Q: I overindulged in alcohol and sweets during the holidays, then ate a lot of heavy foods during the winter, got sick a number of times, and now feel overweight and sluggish. What can I do to "spring clean" my diet to help give my body a fresh start?
-Samuel G., Cleveland, Ohio
You sound like a perfect candidate for a liver detox program. Most people are, and spring is considered the best time of year to employ nutrition strategies that cleanse and revitalize the liver to help produce a personal spring within.
Why Focus on the Liver?
Improving liver function helps give the whole body a reboot. That's because the liver is an undeniable workhorse, performing more than 500 bodily functions, including processing most of our food, converting nutrients and other substances to their active forms, and storing certain nutrients such as iron and vitamins A, B12, and D. It also serves as the body's primary site of detoxification, metabolizing harmful external substances such as alcohol, drugs, and toxic chemicals; breaking down excess insulin, estrogen, and other hormones; and removing viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic invaders from our bloodstream.
The great news is that the liver has an amazing ability to heal itself when it's given the right ingredients to do its job. Unfortunately, in our modern world, we're exposed to more toxins the liver has to detoxify than ever before. When adverse influences on liver function overcome supportive ones, liver function becomes sluggish, and the liver becomes less efficient at performing the many jobs it has to do.
6 Ways to Boost Liver Function
Treat your liver kindly by lightening its toxic load and giving it nutrients and therapeutic agents that regenerate and rejuvenate. Try these ways to boost liver function and detoxification:
- Go organic. The name of the game for a liver detox is to reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins the liver has to process. That makes eating as many organic foods as possible a key strategy. Organic foods must be produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals, and research has shown that organic produce is lower in heavy metals and pesticides and higher in a range of antioxidants. If you can't always afford to buy organic produce, do your best to buy organic varieties of the worst pesticide-laden produce items: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, collard greens and kale, grapes, nectarines, peaches, peppers, spinach, and strawberries.
- Lighten up your diet, but don't fast. Fasting can result in reduced detoxification because it depletes the body of critical antioxidants and protein needed for the process. Instead of fasting, eat lighter and smarter to promote more efficient cleansing. Avoid large meals, especially late at night. Eat small meals that contain adequate portions of clean protein, such as organic poultry, buffalo, 100 percent grass-fed beef or lamb, eggs, and uncontaminated, wild-caught fish. Or, if you're a vegetarian, eat nuts, seeds, and beans. Avoid heavy fatty foods, fried foods, and unhealthy fats such as margarine, shortening, and vegetable oils-they all create more work for the liver. Instead, stick with organic unrefined extra virgin olive oil and cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil.
- Dump low-nutrient carbs and "veg" out. Packaged products made with refined sugar, sweeteners, flour, and grains, such as cookies, bread, and crackers, are high in calories and carbohydrates and low in nutrients. They also promote erratic blood sugar swings, which stress liver function. Cut those foods out of your diet and put nonstarchy vegetables (basically the nonroot veggies and nonwinter squash) in their place. Vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, kale, and broccoli are the best types of carbohydrates because they keep blood sugar levels steady and are rich in antioxidants that protect the body from harmful free radicals-something that's especially important when the body is detoxifying and producing higher amounts than normal.
- Ditch the allergens. Eating foods that cause delayed-onset food allergies interferes with the detoxification process and causes the liver to work harder. The most common food allergens are gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley, and oats); dairy foods (milk, butter, cheese, ice cream); and soy products (tofu, soy milk, soy sauce). As part of any start-anew diet program, steer clear of these foods and others that cause adverse reactions.
- Water yourself. Water is a nutrient we need all by itself-and we need even more when the body is flushing out excess toxins. Stay away from alcohol, sodas, and juices, which stress blood sugar and liver function, and reduce caffeine, a drug-like substance the liver must detoxify, if possible. Try starting every morning by drinking warm purified water with lemon in it. It's a beverage that helps cleanse the liver and actively promotes detoxification.
- Use therapeutic foods and herbs. One of the most powerful liver-healing foods to eat is globe artichoke, which improves bile flow, boosts detoxification, and protects the liver. Try having a steamed artichoke with an olive oil and lemon dip a few times a week. (If you prefer, you can take artichoke leaf extract and/or milk thistle, the most recommended herb for improving liver function, in supplement form.) Or eat bitter leafy salad greens, such as dandelion leaves, endive, and arugula, and drink dandelion tea. The bitterness of these foods and drinks helps stimulate bile flow within the liver, which is important to properly eliminate toxins and protect the liver from damage.Other food components that are helpful for improving liver function and detoxification are limonene-containing foods (citrus fruits such as lemons), capsaicin-rich peppers, and ellagic acid-rich strawberries.
Finally, make sure to regularly eat foods rich in sulfur, such as garlic, onions, egg yolks, and cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, and the leafy greens cabbage, kale, collard and mustard greens, and watercress). Sulfur is required to increase activity of the liver's Phase 2 detoxification enzymes, which are essential for eliminating and excreting toxins from the body the way they should be.