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liver cleanses: woman making green juice

What’s The Deal With Liver Cleanses?

Day in and day out, our liver plays the crucial role of filtering out toxins and excess hormones, aiding digestion, and regulating metabolism. However, amidst diets often laden with processed foods and the constant barrage of environmental pollutants and chronic stress, our livers are under siege these days.

A growing interest in liver cleansing reflects our collective desire for a cleaner, less burdened body in today’s toxin-heavy environment. Liver cleansing is now a popular topic among wellness seekers and TikTok scrollers alike, all eager to bolster the health and efficiency of this essential organ. The hope is that by rejuvenating the liver and lightening its load, cleansers can potentially experience improved digestion, hormonal balance, and immune defenses, among many other perks.

If you’ve seen the term “liver cleansing” out there somewhere and wondered what the heck it actually means, ponder no more. Here, we’ll break down the ins and outs of liver cleansing, exploring its purpose and the reasons behind its growing popularity, and share important considerations to bear in mind before diving in.

Why Do A Liver Cleanse?

The liver is like the body’s own personal filtering system, working around the clock to clean our blood of toxins, break down fats, and manage levels of chemicals, sugar, and hormones. As such, maintaining a healthy liver is crucial not just for detoxification but also for sustaining our body’s energy levels, keeping digestion in check, and ensuring hormones are balanced, all of which contribute to our general health and vitality.

Like any hardworking system, though, the liver can get bogged down. When overloaded with too many toxins from processed foods, alcohol, drugs, and environmental pollutants, the liver becomes less efficient. And, when the liver is overwhelmed, leading to increased inflammation and potentially liver damage, toxins can start to accumulate, fat metabolism can slow down, and hormone regulation can falter.

The domino effect that poor liver function has on our overall health is major. In fact, when the liver is compromised, you might experience fatigue, weight gain, digestive problems, and even a weakened immune system, according to registered dietitian Rosa Becerra-Soberon, R.D.N., of Top Nutrition Coaching. Moreover, because the liver helps regulate hormones, an overburdened liver can contribute to hormonal imbalances, affecting everything from mood to menstrual cycles. 

Read More: 9 Lifestyle Changes To Make For Healthier Hormones

At its core, liver cleansing is about assisting your body’s natural detoxification processes. The basic idea hinges on giving the liver a break from its daily grind, allowing it to clear out any accumulated junk, and optimizing its efficiency. Some choose to do a liver cleanse to recover from a period of overindulgence (such as drinking lots of alcohol over the holidays), to kick-start a healthier lifestyle, or to address specific health concerns like sluggishness, digestive issues, or chronic fatigue.

According to Becerra-Soberon, a well-timed liver cleanse can offer many benefits for the entire body, such as potentially helping to:

  • Enhance energy levels
  • Bolster gut function and immunity
  • Improve skin health
  • Aid in cardiovascular function
  • Support weight loss
  • Boost mental clarity

Additionally, liver cleansing can be an attractive option for those looking to support long-term health, according to Becerra-Soberon. “Detoxification methods like juicing and fasting are often appealing among aging adults,” she says. 

What Liver Cleanses Involve

Liver cleanses can take many forms, from simple dietary adjustments to intensive detox programs that utilize supplements and other practices, according to Becerra-Soberon. 

She’s a fan of healing the liver holistically by focusing on overall digestive health and kidney health, too. All of these organs work together to clear the body of waste and to maintain normal fluid and nutrient levels; if one is inflamed or dysfunctioning, it can have a trickle-down effect on the others. “If you want to support your liver, remember there is no one single solution,” she says. “A combination of dietary and lifestyle changes will lead to the best and longest-lasting outcome.”

Here’s a snapshot of common approaches to liver cleansing and what they entail:

Dietary Changes

A liver-friendly diet typically emphasizes whole, nutrient-dense foods while avoiding alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and highly processed foods.

According to the American Liver Foundation, a liver-loving diet is rich in foods that are anti-inflammatory (think full of antioxidants) and nutrient-rich, such as leafy greens, herbs, cruciferous vegetables, and berries. These foods are not only sustainable but supportive of overall digestive health, as well. 

Some of the best foods for liver health include:

High-fiber foods like legumes, veggies, nuts, and seeds are also helpful, as studies show fiber supports nutrient management and detoxification by promoting gut, liver, and kidney function.

Ideally, choose organic foods as often as possible to limit consumption of pesticide chemicals, says Becerra-Soberon. “I like to use The Environmental Working Group’s list of the ‘cleanest’ and ‘dirtiest’ fruits and vegetables to help determine which types I should buy organic versions of.” 

Additionally, oily fish that provide omega-3s, such as salmon and sardines, may help manage fatty liver disease due to these fats’ antioxidant effects.

Detox Drinks, Juices, and Recipes

Certain liver cleanse protocols incorporate juice fasting or very restrictive diets to give the digestive system a rest, thereby allowing the liver to focus on detoxification. 

For example, some people incorporate special liver-loving concoctions—often containing acidic and/or antioxidant-rich ingredients, such as lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or beet juice—to stimulate the liver and aid in toxin elimination. Research suggests lemon juice and apple cider vinegar can both support liver detox by supplying liver-protective antioxidants, stimulating the liver to produce bile, and aiding in the breakdown and elimination of toxins. Beet juice, rich in antioxidants and nitrates, may help enhance liver function and increase natural detoxification enzymes that can help soothe the digestive tract. 

Fasting

Some people also turn to traditional fasting (in which only water is consumed for up to several days) to lower the burden of digestion on the liver and give it space to clean house, Becerra-Soberon says. Intermittent fasting—which involves shortening your eating window to about six to 12 hours per day and fasting for the remaining hours—is another gentler option.

“Fasting can be hard, and often people feel fatigued or deal with other side effects while doing it,” she says. “But research shows that fasting can provide therapeutic benefits for managing chronic diseases, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.“

Read More: Intermittent Fasting For Women: What To Keep In Mind

Another option is “vegetable fasting,” in which you consume only vegetables—whether in juice form or raw salads—for a period (often a week or two). “The rationale behind veggie fasting is that the chlorophyll and nutrient content of the vegetables helps to reduce oxidative stress,” says Becerra-Soberon. Meanwhile, you also reduce the digestive burden on your system.

Herbs And Supplements

Liver cleansing supplements have surged in popularity as part of the broader interest in detoxification and wellness, according to doctor of natural medicine Dr. Josh Axe, D.C., D.N.M., C.N.S., co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. A handful of long-loved herbs, prized for their purported detoxifying properties, are among the stars of these products.

Here’s a closer look at some of the most popular liver-cleansing supplements, their benefits, and guidelines for use:

1. Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is one of the most renowned liver support supplements out there thanks to its active ingredient, silymarin, notes Axe. Silymarin compounds are believed to have antioxidant properties that can protect liver cells from damage and support liver regeneration. Many supplements containing milk thistle are standardized to provide high concentrations of silymarin.

2. Dandelion Root

Dandelion root has traditionally been used for its digestive-boosting and diuretic effects, helping the liver eliminate excess fluids and toxins and digest lipids (fats) more efficiently. It’s also believed to stimulate bile production, further aiding in digestion and detoxification.

In one study, dandelion was shown to be a powerful liver detoxer and protector that can help ward off chronic issues due to its rich composition of phytochemicals.

3. Turmeric (Curcumin)

Turmeric, and its active compound called curcumin, is celebrated for its potent antioxidant properties, says Axe. Curcumin is thought to enhance the liver’s ability to detoxify chemicals and promote overall liver health and function. Many turmeric supplements are standardized to contain higher amounts of curcumin—and Axe recommends looking for one that also contains piperine (black pepper extract), which significantly increases curcumin absorption.

4. Artichoke Extract

Artichoke extract is known for its ability to stimulate bile production, which is essential for digestion and detoxification. It may also protect the liver from damage and support liver cell regeneration.

5. N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)

NAC is a precursor to glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that plays a critical role in the liver’s detoxification pathways by offering protection against free radical damage and oxidative stress that contribute to liver damage, says Axe. Studies suggest NAC can help to mitigate liver injury

Avoidance of Toxins

“Toxins” describe any number of harmful chemicals or pollutants, such as organic pollutants (like pesticides, herbicides, and industrial chemicals), toxic metals, solvents, and endocrine disruptors. These can come from a variety of sources these days, including foods and products we cook with, put on our bodies, and clean our homes with, explains Axe.

To help reduce your toxin exposure, Becerra-Soberon and Axe suggest limiting the following types of products in your diet and routine:

  • Highly processed foods (like processed meats, trans fats, and fast food)
  • Household cleaners and skin-care products with long lists of ingredients
  • Plastic food containers and water bottles that are not BPA-free
  • Unfiltered water
  • Any medications that you don’t require or aren’t prescribed
  • Most artificial fragrances found in air fresheners and scented cleansers (essential oils make a great natural alternative)
  • Fumes like gasoline 

Stress Management

You might not associate stress with liver dysfunction, but “stress can contribute to liver injury by altering the production of certain enzymes that can damage liver tissue,” explains Becerra-Soberon. 

Another problem is that the body can’t heal when you’re stressed, she says. “Studies even link stress with three important liver-related pathologies: viral hepatitis, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma.”

Keep in mind that stress comes in many forms, such as emotional stress, sleep deprivation, ongoing anger and frustration, and feelings of overwhelm. Axe points out that in traditional systems of medicine, excessive anger has been linked to poor liver health, while forgiveness is viewed as important for healthy liver function.

To support your mental and emotional health, and therefore your liver health, Axe recommends carving out time to relax and unwind regularly, such as by meditating, exercising, spending time in nature, and socializing with people who make you feel supported.

Precautions and Best Practices

While the idea of detoxifying the liver is appealing, it’s crucial to approach liver cleanses with mindfulness and informed caution, especially if you have a chronic liver or health condition. Use these expert guidelines to care for your liver safely and effectively:

1. Aim for Gentle Over Extreme

Opting for sustainable, nutritionally balanced approaches over extreme fasting or restrictive diets is always a safe bet. The goal is to support the liver, not stress the body further. “Start making one change at a time,” suggests Becerra-Soberon. “Think of your life right now and note where you can start making modifications, such as simply increasing your vegetable intake or drinking better quality beverages.”

2. Quality Matters

If you choose to use supplements, select high-quality products from reputable sources to ensure safety and efficacy, says Axe. Read dosage recommendations and follow instructions. More is not always better here. In fact, going overboard can backfire and cause side effects, such as excessive fatigue or digestive upset.

3. Listen to Your Body

Pay attention to how your body responds during any type of cleansing, says Becerra-Soberson. If you experience adverse effects, it may be time to reassess.

4. Take A Holistic Approach

Ultimately, the best way to support your liver is through sustained, well-rounded healthy living, such as incorporating liver-friendly foods into your diet, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and limiting excessive alcohol intake, smoking, and toxin exposure, Becerra-Soberon says. All of these are foundational practices that benefit liver health in the long run.

5. Consult with a Healthcare Professional

Before experimenting with any cleanse, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are taking medication, it’s wise to consult with a healthcare provider. “If you’re pregnant, nursing, have been exposed to chemo or you’re taking certain medications, then be aware that you may need to improve the function of other organs first, such as the gut, kidneys, and lymphatic system, before embarking on a liver detox,” says Becerra-Soberon. “In these cases, it’s best to work with a professional.” 

Key Takeaways on Liver Cleanses

Liver-cleansing products and protocols offer a pathway to potentially enhance liver function and overall well-being. However, they are not a panacea and should be viewed as part of a holistic approach to health that prioritizes balanced nutrition and lifestyle choices. By approaching liver cleansing with caution, you can make informed decisions that support your liver’s health and your body’s natural detoxification processes, paving the way for vibrant health.

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