How many of us know what damages our liver? How about what we need to do to maintain a healthy liver? For an organ that happens to be one of the most powerful and essential in the human body, most of us don’t know too much about it or give credit where it’s due. So, let’s take a deep dive and learn all about this toxin-eliminator!

Welcome to Your Liver

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If you’re looking for the most overworked organ in town, this is the one. The liver is actually the “largest solid organ” in the body, weighing on average 3 pounds in an adult. Trying to find it? Look to the “upper portion of the stomach, just below the diaphragm.” The liver is crucial to survival as it plays an integral role in metabolic processes, breaks down old damaged blood cells, and produces blood clotting proteins. Due to these blood-related tasks, the liver has “an estimated 13 percent of the body’s blood” flowing through filtering cells called hepatocytes at any given time.

Yet, this is a simplified version of what the liver does. There’s so much more!

The liver is also responsible for extracting energy, removing toxins from the bloodstream (such as alcohol), and breaking down and/or converting substances. Through these filtering and converting tasks, the liver is the organ that decides how the products you consume are processed, stored, eliminated (through fecal matter), and what needs to be rerouted back to the blood. On top of that, the liver is also part of a complicated network that creates immune system factors that help your body fight infection and stores extra blood sugar in the form of glycogen.

Liver Damaging Agents

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Even though the liver regenerates — meaning it actually has the ability to regrow itself after an injury — there’s only so much abuse it can take before the effects become permanent. While food consumption is always important, when it comes to the liver you’ll also want to be careful in regards to medication, toxins, and other synthetic materials that you put in your body. Here are a few of the top liver damaging agents.

Overconsumption of Alcohol and Sugar

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When you think about the liver as the main filter for all toxins, then it’s easy to see the relationship between alcohol, sugar, and liver damage.

Per the Addiction Center at the Delphi Behavioral Health Center, “the liver processes over 90 percent of consumed alcohol [and] the liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time. When someone has too much to drink, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver circulates through the bloodstream.” At this point, alcohol starts to affect brain and heart functions. This is how humans become intoxicated. For those that over consume alcohol on a regular basis, this abuse begins to cause “destruction of liver cells, which results in scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), alcoholic hepatitis and cellular mutation,” both of which have been linked to liver cancer.

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Sugar, on the other hand, damages the liver by producing too much fat. One of the many functions of the liver is to create fat, yet it only uses “one type of sugar, called fructose.” Overconsumption of “refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup causes a fatty buildup that can lead to liver disease.” While the agents of damage are different, “studies show that sugar can be as damaging to the liver as alcohol.”

Medication, Toxins, and Herbal Supplements

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One of the most common liver conditions is called toxic liver disease — also referred to as hepatotoxicity or toxic hepatitis — which is a serious, life-threatening condition caused by “medications, herbal supplements, chemicals, solvents, and alcohol.” The liver processes everything that is absorbed into your bloodstream, which means any time you take Tylenol for a headache, pop an herbal supplement, or drink water from that plastic water bottle that’s been sitting in the sun, it’s all going straight to your liver. Over ingestion of too much toxic material can cause the liver to produce toxins, which “can inflame and damage your liver.”

The main culprits can be boiled down to certain over the counter medications — such as acetaminophen, non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, and ibuprofen — prescription meds — such as statins, antibiotics, anti-fungal drugs, niacin, and steroids — herbal supplements — specifically those containing “aloe vera, black cohosh, cascara, chaparral, comfrey, ephedra, or kava” — and chemicals and solvents — such as vinyle chloride (used in plastics), carbon-tetrachloride (dry-cleaning solution),  paraquat (a weed killer), and polychlorinated biphenyls (man-made organic chemicals used in hundreds of products).

Trans Fatty Acids

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The damaging effects of trans fatty acids on the liver may be the least recognized form of liver damage, yet, for many Americans, it may be the number one source of damage. Trans fats are both naturally-occurring — “produced in the gut of some animals and foods made from these animals” — and artificially man-made — referred to as trans fatty acids “created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid” and much more dangerous to consume.

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A broad-ranging study in 2011, published in the Nutrition & Diabetes journal, suspected that trans fatty acid consumption may “promote abdominal and liver fat deposition.” Increased liver fat can lead to fatty liver disease and other serious liver conditions. While the study wasn’t able to make the direct connection, it did find that trans fatty acid consumption decreased healthy HDL cholesterol by 10 percent, increased bad LDL cholesterol by 18 percent, and “tended to increase the body fat and waist circumference.”

While more studies need to be conducted to verify the possibility of trans fatty acids being connected to liver disease, the beginning results are somewhat alarming.

Lifestyle Habits for a Healthy Liver

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A healthy liver is key for a healthy body. The better the liver is able to filter out all of the bad “stuff” from your blood, then the better your body will function overall. Therefore, here are a few ways to boost the functionality of your liver! 

Nutritious and Balanced Diet

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First and foremost, a healthy and balanced diet is incredibly important. Incorporating vegetables and plant-based foods that are high in antioxidants, low in cholesterol, and high in nutrient value will boost the overall function of your liver. Yet, a balanced diet stretches beyond just the food you eat, but also the products you use on and in your body. Reduced consumption of alcohol, medications, and sugar. This last one is the most difficult. Take a look at ingredients labels on everything from frozen meals to canned goods. Sugar is everywhere! The best way to avoid these dangerous toxins is by cutting out as much processed food as possible.

Exercise

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Along with incorporating nutritious plant-based foods, focus on incorporating exercise and activity into your daily routine. Different types of exercise offer various liver health benefits. Aerobic exercise “strengthens your heart muscle and allow sit to pump blood with less effort”, which in turn makes “it easier for your heart to get blood to the liver and for your liver to send filtered blood back through your blood system.” Weight lifting, on the other hand, helps to build lean muscle mass which has been shown to “delay severe muscle wasting that becomes apparent during advanced stages of liver disease.” Plus, lifting weights or bodybuilding also “prevents the buildup of excess body fat that can lead to fatty liver and result in a medical condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.”

5 Liver-Friendly Plant-Based Foods

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Now that we understand the importance of this workhorse organ, let’s take a look at caring for the liver using plant-based, natural foods. While lifestyle habits greatly affect the health of your liver, food also plays an important role.

Coffee and Tea

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I have to admit, being a coffee and tea junkie, I sighed in relief when I found this one out!

Coffee is one of the best plant-based foods for protection and support of a healthy liver. Not only does this delicious drink give you that much-needed boost in the morning, but studies have also shown that coffee lowers the risk of cirrhosis — scarring of the liver caused by liver diseases and conditions —, reduces the risk of liver cancer, “decreases inflammation and increases levels of the antioxidants glutathione.” As an antioxidant, glutathione protects and prevents cell damage caused by “reactive oxygen species such as free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals.”

When it comes to brewing tea leaves, it seems that green tea reigns supreme in the health department. This is especially true when it comes to liver health. Several studies have revealed that regular consumption of green tea results in “improved blood markers of liver health,” improved liver enzyme levels in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) patients, reduced liver fat deposits, reduced oxidative stress on the liver, and a decreased risk of developing liver cancer.

When it comes to coffee, try your best to stick with organic, fair trade coffee. Once you’ve found your go-to bean supplier, there are a host of delicious beverages and recipes to use said beans in such as this Cold Brew Coffee and Coconut Milk Ice Cream, Aquafaba Chocolate Coffee Mousse, this decadent Almond Milk Pumpkin Spice Coffee Creamer, or this simple Oatmeal Latte.

Prickly Pear

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This is one of the rare times I’ve been able to talk about prickly pear in an article and I was so excited to learn even more about this wonderfully medicinal fruit. To begin, prickly pear is an edible cactus. The fruit is plucked from Opuntia, a cactus plant native to “Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and in arid climates of the Western United States such as the Rocky Mountains.” While prickly pear is generally used for its sweet taste — think cocktails, juice, syrup, and candy — it can also be consumed like any other fruit, stripped of its exterior skin, sliced, diced, and enjoyed! With that said, if you’re buying a raw prickly pear, you’ll need a good pair of leather gloves!

Prickly pear is one the ancient totems for various ailments including wounds, ulcers, fatigue, and even a cure for a hangover. Yet, one of its most relevant uses is for liver disease. One international study in 2008, found that a liver that previously consumed harmful pesticides, “prickly pear extract helped normalize enzyme and cholesterol levels.” Another study found that prickly pear juice “decreased the amount of oxidative damage and injury to the liver after alcohol consumption and helped keep antioxidant and inflammation levels stable.”

Because this fruit is higher on the sweet flavor spectrum, it’s best used in desserts — such as this Cactus Pear Sorbet — or to liven up non-savory dishes — such as this Pistachio Crusted Tofu With Prickly Pear Sauce.

Cruciferous Vegetables

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There are a few foods that I can’t help but mention in almost every article and cruciferous veggies are one of them. Also referred to as super veggies, cruciferous vegetables are part of the Brassica family, which includes “broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish, rutabaga, turnip, and even arugula.” Not only are these veggies loaded with nutrients including essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fatty acids, but they also have a very special component called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is created via glucosinolate by the conversion of two enzymes — myrosinase and glucoraphanin — by the act of cutting or chewing.

While human studies are limited regarding the effects of cruciferous veggies and liver health, what they’ve discovered is very promising! One study showed that “Brussels sprouts and broccoli sprout extract [increased] levels of detoxification enzymes and [protected] the liver from damage.” Another human-based study in male patients with fatty liver “found that broccoli sprout extract” — one of the purest and strongest forms of sulforaphane — “improved liver enzyme levels and decreased oxidative stress.”

Many of the cruciferous vegetables are rather tough and bitter, therefore pairing them with sweeter, softer foods or roasting or stewing them is a great way to enjoy the veggie while also getting their benefits. Try a few of these cruciferous-rich recipes: Crispy Seasoned Cauliflower, Zucchini and Broccoli Soup, Rutabaga Fries With Basil Mayo, or this Simple Turnip Salad.

Olive Oil

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If you had to use one plant-based oil for the rest of your life, this would probably be the best option. It’s not only delicious in its raw form, but it is also incredibly versatile to cook with. Olive oil is also a great source for two important healthy fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, as well as small amounts of saturated fat, which is increasingly becoming known as an important part of a healthy diet. On top of that, olive oil has small amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Olive oil has also shown positive health benefits for the liver. Studies have shown that regularly consumed amounts of olive oil improved liver enzyme and fat levels, raised protein levels “associated with positive metabolic effects”, decreased fat accumulation, improved liver blood flow, and improved insulin sensitivity.

Plus, it’s not hard to incorporate this oil into your diet. I personally like to sprinkle it on any salad I make, as well as use it as my primary stove-top cooking oil. With that said, there are so many diverse ways to use olive oil such as in baking — Olive Oil and Orange Cookies or this Pistachio Date and Olive Oil Loaf — to thicken up a stew — such as in this Smoky Lentil Chili With Jalapeno-Cheddar Cornbread or this Healthy Chili — or as a marinade — such as in this Marinated Zucchini and Seaweed Salad.

Grapefruit

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This one is an acquired taste. Even though it’s got a hint of sweet, grapefruit is overpoweringly bitter. With that said, there are so many ways to enjoy this wonderful fruit. On top of that, grapefruit bears some wonderful positive health benefits such as boosting your immune system, helping with appetite control leading to healthy weight management, prevention of insulin resistance and diabetes, improved heart health, and a reduced risk of kidney stones.

Plus, studies have shown that grapefruit is also great for the liver due to two antioxidants — naringenin and naringin — that naturally protect the liver. Studies have shown that these antioxidants aid in liver protection by “reducing inflammation and protecting cells.” While the studies are in their infancy, the current research shows that “these antioxidants can reduce the development of hepatic fibrosis, a harmful condition in which excessive connective tissue builds up in the liver.”

I find that starting out the day with a grapefruit inspired breakfast is one of the best ways to enjoy this fruit. Breakfast is a great way to incorporate your favorite sweet flavors with this bitter treat such as this Grapefruit Cardamom Oatmeal, these Raw Grapefruit Doughnuts, or even this Green Superfood Detox Smoothie.

Looking to boost the health of your liver or trade out some of those liver damaging habits? Take a moment to download our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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