What if I told you that you have a martyr inside you? A part of you that takes one for the team, quietly humming along, protecting the rest of the body no matter the cost to itself, silently without a peep. That inner martyr we all have is the liver, a 3-4 pound organ sitting just under your right rib cage. Go ahead and give it a little love pat for all the work it’s been doing your whole life, most likely taking a beating to keep the rest of you healthy.
So what is it that this work-horse organ does? Only take in, identify, process, store or excrete everything that comes into your body from air, water and food, plus anything your body makes like hormones, regulates blood sugar levels, performs 12% of all your metabolic processes, makes vitamins A, D, E and K and digestive enzymes, makes bile to digest fat, produces necessary cholesterol, and is your body’s major detoxifying organ.
Think about all the substances entering the body everyday that the liver has to deal with. If you live in a city or other polluted area, all the gunk you breath in gets filtered through the liver. Anything you drink that includes pollutants or chemicals, like unfiltered water, sugary drinks with ingredients derived from petroleum, and of course alcohol will all have to contend with the liver. All the food that you eat will pass by the liver where nutrients will be stored or sent through the body, while the harmful substances like many preservatives, pesticides, too much sugar, and trans fats will have to be dealt with.
Your body makes several hormones each day. The adrenal glands make stress hormones, which serve a purpose in the short term, but if they stayed in circulation would cause a lot of damage. So the liver takes those and neutralizes them and sends them off for excretion. If you take medications, prescription or over the counter, all these must be detoxified once they have done their job and be broken down in the liver. Any recreational drugs will also be processed and excreted by the liver.
The liver has a big job, and is able to do it well, so long as it’s not overwhelmed and properly supported. Think of it like your body’s best employee and you’re its boss. You give it the important job of nourishing and detoxifying the whole body. When the liver sees lots of nutritious, whole foods and clean water coming in, that’s like a large paycheck with benefits. If you live a lifestyle relatively free of harmful toxins, that’s like vacation time. If you exercise or move regularly, that’s like giving your liver outside help to make its job easier. Your liver is appreciated and well nourished, so it will continue being your best employee and keep the body in top shape.
But what if you’re not the world’s best boss when it comes to your liver? Many of us overwork the liver without supporting it. We feed it processed foods full of preservatives, pesticides and sugar and don’t give it enough of a paycheck in the form of actual nutrition. Most of us don’t move enough, so we expect the liver to do all its work alone. And vacation? Ha! How about extra work on the weekends by throwing at it bunches of alcohol it must prioritize over all its other jobs! And if you take any medications or are stressed often, that just adds work to the pile.
But does our wonder-employee the liver complain? Not until it’s on its very last leg. But maybe it should. We can overwork and overwhelm the liver until about 70% of it is malfunctioning! You can be working with 30% of your liver without noticing a thing. This is why the liver is the martyr organ. If it has too many toxins to deal with, and/or it doesn’t have the nutrition it needs to do its job well, it gets overwhelmed. But instead of simply throwing the toxins back out into the body where it would cause a lot of damage, it stores them in itself to protect the rest of the system.
When the liver stores these toxins, it has to make fat cells for a place to put them. So over time, the liver can become fatty because it’s creating space to store all these substances that otherwise would harm the body. If this goes on too long without support, up to 70% or more of the liver can stop functioning in order to store all these toxins.
Signs of Liver Overload
There are some ways the liver will let you know it’s overworked and underpaid, but these signs are pretty vague and many other conditions have the same effects. So it’s always a good idea to check out your liver function with your doctor.
When the liver is overwhelmed, you will feel very tired, especially after meals, to the point where you almost can’t function. You might feel it’s very uncomfortable or painful to lie on your right side after meals. You may develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) because it’s not able to regulate it as it should. Other signs are mood changes, irritability, stiff and achy joints, painful abdominal distention or gas, chronic constipation or diarrhea, headaches or migraines, varicose veins or hemorrhoids, edema (swelling), and in severe cases nausea and loss of appetite with intolerance to fatty foods, jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes), low blood protein levels, and very high or very low cholesterol.
Because of the huge role of the liver in the health of the rest of the body, the health of the liver determines the quality of life you can have.
Support for the Liver
So maybe you’ve been a terrible boss in the past to your liver. I’ve been there, too. The good news is in most cases the liver is very forgiving. It has the potential to regenerate itself. So even if you’ve treated it poorly in the past, chances are it will stay loyal to you once you start supporting it. Pay it enough with good nutrition, give it a break now and then, and support it with help from regular movement.
- Increase nutritious, whole foods from a variety of diverse foods
- Limit sugar, alcohol, refined and processed foods
- Choose organic when possible, to reduce pesticide load
- Drink filtered water
- Chew your food well to reduce the burden on the liver
- Eat smaller more frequent meals to reduce the workload
- Green apples (rich in malic acid to cleanse liver)
- Raw vegetable juices
- Lemon (drink warm or room temperature glass of water with whole lemon squeezed in first thing in the morning to nourish the liver and stimulate digestion)
- Brassica vegetables (kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohlrabi, turnips, collards, mustard greens, cabbage, arugula)
- Greens high in magnesium and chlorophyll (peas, broccoli, asparagus, leafy greens)
- Protein & fatty acid rich foods (nuts & seeds, especially flax and pumpkin)
- Iron & B vitamin rich foods (whole grains, dark colored veggies, easy to digest proteins, green powders)
- Zinc & selenium rich foods (garlic, seafood)
- Antioxidant rich foods (dark colored veggies and fruits)
- Sulfer containing amino acids (eggs)
- Alkaline forming foods (vegetables and fruit)
The following herbs are supportive of the liver, but always check with your healthcare provider before taking any herbal supplements.
- Milk thistle
- Berberine herbs (yellow dock, Oregon grape root, barberry)
- Dandelion root or leaves
- Red clover
- Wild yams
- Bitters (gentian and goldenseal)
More Support for your Liver:
- Exercise stimulates liver contractions to help it detoxify. If you are limited in what you can do, gentle bouncing on a mini-trampoline is great to stimulate the liver.
- Balance stress to reduce the load of stress hormones moving through the liver
- Clean your environment of mold and other pollutants
It’s time we give our livers some love, and start treating them better for all they do for the rest of us!