Under the diaphragm, in the right upper abdomen is the liver, which receives 20% of the blood, pumped each minute by the heart. All the blood from major abdominal organs must be filtered and cleansed by the liver before returning to the heart. In fact, every minute, the liver detoxifies about two quarts of blood. When working correctly, its special phagocytes (germ-eating blood cells) called Kuppfer cells capture, eat, and destroy 99% of the bacteria. Highly efficient, the liver performs over 500 chemical jobs each day!
Every day the liver makes one quart of bile that emulsifies fat, rendering it easier for digestion. The bile also carries toxic material to the intestines. Fiber absorbs these toxins, and they are then eliminated in the stool. Like a pantry, the liver stores glucose in the form of glycogen. When a meal or two is missed, some of the glycogen is converted back into glucose and then released into the blood. The liver packages fat and cholesterol into lipoproteins. LDL (low-density lipoprotein), when elevated, is dangerous since it carries cholesterol to and deposits it inside the arteries. VLDL (very-low density lipoprotein) is harmful, as well, because it is changed into LDL. Elevated levels of these two lipoproteins increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. The liver, however, also makes a good lipoprotein, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which seizes cholesterol circulating in the blood and transports it to the liver where it is converted into bile. Elevated levels of HDL protect us from heart disease and stroke.
Yes, the liver is an extremely important organ, and it, too, is subject to the influences of our lifestyle habits—for good by appropriate ones or for bad by harmful ones. Let’s explore the lifestyle factors that damage the liver and those that promote its health. First, what damages the liver?
Alcohol poisons and promotes inflammatory responses in the liver. If alcohol abuse continues, it can lead to permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). However, over three-fourths of the liver can be damaged before symptoms occur. If more than two alcoholic drinks are consumed each day, serious liver damage will eventually occur. The individual will tire more quickly since his blood is dirtier, and he will become more susceptible to infections, as well as brain and kidney dysfunction. Alcohol also thickens the blood and slows its circulation. It reduces the liver’s capacity to cleanse the blood from impurities and pathogens. Since any amount of alcohol burdens the liver and compromises its efficiency, why drink it at all?
Overeating, obesity, and excessive visceral fat (the fat stored in the abdominal organs) also damage the liver. Overeating generates more free radicals. Free radicals are unsteady molecules that damage the membranes and DNA of the body’s cells. Because it detoxifies toxins, the liver is already the hot seat of free-radical production in the body. Overeating magnifies this free-radical assault on the liver.
Twenty percent of the general population in the United States has NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease), making it the most common form of liver disease. NAFLD is a spectrum of fatty-liver diseases not caused by alcohol. Ninety percent of individuals with NAFLD are obese! In fact, obesity increases the risk for developing NAFLD by 54-74%. Some studies show that up to 70% of individuals with NAFLD have visceral or central obesity.
Perhaps the fat in the liver accumulates because fat cells elsewhere are full to capacity and there is nowhere else for it to go, or perhaps the liver cannot change the fat into a form that can be eliminated. When 10% of the liver is fat, it is called a fatty-liver. However, if the liver continues to receive further insults from obesity, toxins, medications, or diabetes, serious forms of NAFLD can develop. Although NAFLD presents no symptoms, it may cause some liver enzymes to be elevated. Laboratory tests can easily detect abnormal values of these enzymes. Studies show that obesity, elevated levels of blood-fats in both sexes, and alcohol consumption in men are significant predictors of fatty-liver disease. A CAT scan or liver biopsy can give definitive proof of NAFLD.
Avoid Risk Factors
Avoid alcohol and other risk factors for hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), such as poor personal hygiene, poor sanitation, intravenous street drugs, unsafe sex, body piercing, and tattooing. If working in a medical setting, use gloves when handling body fluids or drawing blood; consider the advantages and disadvantages of the hepatitis vaccine.
An individual who is obese or has a “pot-belly” needs to work on losing weight. If the liver has been infiltrated with fat, slow, steady, and permanent weight-loss is much kinder to the liver than fast weight-loss. Permanent weight loss, however, can reverse NAFLD. Rapid weight-loss promotes inflammation and fibrosis in the liver.
Judicious weight loss has other benefits to offer. In an obese individual, even a modest weight loss will significantly improve blood-sugar levels and cholesterol and blood fat profiles. That is good news, indeed! Weight loss improves the body cells’ sensitivity to insulin as well; this reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and reoccurring NAFLD. Pro-inflammatory agents like alpha-TNF (alpha tumor necrosis factor) and PGE-2 also decrease. The results are less inflammation and less cancer. Excessive amounts or activity of alpha-TNF is involved in many chronic conditions and autoimmune diseases. An excessive amount of PGE-2 not only promotes inflammation, but also is involved in cancer metastasis, including liver cancer. Achieving and maintaining one’s ideal weight strengthens each body system.
Dietary Measures That Protect the Liver
Because the liver is adjacent to parts of the intestines, healthy intestines help the liver. Animal studies show that treating the intestines with friendly bacteria, such as acidophilus, improve NAFLD in ob/ob mice (obese mice that manifest many of the same problems as obese people) and inhibit alpha-TNF’s inflammatory activity.
Dietary fiber encourages the growth of friendly bacteria in the intestines and reduces TNF alpha in the colon. It also reduces the contact time a carcinogen has with the bowel wall, meaning fewer carcinogens are absorbed from the intestines. Consuming food rich in dietary fiber helps to reduce the workload of the liver.
Green leafy vegetables are high in antioxidants that help to protect the liver from the free-radical damage it incurs by processing toxins. Chlorophyll (the green pigment of plants) reduces toxin absorption from the gut, thereby reducing the toxin load the liver has to handle. Chlorophyllin, a water-soluble derivative of chlorophyll, reduces the formation of DNA adducts from heterocyclic amines which damage the colon.( *a DNA adduct is a perverting junction of DNA and a cancer-producing molecule). Chlorophyllin also reduces the development of aflatoxin B1, a carcinogenic mold that damages the liver. Residents of Qidong, People’s Republic of China, are at high risk for developing liver cancer, partly from consuming aflatoxin-contaminated foods. Animal models show that chlorophyllin is an effective inhibitor of liver cancer since it blocks the bioavailability of aflatoxin. Individuals of Qidong, China who were given chlorophyllin had a 55% reduction in aflatoxin biomarkers, compared with those who took a placebo.
Legumes offer special benefits to the liver. Their phytic acid helps to protect the liver and colon from cancer. Soybeans, in particular, improve the antioxidant activity of the liver. As previously mentioned, antioxidants destroy harmful free radicals. Mung beans and black beans have been shown to help protect the liver from some of this free-radical damage. Legumes can reduce the cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the liver. They help the LDL receptors in the liver remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from the general circulation. They are a source of the amino acid arginine; animal studies show that arginine reverses the inflammatory and fibrotic changes in the liver that occur from alcohol ingestion, even when alcohol is still consumed.
In its detoxification of poisons and cancer-producing agents, the liver’s phase-1 liver enzymes begin to break apart carcinogens, but the resulting byproducts of this process can be even more toxic. However, phase-1 enzyme activity is essential to prepare the toxins for total destruction by phase-2 enzymes. For the destruction to take place, the phase-2 enzymes must be synchronized with phase-1 activity, or dangerous toxin levels escalate. The typical American diet, low in fruits and vegetables, causes phase-2 enzymes to lag behind phase-1 enzyme activity and toxic effects accumulate. We can help the liver increase its phase-2 activity by eating cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, strawberries, raspberries, and raw apples. Not too terribly difficult to do! The herbs turmeric and rosemary also stimulate phase-2 activity.
Glutathione is needed for phase-2 detoxification. Glutathione is an amino acid complex of glutamic acid, cysteine, and glyceine and is also an important antioxidant that scavenges free radicals and protects the liver. Stress, obesity, toxins or drugs, alcohol, too much dietary fat, and severe exercise deplete the liver of glutathione. Lemon contains a special flavonoid that counters this depletion and reduces oxidative stress occurring in the liver. The trace mineral selenium is necessary for glutathione to do its work. Avocadoes, asparagus, potatoes, raw tomatoes, grapefruit, strawberries, and watermelon are all good sources of glutathione. Please note! As foods are processed, they lose some of their glutathione content. Oral glutathione supplements are not well absorbed.
So, if you don’t want to be among the 11.4 Americans diagnosed with cancer, cut your risk substantially by keeping your liver healthy by adopting a healthful lifestyle. Be sure to get your annual checkup with your doctor.
Anderson, T., Liver and gallbladder disease before and after very-low-calorie diets. Am J Clinic Nutri, 56(1 Suppl) 235S-239S, 1992.
Buldilion, F.G., et al, Gastroenterology School, Faculty of Medicine, 2nd University of Naples, Naples, Italy.
Egner, P.A., et al, Chlorophyllin intervention reduces aflatoxin-DNA adducts in individuals at high risk for liver cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 98 (25):1401-6, 2001.
Gaynor, Mitchell and Hickey, Jerry, Dr. Gaynor’s Cancer Prevention Program, Kensington, 1999.
Hall, E.J, Learning about your liver. The Journal of Health and Healing, 25(1):12.
Youssef, W.I. and McCullough, A.J., Steatohepatitis in obese individuals. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol, 16(5):733-747, 2002.