Give Your Liver Some Love with These Healthy Foods
Published on December 27, 2021
By Ariane Resnick, CNC
There are two schools of thought when it comes to detoxing: one camp says our liver functions just fine on its own — and to leave it alone — and the other thinks that you might as well help it do its job. This is what we think: your liver is great at processing toxins in your body all on its own, but by eating liver-healing foods and avoiding liver-harming foods, you can help it function optimally.
These ingredients can help your liver long term, as well as some that are great when you need a temporary boost. New Year’s Day sufferers, we’re looking at you, and hoping these suggestions can give you some relief. Read on to learn about some surprising foods to keep your detox organ in tip-top shape.
Do you actually need liver-healing foods?
Before getting into the specific ingredients that can assist with liver function, it’s important that we consider the crucial question of whether or not one should even bother with liver-specific foods when our liver supposedly does a-ok all on its own. Dr. Jonathan Clinthorne, Director of Nutrition for Simply Good Foods, and Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD and best-selling author of Skinny Liver, offer their insight.
“The liver is both one of our primary detoxifying organs, as well as one of the major regulators of metabolism,” says Clinthorne. “This means that liver health plays a large role in our overall health and promoting the health of your liver is both about what you eat, and also what you do not eat. One of the more common conditions that can lead to impaired liver function is the accumulation of fat in the liver, which is known as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Both animal studies and human data suggest that overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup can lead to NAFLD. Having NAFLD increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease, and it’s estimated that about 25% of adults in the United States have NAFLD, and likely many of them are unaware of it.”
Kirkpatrick says that NAFLD has been exacerbated in recent years. “The pandemic has resulted in an increased consumption of processed snacks, sugar, refined carbohydrates and excess alcohol consumption,” she says. “The incidences of NAFLD have gone up.”
So your liver can do fine on its own — unless it can’t, like with one quarter of the population. In which case, let’s talk about foods that can help it work.
Foods that are good for your liver
Fortunately, there is no shortage of foods that help your liver to do its very best work. Let’s examine the liver-healing foods below:
Broccoli might not be at the top of your “joy list,” but your liver frankly adores it. “Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage are good sources of sulfur-containing compounds like sulforaphane,” says Clinthorne. “Studies show that these sulfur-containing compounds help upregulate the natural protective detoxification pathways in the liver. Sulforaphane is particularly effective at upregulating a pathway known as Nrf-2, which helps protect our cells from oxidative damage caused by toxins.”
In addition to sulforaphane, Kirkpatrick says that cruciferous vegetables help in other ways. “A component called indole, found in cruciferous vegetables and gut bacteria, reduces liver inflammation and has been implicated in the prevention of NAFLD,” she says.
Useful for everything from inflammation to pain, turmeric is a spice that’s a veritable health goldmine (pun very much intended). It can be boiled into a tea, juiced, or sprinkled as ground powder into your favorite dishes. “Aside from being colorful, curcuminoids have been extensively studied and shown to reduce markers of NAFLD,” says Clinthorne. “These curcuminoids appear to work both as antioxidants and also by directly blocking the activation of pro-inflammatory pathways in the liver.”
Yes, this once-vilified beverage that most of us adore — and rely heavily upon every morning — has yet another health benefit. “Multiple studies indicate that regular coffee consumption can reduce the risk of NAFLD and liver cancer, and may also contribute to prevention strategies,” says Kirkpatrick. “Studies have found that coffee can slow the progression of liver disease in individuals with Hepatitis C, and 2-3 cups of coffee a day have been shown to help prevent liver fibrosis (scarring).”
Clinthorne agrees, noting that coffee consumption is linked to better liver health and reduction in liver fat. “Coffee has also been implicated in reduced mortality, and a reduction of risk of several chronic diseases, as well as reduced risk of cancer,” he says.
There are a few reasons that high-protein ingredients are known as liver-healing foods because inflammation in the body can be regulated by fatty acids. “Some of the most potent anti-inflammatory fatty acids are the omega-3 fats found in different kinds of fish,” says Clinthorne. “In fact, research has found that these fatty acids help protect the brain against the neurodegeneration that occurs during binge drinking. Similarly, other research has shown that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the severity of headaches. To increase the amount of omega-3s in your diet, eat more cold-water fatty fish like sardines or salmon.”
Additionally, Kirkpatrick says that salmon is ideal for mornings after overdrinking. “This is what I call a ‘one-stop shop’ for a hangover because it contains nutrients that may help ease your pain: B6 and omega-3s,” she says. “B6 in particular has been found to be effective in helping with hangover symptoms. In addition, omega-3s have been found to boost mood.”
Lastly, protein is a liver-healing food thanks to an amino acid called L-cysteine. “A recent study demonstrated that L-cysteine, an amino acid found in most high-protein foods such as eggs, beef, pork and poultry, sunflower seeds, and cheese may help with hangovers,” Clinthorne says. “This is most likely related to the fact that cysteine levels are usually the limiting factor in how quickly the liver can replenish glutathione, which facilitates the removal of toxic alcohol breakdown products that are created during the detoxification process.”
While less specific to your liver, electrolytes are key to rebalancing after a night of too much fun, particularly when it leaves you dehydrated — and that leaves your liver better able to do its work, too. “Electrolyte-containing beverages are a great way to combat the dehydration that causes a hangover,” Clinthorne says. “Sports drinks often contain plenty of electrolytes and fluids, but watch out because a lot of them also contain a lot of sugar. I prefer to make my own low-carb rehydration beverage using water, lemon juice, erythritol, sea salt, and potassium chloride salt.” Natural coconut water is also a great choice, containing five important electrolytes: sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
You may have heard that brazil nuts can assist with immune system modulation, making them beneficial for people who deal with autoimmune conditions. But brazil nuts are liver-healing foods, as well. “Brazil nuts contain the mineral selenium, which is crucial for supporting the detoxification of heavy metals from the body,” Clinthorne says. “Heavy metals can often damage the liver and kidneys, and research has demonstrated that selenium mitigates the toxic effect of heavy metals like lead, through suppressing inflammation and reducing oxidative damage.”
Now that you know what to add to your diet to get the most out of your liver’s functionality, you should also be aware of what foods can cause it to work less efficiently.
Sadly — but expectedly — our old friend sugar is a key culprit to inhibiting liver function. “Perhaps the most detrimental food for the liver is sugar,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s been implicated in both the development as well as the progression of NAFLD via fat storage in the liver. Giving up sugar (as well as refined carbohydrates which increase blood sugar and insulin) can lead to major benefits to the liver. That can be hard for a lot of my patients, so I often find better success when I recommend alternatives that are both satisfying and contribute to better liver health — a high protein / low carb diet.”
Reducing carbs is controversial, but Clinthorne notes that for those with liver problems, it can be helpful. “When it comes to studies specifically evaluating the effects of food and diet on liver function in the long term, data has found that reducing the amount of carbohydrates in the diet has a protective benefit for the liver in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.”
Your liver is responsible for processing toxins, so giving it a boost can give your life in general a lift. Food such as coffee, cruciferous vegetables, turmeric, and Brazil nuts can all help it work its best. “When it comes to improving short-term liver function, the best nutritional advice is to simply make sure you’re eating a diverse diet that supplies plenty of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients so that your liver has all the nutrients it needs on a daily basis,” Clinthorne says. “However, nutrition tends to work best when applied over the long-term.” Eat a healthy diet packed with liver-healing foods, and you can expect a “thank you” from that important organ.