Function (5 Natural Ways)
1. Avoid Heavy Drinking and Drug Use
Alcohol is primarily processed in the liver, so a night of heavy drinking means the liver must work overtime to bring the body back to balance. You can help protect your liver by only consuming alcohol in moderation, which means no more than one drink per day for adult women, or one to two for adult men.
If you take medications and are worried about your liver, talk to your doctor about alternative options, such as switching types or lowering your dose.
Another “risky behavior” to avoid is unprotected sex, especially with multiple partners, since this increases your risk for catching hepatitis and other viruses or infections.
2. Eat an Anti-inflammatory Diet and Choose Organic
Your diet itself drastically impacts how hard your liver works. Because the liver breaks down fats, converts protein and sugar and removes substances from the blood, it can become overwhelmed when it has too much to handle.
A low-sugar, low-toxin diet that’s filled with high-fiber foods is crucial for supporting your liver. High amounts of antioxidants and fiber can even help to reverse liver damage and disease, according to certain studies.
Keep things balanced by eating real, whole foods (preferably organic), including unrefined sources of carbohydrates, veggies, fruits and healthy fats. When it comes to fats and proteins in your diet, focus on quality sources (cage-free eggs, grass-fed meat or wild-caught seafood, for example) so the liver can properly break down fats and remove excess cholesterol and toxins.
Choosing organic foods is one of the few proven ways to lower pesticide levels in the body. Organic, high-antioxidant foods fight the negative effects of stress, pollution and a poor diet on the health of your liver, while increasing natural liver detoxification and the ability to flush toxins out through urine.
Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods for liver function include:
- Sour foods — Bitterness is usually a sign that beneficial enzymes, which nourish the liver, are present. Sour foods are high in essential minerals that balance fluids and reduce heavy metals within the blood. Examples include bitter green vegetables (mustard greens, chicory, arugula, dandelion, etc.) and leafy greens, like collards or Swiss chard.
- Probiotic foods — This includes foods like yogurt, kombucha, kefir and cultured vegetables that support gut health by providing healthy bacteria.
- Leafy greens — Green vegetables of all kinds come loaded with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, plus they may also increase levels of glutathione, a vital component in the destruction of free radicals within the body.
- Cruciferous veggies and grasses — Green grasses (like chlorella, barley or wheat grass) hold a form of chlorophyll, a structure that’s built into plant cells that helps escort damaging substances like dioxin out of the liver, while increasing antioxidants like superoxide dismutase. And cruciferous veggies (broccoli, kale, cage, etc.) improve low potassium levels and contain indole compounds, a byproduct that’s known to be a help fight cancer and eliminate carcinogens from the body. Cruciferous vegetables can increase production of digestive enzymes called glucosinolates that help detoxify the liver and increase the liver’s ability to usher out carcinogens and heavy metals from the blood.
- Fresh herbs — Herbs including turmeric, coriander, parsley, cilantro and oregano are great to boost glutathione production and also lower inflammation. For example, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound helpful in restoring healthy blood pressure, improving circulation and fighting toxin buildup.
- High-antioxidant fruits — Fruits like berries and melons provide and balance electrolyte minerals needed by the liver, including magnesium, calcium and potassium. In addition, they’re beneficial for improving healthy circulation by acting similar to hemoglobin.
- Local, raw honey — Raw honey is the kind that’s not heated or refined. It’s a natural antibacterial, antimicrobial and anti-fungal product. It helps lower liver inflammation and eliminate bacteria, parasites and viral infections, especially when you source it locally.
- Green tea — Green tea, especially concentrated, powdered matcha green tea, is known to contain powerful compounds known as catechins that act as antioxidants in the body, combatting free radicals within the blood, reducing liver inflammation and lowering the effects of oxidative stress on the digestive organs.
- Coconut oil — Considered one of the best sources of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), coconut oil contains beneficial healthy fats, including lauric acid. Acids found in MCFA have anti-fungal, antimicrobial and antiviral properties that help the liver detox, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods and support energy levels.
- Apple cider vinegar — A fermented product made by combining apple juice with live bacteria in the form of yeast, apple cider vinegar contains beneficial enzymes and antioxidants, such as acetic acid and malic acid that help establish a healthy ratio of acid to alkalinity.
The worst foods for liver function include:
- Too much alcohol or caffeine
- Packaged goods that contain refined vegetable oils, artificial ingredients, sweeteners and colors
- Fruits and vegetables heavily sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides (non-organic crops)
- Factory-farmed animal products, farm-raised fish and conventional dairy (that has been pasteurized and homogenized)
- Processed meats like cold cuts that contain nitrates
- Foods made with hydrogenated oils, refined vegetable oils and artificial sweeteners/ingredients
- Sugary drinks and snacks
- Refined grains
3. Use Liver-Boosting Supplements
Natural herbs have been used for centuries to help the liver metabolize chemicals found in prescriptions, antibiotics, hormones and nutrients like proteins and fats. While herbs are not necessarily effective for treating liver disease and not intended for this purpose, several powerful herbs known to give the liver a boost in converting nutrients and removing toxins include:
- Milk thistle — Milk thistle is an excellent source of the antioxidant called silymarin, which prevents depletion of glutathione in the liver and also fights liver disease.
- Holy basil — Holy basil contains essential oils that help combat bacteria, heavy metals and even strains of fungus.
- Dandelion root — Dandelion root (yes, the same kind found in your yard that you might consider a weed!) has a natural diuretic effect. This means it helps balance fluid levels and boosts the liver’s efforts to quickly eliminate toxins, strengthening the immune system, helping with blood sugar balance and relieving indigestion.
- Licorice root — Licorice root extract has anti-inflammatory properties and can help soothe gastrointestinal problems.
- Bupleurum — Bupleurum is a medicinal root used for fighting infections and improving digestion problems like acid reflux, diarrhea and constipation. It helps improve adrenal gland function, reduce effects of stress and make the immune system work harder.
If you’re lucky enough to visit a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, you might also be recommended various other herbs that are proven to help improve kidney, liver and spleen function when combined with other traditional treatment methods.
4. Reduce Stress and Practice Forgiveness
What does forgiveness have to do with your liver? Most of it comes down to your hormones. Historically, holistic practitioners tied emotional troubles to liver damage and, therefore, overall poor health. As you probably know, high amounts of chronic stress — which can be caused by emotional issues, relationship problems and holding on to guilt, anger or shame — all have an impact on your endocrine, reproductive, digestive and immune systems.
Research shows that changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis caused by stress promotes inflammatory response and worsens liver damage, even contributing to liver diseases.
A damaged liver is said to block healthy emotional flow, produce frustration and cause anger — and believe it or not, these have physical implications. (11) Poor liver function has been tied to physical and psychological symptoms, including: brain fog, rib pain or fullness, dizziness, headaches, cramping, joint or tendon problems, menstrual problems, blurry vision and digestive disorders. This can also create a vicious cycle, because the more stress you’re under, the more dysfunction in the liver can result.
Since the liver is closely tied to functions of the uterus, involved in regulating reproductive hormones, a woman’s menstrual cycle and libido, it’s important to let go of built-up anger and keep positive energy moving by avoiding conflict and stressing over the small things.
5. Exercise and Move Your Body More
Studies show that exercise reduces inflammation and oxidative stress in obesity-related liver diseases. Because the liver stores and processes your blood, circulation is important for allowing its cleansing effects to unfold. The body can become stagnant and more susceptible to disease when blood isn’t flowing, but during physical activities, the heart pumps more blood. The liver is then better able to release blood to your brain, organs, tendons, joints and muscles. Exercise also helps blood and nutrients reach reproductive or digestive organs, which is helpful for managing liver-related symptoms.
Final Thoughts on Liver Function
- The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body; it sits on the upper right side of the belly and connects to the gallbladder.
- What is the function of the liver? The liver is involved in dozens of bodily functions, including: removing toxins from the body, cleaning the blood, converting nutrients from foods, producing bile, converting fats and storing glucose.
- There are many types of liver disease, including: cirrhosis, alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis, liver cancer, genetics disorders and others.
- Some signs and symptoms of liver damage/disease can include: abdominal pain, digestive issues, loss of appetite, fatigue, jaundice, skin issues, dark stool and bleeding.
- Ways to protect the liver and boost liver function include: avoiding heavy alcohol consumption and drug use, protecting against hepatitis, eating a healthy diet and avoiding obesity, reducing toxin exposure, using herbal supplements, exercising and managing stress.