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The liver performs myriad essential functions when it comes to our health. Often called the body’s “chemical factory,” this remarkable organ makes various proteins, produces bile and other substances to aid digestion, and stores a reserve of blood sugar in the form of glycogen. Perhaps the liver’s greatest mystique involves its role in the detoxification, or breaking down, of harmful by-products of normal metabolism, as well as environmental pollutants that enter the body.
How Does the Liver Detox?
The liver’s “Phase 1” detoxification enzymes bind with and reduce the toxicity of harmful chemicals. Next, the liver’s Phase 2 enzymes further bind with harmful chemicals, make them water- soluble, and prepare them for excretion. Both groups of enzymes depend on various nutrients to do their job.
What Stresses the Liver?
Alcohol, fatty liver (often a consequence of obesity), some medications, and hepatitis C infection can damage the liver and lead to life-threatening liver failure. However, nearly all of us live in a highly toxic environment, with daily exposure to air and water pollution, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, industrial chemicals (including known carcinogens), and thousands of food additives. Given this unprecedented chemical exposure, the liver must work harder than ever before to break down everything. This is where certain nutrients can provide support.
Doctors measure levels of two liver enzymes, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), to assess liver health. Elevated levels of these enzymes are signs of serious liver irritation or disease. Less severe liver stresses are not likely to elevate ALT and AST.
Liver failure is usually a gradual process, except in cases of acute poisoning, e.g., from ingestion of poisonous Amanita mushrooms or an overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol). The medical treatment for liver failure is a transplant.
Should You Do a Liver Cleanse?
The term is somewhat of a misnomer. It may be far better to give your liver proper support each day, not just periodically.
Sulfur-containing amino acids, which are most abundant in animal proteins, are essential for the liver’s Phase 2 enzymes.
Several supplements can support liver function. Our top choices:
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC). This potent antioxidant is stocked in hospital emergency rooms to treat acetaminophen overdose. Like Amanita mushrooms, acetaminophen damages the liver primarily by blocking the production of glutathione, an antioxidant required for detox. NAC is a precursor to glutathione and can heal the liver if taken soon enough. As a reliable defense against low levels of toxins, take 500-600 mg daily.
Milk Thistle. This venerable herb has been used medicinally for at least 2,000 years. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that it is a powerful antioxidant, protects against liver damage, and reduces the toxic effects of drugs and other chemicals. Silymarin is the concentrated extract of milk thistle, and at least 50 percent of it consists of silybin, a potent constituent. Take 100-200 mg daily of silymarin, the concentrated extract of milk thistle.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid. Burton Berkson, MD, of Las Cruces, N.M., has long used this antioxidant to treat patients with liver cirrhosis, liver failure, Amanita mushroom poisoning, and other diseases. He often administers it with silymarin and selenium. Alpha-lipoic acid functions as a precursor to glutathione, helps maintain normal liver function, and can help regenerate damaged liver tissue. Take 100-200 mg daily. Amounts up to 600 mg are safe.
Multivitamin. The B-complex vitamins and antioxidants (e.g., vitamins C and E and carotenoids) are needed to support the liver’s Phase 1 enzymes and the initial step in detoxification. Follow label directions when taking a daily multivitamin supplement.
Selenium. The liver uses selenium to make glutathione peroxidase, one of several glutathione-based compounds needed for liver detoxification. Ideally, it should be combined with NAC or alpha-lipoic acid. Take 200 mcg daily, an amount found in many multivitamin/multimineral supplements.
Amino Acids. The liver uses these building blocks of protein to support its Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. Methionine and NAC are the most important amino acids in Phase 2 detoxification. You can also opt for
a multi-amino acid supplement.
Sulfur-containing amino acids, which are most abundant in animal proteins, are essential for the liver’s Phase 2 enzymes. Additional sources of sulfur include garlic and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower. In practical terms, this means eating sufficient protein (e.g., chicken, turkey, fish, and grass-fed beef) and ample vegetables.
The Single Best Way to Save Your Liver
The single best thing you can do if you’ve got any form of liver disease? Stop drinking. Completely. No kidding. Alcohol puts a strain on your liver that isn’t so bad if the liver is healthy, but is lethal if it’s not.
You should also stop taking any products containing acetaminophen, which is the number one cause of emergency room visits for liver failure. Imagine the common scenario of drinking too much and taking Tylenol to “treat” the hangover. If you’ve got hepatitis C (a serious viral disease that can lead to permanent liver damage) and you do that, you’re essentially asking to be a statistic.
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