Your liver is one of your hardest-working organs. And one of the most important, after your heart and brain.
Your liver not only helps with detoxification — but also regulates your blood sugar levels, manages your cholesterol, helps you digest food, and aides in blood clotting.
Because the liver is a detoxification organ, it seems logical to support liver health with a “liver cleanse” or “liver detox.”.
These liver detoxification programs often involve supplements, herbs, enemas, cleanses, and juices. Most are marketed as miracle cures for a laundry list of ailments, from obesity to skin issues.
But can you actually “detox” your liver? And if not, how can you support liver function naturally? Keep reading.
Your liver stays busy, day and night, to keep you alive and well.
- Detoxifies your blood
- Regulates blood sugar levels
- Breaks down stored fat for energy
- Produces bile for digestion (nearly a liter a day!)
- Helps with blood clotting
- Metabolizes amino acids
How Your Liver Detoxes
Your liver is not a filter, but it does help detoxify your body. Specifically, your liver chemically modifies compounds like excess hormones and toxins in your blood, then exports them to be eliminated in stool or urine.
This is a common point of confusion. For instance, many folks are worried to eat beef or chicken liver because they believe toxins are stored there.
But this just isn’t true. Beef liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. And it doesn’t hold onto toxins any more than any other organ.
The liver doesn’t store toxins like drugs and alcohol, but rather changes them. Then the liver ships the converted waste material, via bile, to your intestines[*].
From your intestines, the waste is either excreted as feces, or sent to the blood for elimination in urine. Again, the liver doesn’t store any of this waste.
Your liver also manages blood sugar, or blood glucose, like a pro via glycogen.
Glycogen is your storage form of glucose, and you store about 100 grams of it in your liver. When your blood sugar drops (during, say, a fast), your liver breaks down glycogen into glucose and releases it into your blood stream. Then your blood sugar returns to normal again[*].
Alternatively, when your blood sugar spikes after a meal, your liver helps turn the excess glucose into glycogen for safe storage[*].
Now that you know how the liver works, time to learn what can go wrong.
As with every human organ, the liver can suffer damage and disease. Here are the most common liver conditions[*]:
- NAFLD: Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the buildup of excess visceral fat on the liver, affecting 30-40% of Americans[*]. NAFLD becomes far more dangerous when it progresses to NASH.
- NASH: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is NAFLD plus inflammation. Think of liver fat as kindling, inflammation as the spark. NASH is like the liver on fire.
- Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is typically the end stage of liver disease, and involves scarring of the liver that impairs liver function.
- Hepatitis: Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are viruses that can lead to cirrhosis if left untreated.
- Alcoholic liver disease: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to permanent scarring, liver damage, and cirrhosis.
- Liver cancer: Also called hepatocellular carcinoma, the risk of liver cancer increases with alcohol abuse or hepatitis.
A variety of other factors may also compromise liver function. Certain genetic variants, like a tendency over-store iron (hemochromatosis), can predispose someone to liver disease.
Taking drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also harm the liver.
Without medical guidance, it can be difficult to detect liver problems. In fact, even advanced liver disease often has no outward symptoms.
See your doctor if your think your liver isn’t working properly. Below are some tests they might run, as well as symptoms they might ask you about.
#1: Blood Testing
It’s good to regularly monitor the key biomarkers of liver function.
The top three biomarkers to watch are[*]:
Alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) are often referred to as your “liver enzymes.” Elevated ALT or AST levels can indicate, nonspecifically, that something is wrong with your liver.
Gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) is even less specific to the liver than ALT and AST, but an elevated GGT can also indicate liver problems.
If any of these markers are elevated, follow up testing is advisable.
If your liver enzymes are elevated beyond the normal range, your doctor will probably suggest ultrasound imaging to test for fatty liver.
An ultrasound is a fairly non-invasive test used to diagnose liver fat or liver damage. Alternatively, the doctor may order a CT scan or MRI to check for lesions on the liver[*].
#3: Liver Biopsy
The liver biopsy is the gold standard test for diagnosing liver disease.
It’s quite invasive, however, and entails inserting a long needle through your skin and into your body. Fortunately, doctors can often make a diagnosis without a biopsy[*].
#4: Symptoms of Liver Disease
Generally, you shouldn’t rely on symptoms to gauge liver health. You can be asymptomatic with a very unhealthy liver.
Nonetheless, look out for the following potential signs of liver disease or dysfunction[*]:
- Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
- Pale, fatty, bloody, or tar-colored stool
- Pain or swelling in the abdomen
- Dark urine
- Poor appetite or nausea
- Bruising easily
Here’s the thing. Because liver function is crucial for your overall health, it’s important to treat this organ right.
But do you need a liver detox? And will a juice cleanse help?
Recall that the liver doesn’t store toxins. It aids in detoxification — yes — but it doesn’t retain the harmful compounds.
Since the liver doesn’t store toxins, you can’t detox the liver. There are no toxins to detox.
This means that the elaborate supplement regimens, coffee enemas, vegetable juice cleanses, and other liver detox diets are basically false advertising.
This doesn’t mean that juicing is bad for your liver. It just means that drinking a liter of carrot juice won’t cleanse your liver of any harmful chemicals.
But don’t despair, because there are still plenty of ways to support liver function and feel your best.
You can’t detox your liver, but you can take care of it. Here’s how.
#1: Keep a Healthy Weight
Being obese is a massive risk factor for developing fatty liver[*]. This is because obesity generally means metabolic issues.
That’s right. Obese people are more likely to have type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, both of which can lead to the development of fatty liver disease[*].
Obesity often correlates with insulin resistance as well. That’s when your cells stop listening to insulin, your fat storage hormone.
When you’re insulin resistant, you’re more likely to store fat as visceral fat in the liver (dangerous), rather than as body fat (safer)[*].
This, unfortunately, is a recipe for NAFLD. Reversing fatty liver is complicated, but one of the simplest prescriptions is to lose weight.
Unsurprisingly, a growing body of evidence suggests that regular exercise improves liver health.
“Physical exercise,” according to one group of researchers, “is a proven therapeutic strategy to improve fatty liver disease”[*].
The why likely involves insulin. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity (aka, insulin function), which in turn helps fat get properly stored.
Exercise can also improve body composition. As you just learned, losing weight is a great way to care for your liver.
And so to support liver health, stay active and avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
#3: Avoid Fructose
Of all the foods that drive fatty liver, fructose is the worst offender. Unlike other foods, fructose heads straight to your liver. Then it’s turned to fat or used for energy[*].
Depending on your activity level, you can probably handle some fructose in your diet. But the more fructose you eat, the more fat fluxes through your liver.
What does the science say? In both human and animal trials, high fructose diets (usually with high fructose corn syrup) have been shown to promote fatty liver disease[*].
#4: Eat Choline
If you don’t regularly eat egg yolks or liver, you may not be getting enough choline in your diet.
Choline is an essential nutrient for liver health. It helps export fat from the liver, which is a very good thing.
Choline does this job by helping your body create special transporters called VLDL particles. These VLDLs carry fat out of your liver for safe storage or to supply tissues with energy[*].
In multiple animal studies, choline supplementation has been shown to reverse fatty liver disease[*]. More research on humans is needed though.
The best sources of choline are egg yolks and liver. You can also supplement choline as phosphatidylcholine — the form of choline specific to liver health.
#5: Limit Drugs and Alcohol
Your liver has extraordinary powers of detoxification. It can take a beating and keep on chugging.
But continually beating up your liver is a bad idea, and nothing delivers that beating like drugs and alcohol.
As far as drugs go, acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol — is well-documented as hepatotoxic (toxic to liver cells)[*]. A variety of other pharmaceuticals can also damage the liver. The key is to do your research and exercise moderation when using these medicines.
Alcohol is also hard on the liver, and many alcoholics go on to develop cirrhosis. The capacity to metabolize alcohol is highly individual, so be sure to monitor your liver enzymes — even if you only drink moderately.
#6: Eat Vegetables
Sorry, but vegetable juice won’t detox your liver. The good news is: eating vegetables can improve liver health.
Here’s a list of liver-friendly vegetables[*]:
Cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli contain glucoraphanin and sulforaphane — compounds with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.
Spinach and beets contain betaine, a form of choline.
And carrots and other orange veg are rich in carotenoids, like beta-carotene, to limit oxidative stress on the liver[*].
#7: Herbs and Supplements
Scientists have studied a wide range of herbs and dietary supplements that may promote liver health. These supplements include[*]:
- Milk thistle (silymarin)
- Reduced glutathione
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
These supplements don’t detox the liver, but rather reduce oxidative stress on the liver.
Oxidative stress occurs when oxygen interacts with other molecules to create reactive oxygen species (ROS). Excess ROS, unfortunately, can damage every organ system, including the liver[*].
Because they decrease ROS, antioxidant supplements can reduce oxidative stress and may help your liver.
#8: Avoid Vegetable Oils
Another way to reduce oxidative stress is to avoid the foods that cause it. Namely: to eat a healthy diet free of pro-inflammatory vegetable oils.
The fact is, eating (or drinking) vegetable oils can cause liver disease — specifically, fatty liver.
In one study, scientists fed mice either coconut oil or vegetable oil. What happened? You guessed it: the vegetable oil mice got fatty liver[*].
This matters because obesity and insulin resistance are central to the development of fatty liver.
High-carb diets are one major cause of these metabolic issues[*]. Low-carb diets, on the other hand, can reverse long-standing metabolic disorders.
Although it’s a bit early to claim low-carb diets as liver therapy, several studies are promising. For instance:
- In obese people, six months of keto dieting caused weight loss and reductions in liver fat[*]
- In healthy people, just 10 days of low-carb dieting significantly reduced liver fat[*]
- In people with NAFLD, two weeks of keto dieting reduced liver fat by 42%[*]
Finally, a proper keto diet contains plenty of eggs and organ meats. This means plenty of that all-important liver nutrient, choline.
Here’s the thing. More research is needed, but based on the available evidence: keto appears perfectly compatible with a healthy liver.
The Takeaway: Do You Need a Liver Detox?
The liver doesn’t get much love, but it’s just as important as the brain and heart for keeping you alive and thriving.
Your liver helps detoxify your blood — true — but toxins are not stored in the liver. Because of this, you can’t “detox” your liver. Liver cleansing, quite literally, makes no sense.
So no, you don’t need a liver detox, but you should support liver function. Then your liver can detox you.
Make your liver happy by eating clean, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight. Eat veggies and egg yolks, avoid excessive alcohol and vegetable oils, and consider starting a ketogenic diet — and you’ll be well on your way to better health.