Undergoing a detox or liver cleanse diet has become hugely trendy these days, and there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with wanting to support the body through a whole foods liver cleanse.
However, it is important that you take this on in the smartest and healthiest way possible with liver cleansing foods first and foremost. If not, you can actually do more harm than good.
First Things First: What Is Detox?
Detoxification is a set of reactions that run in your liver and help you process and prepare to get rid of chemical compounds and heavy metals that can harm you. Unfortunately, our modern world is increasingly toxic, and factors like pesticides and air-born toxins (among others) have been linked to chronic disease. (1)
We are exposed to toxins everywhere we turn: in our food, water, air, toiletries, cleaning products, containers, receipts, medicines, and more. These toxins can damage bodily tissues, burden your liver, and even cause weight gain.
Many people are surprised to learn that certain toxins are stored in fat cells when the body isn’t able to properly detoxify them, causing the liver to work overtime and struggle under an increased toxic load. This oxidative stress shows as a deficit in your body’s ability to heal, repair and use inflammation productively. This is stressful on your system and affects your adrenals, thyroid, gut, brain, skin, reproductive hormones - essentially your entire body becomes depressed.
The body is infinitely intelligent and perfectly designed to process and excrete toxins through the organs of elimination, which are the colon (large intestine), liver, kidneys, skin and lungs.
Colon: The colon helps to reabsorb fluids and excrete solid waste from the foods we eat. When waste is not excreted from the colon in a timely matter, it starts to ferment and can result in digestive tract disharmony. If you are experiencing gas and bloating, you might blame it on a backed up colon.
Liver: The liver is responsible for filtering your blood from toxins. It takes toxic byproducts and makes them water soluble so that they can be excreted by the colon and the kidneys. The liver produces bile, which helps to breakdown fats and assists in detoxification.
Kidneys: The kidneys filter the blood of toxic byproducts that it converts into urine to be excreted by the body. Amazingly, the kidneys filter about 200 quarts of fluid per day!
Skin: The skin is the largest organ of detoxification in the body. The skin helps to secrete toxins through the sweat. If the other organs of elimination are not functioning optimally, this can show up as acne, rashes and inflammatory skin conditions.
Lungs: The lungs work to take in oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide from the body. The lungs are assaulted with environmental toxins, smoke, dust and mold on a daily basis. Especially in those with compromised lung function and living in big cities with poor air quality, supporting lung detoxification is extremely important for optimal health.
These organs work together harmoniously to separate the good from the bad and keep your body in a state of equilibrium. When the function of any of these organs is compromised or you are exposed to a higher level of toxins than your body can accommodate, the body reaches a tipping point. This toxic burden can be a contributing factor to developing chronic illness at worst and can make people feel generally unwell at best.
Phase One and Phase Two Detoxification
Your liver needs information for two big sets of detoxifying reactions simply called “phase one” and “phase two.”
Phase 1 Liver Detox
In phase one, your liver undergoes reactions that make toxins more toxic, a painful but necessary step. Think of a bathtub. In this phase, you fill it up. (In phase two, you drain it.)
The phase one pathway utilizes chemical processes to break toxins away from fats. These processes include:
The nutrients B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate, glutathione and flavonoids especially support phase one.
Phase 2 Liver Detox
In phase two, you deal with that extra toxic load created by phase 1. Phase 2 attaches toxins to other molecules that neutralize them in preparation for them to leave your body. If you don’t have a properly functioning phase 2 detox system, you can’t drain out the bathtub and the “super toxins” just stay in your body.
Ideally, you will be able to excrete these toxins when you sweat, cry, salivate, poop, or urinate. Your liver, gallbladder, gut, and skin work together to help you.
Phase two includes these processes:
Amino acid conjugation
Phase 2 particularly thrives off of the nutrients methionine, cysteine, magnesium, glutathione, vitamins B5 and B12, vitamin C, glycine, taurine, glutamine, folate and choline.
If you can’t absorb the nutrition from the food you eat because it is toxic, eventually you will reach a level of toxicity your body can no longer tolerate, and the need to reduce toxic load will become imminent.
Like the last drop of water in a full bucket that pushes the bucket over, it’s not always something big and obvious we ingest or are exposed to that make us sick. The truth is, often the little micro exposures we face daily that are the most aggravating to our health.
When the bucket falls, that water spills out. When our body can’t handle our toxic load, toxins spill out. And when your body fails at removing toxins, you start to feel lousy.
Liver Detox Foods
“Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Hippocrates’ wisdom is even more important when you actively detoxify your entire body. It’s crucial that you are eating foods that help cleanse the liver, rather than foods that add to your toxic burden.
Supporting liver detox through foods means focusing on eating a diet rich in whole unprocessed foods that provide your body with the building blocks of health.
The foods we eat contain information in the form of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fat), micronutrients (vitamin and minerals), and even synthetic chemicals (preservatives, pesticides, additives). This information can either heal or hurt you.
Fascinatingly, research is also suggesting that also when we eat is important to overall metabolic and liver health, and some people are implementing a time-restricted eating schedule to lose weight and support detoxification pathways. Diet can make or break your ability to detoxify. (2)
Here are nine liver cleansing foods to have stocked in your kitchen starting today:
1. Leafy Greens
Leafy green vegetables top the list of liver cleansing vegetables, as they are a rich source of the mineral, magnesium. Magnesium is required for the liver’s detoxification pathways, for alkalizing the body so that toxins leave through the urine more readily, and for helping to rid the body of toxins with more frequent bowel movements.
2. Fresh Nuts and Seeds
Eating fresh nuts and seeds has been shown to help protect the body from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and generally support liver health. Nuts are rich in unsaturated fats, vitamin E and other antioxidants, and work to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. (3)
3. Grassfed Meat
Grassfed (or even grass-finished meat, if you have that available) is packed full of B vitamins for both phases of liver detox, significantly higher in omega 3 fats than grain-fed meats, and also higher in vitamins A and E. Grass-finished or grass-fed beef, bison, lamb and goats are excellent options.
If you enjoy organ meats, eating high quality liver is one of the best foods for liver detoxification as it’s packed with vitamin A, zinc, B vitamins, glycine, methionine, cysteine and glutamic acid.Or take it as a supplement with Organ Complex by Paleo Valley.
Eggs are a great source of vitamins A, B2 and B12, also fundamental for phases one and two liver detox. They are also rich in sulfur-containing cysteine, a building block for phase two liver detox functions.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
The cruciferous family of vegetables are well known for being anti-inflammatory, supporting phase two liver detox and even reducing risk of developing cancer.
Broccoli and broccoli sprouts are liver detox superstars due to their high level of a phytonutrient called sulforaphane, along with kale, cauliflower, arugula, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes and turnips, among others.
6. Wild Fish
Studies show that fatty fish (ideally wild-caught) supports the liver by preventing excessive build-up of fat, optimizing enzyme levels, improving insulin resistance and reducing inflammation.
Wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring, anchovies and shrimp are nourishing choices. (4)
7. Bitter Foods
Bitter greens and herbs have been used throughout history to improve liver function and gut health, as they get your bile moving. They have been shown to improve digestion and nutrient absorption, help to control sweet cravings, naturally support the liver and increase immune health.
Excellent sources include dandelion greens, parsley, cilantro, arugula, kale, broccoli, radishes, white asparagus, endive, citrus fruits and bitter melon.
8. Fermented Foods
Regular and healthy elimination is essential for detoxification, and naturally fermented foods are a safe and effective way to support the gut microbiome, therefore improving digestion and immunity.
Raw sauerkraut, raw kimchi, unsweetened kefir and plain yogurt, tempeh, miso, natto and kombucha tea are all readily available in health food stores, and many you can make at home.
9. Butter and Ghee
If you tolerate butter and ghee well, these can be a great liver detox food to keep in your kitchen. They both work to stimulate bile production, and healthy fats in general signal the gallbladder to release bile into the intestinal tract, which is essential for healthy digestion, liver function and elimination.
So, if you’ve asked yourself “how do I clean my liver naturally?” begin using some of these simple yet highly effective strategies with whole foods. Liver purifying foods will not only ensure your detoxification pathways are optimally supported, but you will also reap a myriad of other health benefits along the way.
Have you tried any of these techniques? What do you do to keep your liver happy? Share with us in the comments below!
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Bridgit Danner, LAc, FDNP, is trained in functional health coaching and has worked with thousands of women over her career since 2004. She is the founder of Women’s Wellness Collaborative, LLC and HormoneDetoxShop.com.