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7 Ways to Protect Your Liver

Liver disease is rising, but simple lifestyle strategies can help. Plus, do you need a liver detox?

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Your liver deserves more love than you might realize. This hard-working organ performs more than 500 vital functions, from aiding in digestion and storing important vitamins (including A, D, E, K and B12) to cleansing your bloodstream of toxins and illness-causing bacteria. “Our liver is such an amazing organ. … [It] can also regenerate itself, which means it can repair and replace damaged liver cells, as long as the damage is not too advanced,” says Mahsa Mansouri, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School.

Unfortunately, more than 100 million Americans have some type of liver disease, and the overwhelming majority don’t know it, according to the American Liver Foundation. That’s because liver disease doesn’t typically cause any symptoms until it has advanced significantly.

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In the past, viral hepatitis was the leading cause of liver disease, but rates are declining. On the flip side, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcohol-related liver damage are on the rise.

Alcohol-related liver damage is becoming more prevalent thanks to an uptick in alcohol consumption over the past two decades; it’s now the leading impetus for needing a liver transplant. However, “the biggest problem these days is obesity,” says Vinod Rustgi, M.D., director of the Center for Liver Diseases and Liver Masses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. About 25 percent of American adults and 75 percent of those who are overweight now have NAFLD. This condition is characterized by a buildup of fat in the liver.

A healthy liver doesn’t exactly age the way other body parts might, Rustgi says, but the passage of time certainly puts those who have been living with liver disease in greater danger. While early-stage NAFLD doesn’t usually cause any notable problems, research has shown that people over age 50 who have it are more likely to have significant fibrosis, which occurs when chronic inflammation causes scar tissue to accumulate around the liver and nearby blood vessels. Older individuals with NAFLD are also more apt to progress to cirrhosis, the most serious type of scarring.

Do You Need a Liver Detox?

One of your liver’s major jobs is to filter toxins from your bloodstream, but that doesn’t mean that those toxins get stuck in there or that you need to do anything to clean them out.

“The liver naturally excretes toxins in things like bile, which gets passed in bowel movements,” Lim says. ​​Mansouri agrees that there’s absolutely no reason to do a cleanse or take special supplements for the sake of better liver health. “‘Liver detox’ is such a misleading term used by the wellness industry to sell their products. Our liver’s job is to detoxify and filter harmful substances from our body, and it does it very well. We don’t need any supplements to support this [process]. In fact, some of these supplements can harm the liver, cause liver failure and even death in severe cases.”

On a more positive note, people who have too much fat in their liver or even mild scarring (fibrosis) can completely reverse the damage if they take action, Rustgi says. The following steps can go a long way toward avoiding liver damage or helping your liver heal.

1. Fill up on healthy foods

Try to eat less saturated fat — especially from red and processed meat — and more plant-based foods, according to research from the journal Nutrients. Other research, in the journal Gut, points to the “green-Mediterranean diet” — which pairs the traditional Mediterranean diet with additional polyphenols (plant compounds) from green tea and an aquatic plant called Mankai, or Mankai duckweed — as being beneficial for liver health. When in doubt, simply opt for lower-fat foods and smaller portions, says Nicholas Lim, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He says the same eating patterns that lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes also promote liver health.

2. Lose weight if you’re overweight

Because NAFLD is so closely connected to obesity, losing weight is perhaps the most important way to prevent this condition, Lim says. Losing just 7 to 10 percent of your starting weight should translate to a significant reduction in liver fat content, liver inflammation and scarring (fibrosis). 

Forget fad diets, which only work in the short term. “Whatever diet helps you lose weight in a steady, stable manner is a good diet for you,” Lim says.


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3. Limit sugary snacks and soft drinks

Sure, it will help you control your weight, but that’s not all: These foods are typically loaded with simple sugars including fructose, which seems to play a role in advancing liver disease. Although the exact mechanism is not understood, fructose may induce the body to form and store more fat .

4. Exercise several times a week

Moving more really matters for liver health, even if it doesn’t lead to any weight loss. Research has linked exercise to lower risk of liver disease, and studies have found that people with NAFLD who engage in aerobic or resistance exercise for about 45 minutes three times a week can reduce their fatty liver by 20 to 30 percent within 12 weeks.

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5. Cut way back on alcohol

Limiting your alcohol intake is also important for liver health, especially if you have alcohol-related liver disease, Mansouri says. “Per recent Canadian guidelines, the safe amount of alcohol is zero,” she notes, adding that women are extra vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. “In fact, when women drink the same amount of alcohol as men, it can be twice as toxic to their bodies.”

6. Refill your coffee cup

Whether you like a little buzz or prefer to stick with decaf, know that coffee consumption has been associated with a decreased risk of advanced fatty liver disease and even liver cancer, Mansouri says. Research suggests up to around three to four cups a day can be protective.

7. Steer clear of unnecessary supplements

A few supplements, such as milk thistle, might have anti-inflammatory effects on the liver, but no good data supports their use, Rustgi says. Meanwhile, there’s a far longer list of dietary supplements — including ashwagandha, chapparal and kava — that can cause liver toxicity. In fact, about 20 percent of cases of hepatotoxicity in the U.S. stem from herbal and dietary supplements. ​​“A lot of people ask about herbal remedies or supplements,” Lim says. “I advise people against these because they are not regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration], so we don’t really know what goes into them. Most don’t help your liver, and some can cause severe liver damage.”

Rustgi says patients often make the mistake of thinking that “natural” means something is safe or beneficial. “We would remind them that lightning and snakes are natural and not exactly healthy,” he says.

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