13 foods that cleanse your liver

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

Your liver is essentially your body’s detoxification organ. It breaks down the toxins you encounter every day, including environmental pollutants, medications, and the sugars and fats found in your food. In addition, it processes the nutrients you absorb from food and stores them to convert into usable forms.

A properly functioning liver is vital to your health, and on occasion, it can become taxed by a poor diet, an overload of toxins, or certain lifestyle choices. Your liver is an important organ to protect and naturally detoxing your liver lowers your risk of liver disease and cancer. Detoxing also raises your antioxidant levels and offers protection from toxins you encounter regularly.

Fortunately, there are many foods that naturally detoxify and aid the liver in functioning at peak condition.

The role of the liver in your body

The body rids itself of toxins through the liver. It detoxifies the blood, breaks down hormones, manufactures the bile needed to properly digest dietary fats, and pools together essential minerals, vitamins, and iron. If the liver is not running properly, we cannot digest our food and absorb many of its nutrients, particularly fats[1].

The liver also regulates the blood composition of protein, sugar, and fat. It demolishes old or damaged red blood cells, produces proteins and cholesterol, creates chemicals to help blood clot correctly, metabolizes alcohol and medications, and of course, removes toxins like bilirubin and ammonia[4].

Simply put, if the liver cannot function optimally, you are at a higher risk for many serious illnesses.

Liver problems

Liver disease can include any number of illnesses that impair the liver’s ability to work properly. Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver, sometimes caused by alcohol, but it can also result from certain medications, malnourishment, exposure to toxic chemicals, or eating eating poisonous mushrooms or uncooked shellfish. Scar tissue from cirrhosis will replace the healthy cells in the liver, slowly impeding its ability to operate. Eventually, the liver stops processing entirely from this damage, resulting in full-blown liver failure[2,5,7].

Some other causes behind diminished liver function include exposure to environmental chemicals and toxins, low potassium levels, obesity, high triglyceride numbers, viral infections, autoimmune diseases, as well as unsanitary tattoos or body piercings, alcohol or drug abuse, and an overuse of prescription medications like acetaminophen[3,6].

Symptoms of impaired liver function include yellowing skin or eyes, bloating and gas, dark urine, acid reflux, high blood pressure, constipation, mood changes, chronic fatigue, excessive sweating, and an inability to lose weight. While these can refer to other conditions, it is important to watch for these signs, especially combined with the risk factors listed above: if you are suffering, it could be an indication that your liver isn’t at its best[9,10]. Fortunately, your liver can improve with many foods known to detoxify and cleanse the liver.

1. Coffee

Coffee is vital for liver health. Research has demonstrated that drinking coffee on a regular basis shields the liver from disease, even for individuals who are showing signs of liver conditions. Coffee also reduces the risk of cirrhosis, which can lead to scarring, and the risk of developing liver cancer, as well as lowering the inflammation that contributes to liver disease[12,16].

Coffee prevents the buildup of collagen and fat, two contributing factors to liver disease, in addition to decreasing inflammation[13,15]. Furthermore, glutathione is an antioxidant that rises by ingesting coffee. Antioxidants fight free radicals, the highly-reactive molecules that cause damage to tissues and cells. Oxidative stress is when your body is overloaded with free radicals and, if unable to neutralize naturally by the body’s antioxidants, can result in many illnesses, including cancer[11,14].

Three cups of coffee per day is the amount linked to the best benefits for chronic liver disease, lowering your risk of death due to liver failure.

2. Tea

Tea is well known for its benefits to the body, but it is also helpful in protecting the liver. Green tea, in particular, is associated with improved blood signatures of liver health. Drinking tea high in antioxidants, like green tea, improves liver enzyme numbers, reduces oxidative stress, and combats fat buildup in the liver. The antioxidants in tea also help protect against liver cancer[17,20,22].

Black tea, another tea known for its antioxidant effects, was shown to reverse the effects of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which occurs from a diet high in unhealthy fats, and improved markers of liver health[18,19,21,23].

Green tea can cause liver damage in rare cases, however, so it’s best to consult your doctor if you have liver problems[24]. Generally, the beneficial effects of drinking tea came from consuming 5-10 cups per day.

3. Grapefruit

Grapefruit is an antioxidant food. The two primary antioxidants in grapefruit are naringenin and naringin, two flavonoids that are beneficial for the treatment of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is considered the liver manifestation of metabolic syndrome, characterized by a high triglyceride level in the liver and inflammation. Naringenin and naringin are both helpful in reducing cholesterol and triglycerides in the body, which lowers the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. In addition, naringenin has been shown to increase the number of enzymes necessary to burning fat, which prevents the accumulation of fat in the liver[25].

These antioxidants have also been shown to reduce the development of hepatic fibrosis, a condition in which excessive connective tissue builds up in the liver, a result of chronic inflammation. Studies have also shown that naringin can improve the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which is another risk factor for liver disease[26,27].

Most of the research conducted on grapefruit has been done on animals, but it shows promise for grapefruit and grapefruit juice having a protective effect for the liver.

4. Berries

Anthocyanins are flavonoids, a type of antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables their red-orange or blue-violet color. Vitamin C is a well-known, powerful antioxidant, but anthocyanin has been shown to have twice the antioxidant power of vitamin C. Anthocyanins were shown to reduce inflammation and protect the liver[35,38].

Blueberries and cranberries have some of the highest levels of anthocyanins. Not only do they increase immune cell response and antioxidant enzymes, but they also slowed the development of lesions and fibrosis, which is the development of scar tissue[36].

Blueberry extract, in particular, has been shown to inhibit the growth of human liver cancer cells in in vitro studies, though in vivo studies need to be conducted to ensure these results can be replicated in the human body[37].

5. Grapes

Resveratrol is part of a group of compounds called polyphenols, which behave as antioxidants and protect the body against free radical damage. Resveratrol can be found in the skin of red and purple grapes. Because of this, grapes are useful in treating and preventing liver problems[40].

Grapes have been shown to lower inflammation and increase antioxidant levels in the body, which indirectly affects the liver, and supplementing with grape seed extract can improve liver function[39,41].

Generally speaking, the effects of grapes on the liver are more pronounced with whole grapes, as opposed to grape seed extract or resveratrol supplements.

6. Prickly pear

Prickly pear is a type of edible cactus that has been used in folk and alternative medicine as a treatment for ulcers, wounds, fatigue, and liver disease. The extract from prickly pear has even been shown to alleviate the symptoms of a hangover. Test subjects experienced less nausea, dry mouth, and inappetence, as well as being less likely to experience a hangover if they took the extract prior to consuming alcohol. A hangover is acute withdrawal from excessive alcohol consumption, which is metabolized by the liver, so prickly pear’s anti-inflammatory effects show its ability to improve liver function and limit damage.

One study showed that prickly pear extract can also restore health enzyme and cholesterol levels when consumed in conjunction with pesticides known to damage the liver, which suggests that prickly pear can help protect the liver from environmental toxins.  In addition, prickly pear juice can decrease the oxidative damage and injury to liver after excessive alcohol consumption, as well as keeping antioxidant and inflammation levels steady.

More research is needed on prickly pear fruit and juice, rather than the extract, but preliminary research has shown the positive effects of prickly pear on liver health.

7. Beetroot juice

Betalains are antioxidants that increase nitric oxide availability in the body and prevent the illnesses typically caused by low nitrite levels. In addition, betalains protect cardiovascular health, limit oxidative damage, and lower inflammation, as well as displaying some cancer-preventing activity.

Beetroot juice contains high amounts of betalains, and studies have demonstrated its ability to increase the liver’s natural detoxification enzymes, as well as reducing oxidative damage and inflammation in the liver. Presumably, beets would yield the same benefits as beetroot juice, as well as many other health benefits, but most of these studies use beetroot juice.

Many of the studies that investigate beetroot juice benefits were conducted on animals, as well as in test tubes. That said, many of the results were replicated in human subjects, though more extensive research is needed.

8. Cruciferous vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, and spinach, are known for their health benefits, but they may be beneficial for liver health. Cruciferous vegetables are high in many plant compounds that are known to have antioxidant properties[8].

Animal studies have shown that Brussels sprouts and broccoli sprout extract increase the levels of detoxification enzymes and protect the liver, and human in vitro studies replicated these effects, even with cooked Brussels sprouts[44]. Broccoli sprout extract was also shown to improve liver enzyme levels and decrease oxidative stress, as well as preventing liver failure[42,43,45].

More studies on human subjects are needed, but preliminary research suggests that cruciferous vegetables can protect the liver, in addition to their many other health benefits.

9. Nuts

The healthy fat, fiber, and antioxidants in nuts make them an excellent food for overall health, but they are especially useful for liver health. The healthy fats in nuts help the liver flush fat-soluble toxins, as well as providing the necessary arginine levels, an amino acid that the liver uses to remove ammonia, as well as glutathione, which assists the liver in removing toxins.

Studies also suggest that individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can improve their levels of liver enzymes by eating nuts. In addition, individuals who ate smaller amounts of nuts had a higher risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease than those who ate large amounts.

Nuts contain high levels of antioxidant plant compounds, which are useful for fighting chronic inflammation, another risk factor for liver disease.

10. Fatty fish

Fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fats that reduce inflammation and lower your risk of many chronic illnesses, including some cancers. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can prevent the accumulation of fat in the liver, as well as keeping enzyme levels normal and improving insulin resistance, both of which contribute to liver disease. In addition, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids can improve liver health, as well as lowering triglycerides and cholesterol levels, both of which can cause liver problems.

Much of the typical Western diet is comprised of omega-6 fatty acids, which serve many purposes in the body, but only from natural sources. Our diets contain too many omega-6 fatty acids from heavily-processed vegetable oils, such as soybean and corn oil, which can contribute to many illnesses. An optimal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is necessary for overall health, and the combination of low omega-3 and high omega-6 can promote the development of liver disease.

Fatty fish can provide you with the omega-3 fatty acids you need, but you also need to reduce the levels of processed omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. In addition, be careful to avoid fish species known for high concentrations of mercury, since that can tax the liver further.

11. Olive oil

Olive oil is a healthy fat that’s known for its benefits to heart and metabolic health, but it’s also beneficial for protecting the liver. Studies have shown that individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can improve liver enzyme and fat levels by consuming one teaspoon of olive oil per day[46,49,51].

Olive oil can also raise the levels of the protein associated with positive metabolic effects, as well as decreasing the fat accumulation in the liver and improving blood levels of liver enzymes[47,48,50]. Fat accumulation is the first stage of liver disease, so by improving the fat levels in the liver, olive oil can protect the liver from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

In addition, olive oil is beneficial for lowering triglyceride and cholesterol levels, both of which can negatively impact the liver.

12. Animal livers

Since the liver filters toxins, it can seem counterintuitive to consume liver from animals to protect your own liver. The liver doesn’t store toxins, however, it merely filters them out, and liver is a great source of many vitamins and minerals[34].

Liver from healthy, grass-fed cattle or free-range chickens is rich in vitamins A and B, folic acid, choline, iron, copper, zinc, chromium, and CoQ10, making it one of the most nutrient-dense foods we eat[32,33]. All these nutrients increase the liver’s own detoxifying abilities and help it function better.

If you can’t handle eating actual liver, you can get similar benefits from consuming desiccated liver tablets, provided they’re free of pesticides, preservatives, hormones, and antibiotics.

13. Turmeric

Turmeric gets its bright yellow color from curcumin, a phytochemical that stimulates the production of bile by the gallbladder. The liver uses bile to excrete toxins, as well as rejuvenating the liver cells that are damaged by harmful compounds. Because of this, turmeric has long been used as a treatment for liver disease in ancient medicine[28,30].

Curcumin also has anti-inflammatory, anticancerous, and antioxidant properties. Curcumin can reduce the inflammation and oxidative damage that contribute to liver disease, as well as other chronic health conditions[29,31].

Turmeric is a powerful herb that can easily be added to many recipes for a full range of health benefits.

The sati line

Many of these foods offer benefits beyond your liver health, so they’re excellent additions to any diet, but some may carry side effects for certain individuals. If you have food allergies or sensitivities related to any of these foods, it’s best to avoid them for a liver cleanse. In addition, liver problems are often serious and can be life-threatening, so it’s important to speak with your doctor about your symptoms and detox plan.

Your liver is the hardest-working organ in your body, so it’s important to do all you can to support its health. Not only do these foods benefit your liver, but they also prevent other serious illnesses caused by improper diet, poor lifestyle choices, and chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, these foods can only go so far in protecting your liver if you don’t make lifestyle and diet changes.

To truly help your liver, it’s necessary to remove as many toxins and processed foods from your diet as possible, as well as consuming healthy, detoxifying foods on a regular basis.

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