How to Improve Liver Function in 6 Steps
In ancient Chinese medicine, it’s said that “the physician who knows how to harmonize the liver knows how to treat the hundred diseases.” The liver, one of the largest and hardest-working organs in the body, is believed to be of the “wood element” and is crucial for the transformation of food into energy, or qi.
Referred to as the ultimate multitasking organ, ancient practitioners believed that the liver was one of the primary organs that needed to be treated in sick patients. (1) When the liver doesn’t perform properly, distention and discomfort within the digestive system result, which can then spread harm to other parts of the body.
Without the liver, it’s impossible to have a properly working metabolism, healthy circulation, balanced hormones, clean blood and strong digestion. Experiencing symptoms like bloating, constipation, fatigue and hormonal imbalances? Then it might be time for a liver cleanse.
Boosting liver health to remove toxins from the body is an integral part of Ayurvedic, yogic and naturopathic medicine. (2) It’s the liver’s job to help dissect the nutrients available in foods once they reach the digestive system, spread them throughout the body via the bloodstream and eliminate toxic waste that’s left behind.
What can improved liver function do for your health? Let’s look at how a well-taken-care of liver can help bring you:
- Increased energy levels
- Clearer skin
- More regular menstrual cycle with reduced PMS
- Freedom from sinus pain
- Fewer infections and stronger immunity
- Less digestive complaints and more regularity
- Fresher breath and oral health
- A positive mood and sharper mind
What Does the Liver Do?
It’s the liver that recognizes toxic substances and converts them into harmless material that can be released. For our blood to flow smoothly and cleanly, we need to create a warming and nourishing environment in the body that helps the liver do its job best.
An adult human liver weighs in just over three pounds and sits in the upper right side of the abdomen, underneath the rib cage where it’s connected to the gallbladder. The gallbladder is where bile is stored, which is also important for digestion. Within the liver, there’s a specific type of tissue that is made of lobules, which transport blood and cells. The liver is always communicating with other digestive organs, receiving information about the level of available nutrients or the presence of threats like prescription medications, heavy metals or toxic substances. (3)
One of the most important roles any of our organs could have, the liver is primarily in charge of regulating our blood supply. It’s involved in storing blood, making blood clotting possible and breaking down damaged blood cells so they can be eliminated.
Since it’s associated with wood qi, the liver is characterized by “upward momentum and the innate desire to be straight.” A healthy liver results in better blood flow upward and outward, throughout our vessels, veins and capillaries, which transport oxygen and nutrients to our cells. The liver also interacts with other organs like the gallbladder, stomach and spleen, since it receives digested particles or toxins and decides what to do with them: circulate them around through the blood or eliminate them before they can cause damage.
How to Improve Liver Function Naturally
1. Eat an Anti-inflammatory Diet
A low-sugar, low-toxin diet that’s filled with high-fiber foods is crucial for supporting your liver. High amounts of antioxidants and fiber can even reverse liver damage and disease. (4) The liver is the main organ for detoxification, since it removes toxins created both inside and outside of your body. When the liver can’t remove harmful substances, the immune system can perceive the rising level of toxins as a threat, which causes inflammation and autoimmune reactions. Food allergies and sensitives or leaky gut syndrome can also become more likely.
An influx of sugar — from foods like refined grains, sugary snacks and sweetened drinks — puts a lot on pressure on your liver to convert and store glucose. When blood sugar levels rise, the hormone insulin causes your liver to store glycogen. At the same time, your liver tries to respond to not enough carbohydrates entering the body by releasing stored glycogen back into the blood when you need it for energy. Nitrates in processed meats, hydrogenated oils, refined vegetable oils and artificial sweeteners/ingredients are also taxing.
The solution? Keep things balanced by eating real, whole foods (preferably organic), including unrefined sources of carbohydrates, veggies, fruits and healthy fats. When it comes to fats and proteins in your diet, focus on quality sources (cage-free eggs, grass-fed meat or wild-caught seafood, for example) so the liver can properly break down fats and remove excess cholesterol and toxins.
While many mainstream”detox diets” sold commercially might not offer the benefits they promise, choosing organic foods is one of the few proven ways to lower pesticide levels in the body. (5) Organic, high-antioxidant foods fight the negative effects of stress, pollution and a poor diet on the health of your liver, while increasing natural liver detoxification and the ability to flush toxins out through urine.
Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods for liver function include:
- Sour foods — Bitterness is usually a sign that beneficial enzymes are present, which nourish the liver and also other digestive organs like the spleen and gallbladder. Sour foods are high in essential minerals that balance fluids and reduce heavy metals within the blood. Probiotic foods (like kombucha, kefir, cultured vegetables) plus bitter green vegetables (mustard greens, chicory, arugula, dandelion, etc.) are loaded with nutrients and probiotics. Bitter-tasting leafy greens, like collards or Swiss chard, raise levels of glutathione.
- Leafy greens — Green vegetables of all kinds come loaded with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which help nourish the liver, along with potassium, which is tied to liver health. Many also increase levels of glutathione, a vital component in the destruction of free radicals within the body. As people age or experience illnesses, this becomes even more important since antioxidant and glutathione levels in the blood naturally decrease with age.
- Cruciferous veggies and grasses — Green grasses (like chlorella, barley or wheat grass) hold a form of chlorophyll, a structure that’s built into plant cells that helps escort damaging substances like dioxin out of the liver, while increasing antioxidants like superoxide dismutase. And cruciferous veggies (broccoli, kale, cage, etc.) imrpove low potassium levels and contain indole compounds, a byproduct that’s known to be a cancer killer and eliminate carcinogens from the body. Cruciferous vegetables can increase production of digestive enzymes called glucosinolates, protein that helps detoxify the liver and increase the liver’s ability to usher out carcinogens and heavy metals from the blood.
- Fresh herbs — Herbs including turmeric, coriander, parsley, cilantro and oregano are great to boost glutathione production and also lower inflammation. Highly potent flavors and aromatic smells of herbs are a sign of beneficial essential oils in certain herbs. Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound helpful in restoring healthy blood pressure, improving circulation and fighting toxin buildup. Other herbs balance the body’s pH level and increases digestive enzymes. Raw garlic is another great option since allicin compounds found in garlic have long been regarded as powerful antimicrobial agents that lower inflammation (including in the liver) while increasing circulation and healthy blood flow.
- High-antioxidant fruits — Fruits like berries and melons provide and balance electrolyte minerals needed by the liver, including magnesium, calcium and potassium. In addition, they’re beneficial for improving healthy circulation by acting similar to hemoglobin.
- Local raw honey — Raw honey is the kind that’s not heated or refined. It’s a natural antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal product. It helps lower liver inflammation and eliminate bacteria, parasites and viral infections, especially when you source it locally. It also nourishes the digestive tract and improves liver and gut health.
- Green tea — Green tea, especially concentrated, powdered matcha green tea, is known to contain powerful compounds known as catechins that act as antioxidants in the body, combatting free radicals within the blood, reducing liver inflammation and lowering the effects of oxidative stress on the digestive organs.
- Coconut oil — Considered one of the best sources of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), coconut oil contains beneficial healthy fats, including lauric acid. Acids found in MCFA have antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral properties that help the liver detox, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods and support energy levels.
- Apple cider vinegar — A fermented product made by combining apple juice with live bacteria in the form of yeast, apple cider vinegar contains beneficial enzymes and antioxidants, such as acetic acid and malic acid. These balance the pH level within the body — establishing a healthy ratio of acid to alkalinity — which nourishes the liver and other organs within the digestive tract, helping cleanse the body.
The worst foods for your liver include:
- too much alcohol or caffeine
- packaged goods that contain refined vegetable oils, artificial ingredients, sweeteners and colors
- fruits and vegetables heavily sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides (non-organic crops)
- factory-farmed animal products, farm-raised fish or conventional dairy (that has been pasteurized and homogenized)
- sugary drinks and snacks
- refined grains
2. Properly Prepare Your Food
Also important is properly preparing the foods you eat in order to reduce the presence of toxins, antinutrients and carcinogens that damage the liver. (6) Antinutrients are types of natural toxins found in foods like grains, beans, nuts and seeds. While they help the actual plants protect themselves from rodents or bugs, the human body has a hard time digesting them so they can interfere with the liver’s ability to absorb nutrients and metabolize proteins. (7)
The liver is under increased pressure when you consume a high amount of antinutrients from foods like unsoaked/unsprouted grains and refined carbohydrates. Soak and sprout your grains, nuts, beans/legumes and seeds before eating them to make their toxin levels lower and nutrient availability higher.
When it comes to storing foods and cooking animal products, be careful not to produce more toxins by overcooking them or keeping them in chemically laden containers. “Low and slow” is the recommended way to cook meat — for example, braising or pan-roasting meat. Charring, high-heat grilling and using chemically sprayed coated pans can all create toxic byproducts that wind up in your food supply. Cans made with BPA or plastic tupperware and bottles might also potentially leach chemicals into food.
3. Choose Organic Crops and Grass-Fed, Cage-Free and Wild Animal Foods
The quality of your diet is very important, because crops sprayed with chemicals, farm-raised fish or factory-farm-produced meat/poultry are more likely to carry toxins, antibiotic residue and added synthetic hormones that the liver then needs to remove. In addition, the healthier the animal, or the fresher the produce, the more nutrients (like omega-3s or antioxidants) aree available when you eat them.
4. Use Liver-Boosting Supplements
Natural herbs have been used for centuries to help the liver metabolize chemicals found in prescriptions, antibiotics, hormones, and nutrients like proteins and fats. (8) For example, your liver cells need to change amino acids from protein foods so they can actually be used for energy. Unfortunately, in the process a type of toxic substance called ammonia is produced as a byproduct.
Luckily, your liver is capable of eliminating or changing most ammonia and sending it to the kidneys to be urinated out — however, when the liver isn’t working up to speed, the conversion of ammonia is slowed down, which means it recirculates in the body.
Several powerful herbs known to give the liver a boost in converting nutrients and removing toxins are:
- Milk thistle
- Holy basil
- Dandelion root
These herbal supplements help the liver properly metabolize foods, eliminate waste and even balance hormones. Milk thistle is an excellent source of the antioxidant called silymarin, which prevents depletion of glutathione in the liver and also fights liver disease. Holy basil contains essential oils that help combat bacteria, heavy metals and even strains of fungus. To date, at least six different beneficial essential oils have been identified in holy basil.
Dandelion root (yes the same kind found in your yard that you might consider a weed!) has a natural diuretic effect. This means it helps balance fluid levels and boosts the liver’s efforts to quickly eliminate toxins, strengthening the immune system, helping with blood sugar balance and relieving indigestion. Bupleurum is a medicinal root used for fighting infections and improving digestion problems like acid relfux, diarrhea and constipation. It helps improve adrenal gland function, reduce effects of stress and make the immune system work harder.
If you’re lucky enough to visit a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, you might also be prescribed various other herbs that are proven to help improve kidney, liver and spleen function when combined with other traditional treatment methods. (9)
5. Reduce Stress and Practice Forgiveness
What does forgiveness have to do with your liver? Most of it comes down to your hormones. Historically, holistic practitioners tied emotional troubles to liver damage and therefore overall poor health. As you probably know, high amounts of chronic stress — which can be caused by emotional issues, relationship problems, and holding on to guilt, anger or shame — all have an impact on your endocrine, reproductive, digestive and immune systems.
Research shows that changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis caused by stress promotes inflammatory response and worsens liver damage, even contributing to liver diseases. It’s not longer speculation that stress on the liver impacts hormones — it’s now been proven that the HPA axis is affected and causes changes in neurotransmitters and catecholamines. (10)
A damaged liver is said to block healthy emotional flow, produce frustration and cause anger — and believe it or not, these have physical implications. (11) Poor liver function has been tied to physical and psychological symptoms, including: brain fog, rib pain or fullness, dizziness, headaches, cramping, joint or tendon problems, menstrual problems, blurry vision, and digestive disorders. This can also create a vicious cycle because the more stress your under, the more dysfunction in the liver can result.
Since the liver is closely tied to the uterus, involved in regulating reproductive hormones, a woman’s menstrual cycle and libido, it’s important to let go of built-up anger and keep positive energy moving by avoiding conflict and stressing over the small things. (12)
6. Move Your Body More
Because the liver stores and processes your blood, circulation is important for allowing its cleansing effects to unfold. The body can become stagnant and more susceptible to disease when blood isn’t flowing, but during physical activities, the heart pumps more blood. The liver is then better able to release blood to your brain, organs, tendons, joints and muscles. (13) Exercise helps blood and nutrients reach reproductive or digestive organs, helping bring on a healthy, more pain-free menstrual cycle and more regular bowel movements.
The Causes of Liver Damage
Because it has such widespread roles in the body, just about any form of metabolic, digestive, immune or hormonal disorder can impact liver health. In addition, your lifestyle can make or break the health of your liver. Things that damage your liver include:
- chemically sprayed crops
- eating many packaged foods that contain refined oils and high amounts of sugar
- too much alcohol and caffeine
- prescription medication or antibiotic use
- drug use and unprotected sex
- low-quality animal products
- high stress levels and hormonal imbalances
- air pollution and environmental toxin exposure
- using chemical household and beauty products
Why is your liver so vulnerable to damage and the effects of a harmful diet or high toxin exposure?
The liver is somewhat like the body’s digestive control center. When substances reach the liver, they’re processed and either circulated, stored, altered, detoxified or flushed away through urine and stool.
For example, alcohol is primarily processed in the liver, so a night of heavy drinking means the liver must work overtime to bring the body back to balance. The same goes for prescription medication use or consuming foods that are heavily sprayed with chemicals. Your diet itself drastically impacts how hard your liver works. Because the liver breaks down fats, converts sugar, and removes old or damaged blood cells, it can become overwhelmed when it has too much to handle all at once. In addition to keeping the amount of nutrients in the blood supply at optimal levels, the liver also stores certain vitamins and minerals for when they’re needed.
A poor diet has a negative impact on liver health for a number of reasons.
As a function of your metabolism, the liver works to convert fats into useable energy, along with carbohydrates into types of glucose molecules that are supposed to keep blood sugar levels steady. Normally, your liver tries to take carbohydrates you consume and turn them into glucose, a form of energy, to be stored for later use.
If your blood sugar levels increase suddenly and then fall quickly, creating an up-and-down cycle — which can easily happen when you consume too many refined or processed foods – the liver will try hard to amend the situation. Very high blood sugar levels mean the sugar will be removed from the blood and stored in muscles in the form of glycogen. Very low levels mean the liver will break down glycogen and re-release it into the blood.
Managing the conversion of fats from your diet plus breaking down and removing excess hormones are other primary roles of the liver, so when things aren’t functioning normally, all kinds of hormonal imbalances can occur or worsen. (14) Common hormonal signs that your liver isn’t eliminating hormones include: high cholesterol levels, PMS, irregular periods, acne and mood swings. When liver damage becomes very serious, cirrhosis can occur, which develops when scar tissue replaces the healthy cells in the liver. Liver disease and liver failure is the result of so much scar tissue forming that the liver can no longer function.
Liver Function Takeaways
As a multitasking organ, the liver is vulnerable to the effects of stress, toxins and a highly processed diet, but antioxidant-boosting herbs like milk thistle, turmeric and bupleurum, along with a diet high in green vegetables can greatly improve liver function.
In addition, it’s important to keep your body moving through exercise and activity, reduce stress and avoid harmful substances to really allow your liver function to reach its optimal level. Follow those six steps, and you’re sure to keep this all-important organ in tip-top shape!