The subject of liver detox is a popular, yet often misunderstood, area of the wellness zeitgeist.
There are a lot of listicles, and certainly many products, dedicated to various ways to detox, flush or cleanse your liver. But under ideal conditions, your liver is perfectly capable of detoxing itself.
A lot of pop science likens the liver’s role in our digestive system to that of a sanitation worker. It processes everything—both emotionally and physically—that we put in our body. It does so without bias, treating food the same as supplements, Stoli, and stress. And the work is dirty and thankless.
In addition to sorting through what’s coming into the plant, this scrappy organ also manages the storage of sugar and its conversion into energy, produces a vast reservoir of the body’s proteins, regulates hormones, and cleans your blood.
Because your liver has so many jobs, it can sometimes get overwhelmed. Especially in modern life which, replete with chemicals, high stress jobs, and crappy fast food, can certainly create non-ideal conditions for your liver.
If your liver becomes overloaded, all the junk piles up and it doesn’t have as much man power for all its other necessary chores. Excess toxins that aren’t successfully flushed by way of the bathroom, can be eliminated through the only other escape hatch: our pores. Sometimes a case of perioral dermatitis or acne might be a sign of a sluggish liver. Or perhaps, you might just feel fatigued, constipated, or hormonally out of whack.
Luckily, there are plenty of easy self-care practices (from castor oil packs to sweat sessions) that help support your lymphatic system, balance your hormones, and heal your gut—all of which in turn can help your liver detox itself. No fancy cleanses or flushing necessary.
Read on for the best ways to detox your liver and other useful information for why it may have gotten off track in the first place.
With health and hedonism,
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED A LIVER DETOX?
Because your liver controls so many functions, it’s hard to give a hard and fast set of symptoms that tell you whether you’re in need of natural ways to detox. But we will go over some of the underlying conditions or predispositions that might make you want to live with your liver in mind below.
As someone with several of them, I can say the best way I can describe when I know I need to support my liver is that there is a stagnation in my energy, digestion, and skin. When I’m not detoxing properly I feel a dulling in all those areas. I believe the technical term is “blah.”
If any of the below issues applies to you, it’s a good idea to do what you can to support your liver on a regular basis. Of course, if that’s not possible, taking a week out of your schedule to truly give your liver a vacation is a good way to help it catch up. This is what we do in the first stage of my 4 Weeks to Wellness program and people often see an incredible halo effect on their sleep, skin and digestion.
MTHFR gene – MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (in certain circles, we call it the motherf*cker gene). Essentially having this genetic mutation means you may be lacking in an enzyme that helps you methylate / detox properly. It presents in a high percentage of the population, about 40%. But some people have variants that may affect bodily function or quality of life more. Some medical professionals feel the attention is overblown. Others test for it, especially for women in their childbearing years, as having this gene can mean not processing folate well. If this is you, look for methylated folate or take a baby aspirin with your prenatals.
Hashimoto’s – Having a healthy, high-functioning liver is essential for being able to convert your inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into its active form (T3). If you have the autoimmune version of hypothyroidism and struggle with maintaining healthy T3 levels, that’s a clear sign that you need to support your liver, change your diet, and adopt some of the practices below. If you are unsure whether you have Hashimoto’s, this is a great at-home test to get a sense of your numbers (many doctors will only order TSH and that’s not sufficient to diagnose or rule out).
Estrogen Dominance – Some signs that your body might have too much estrogen in circulation: irregular periods or heavy bleeding, stubborn weight gain (especially in your hips, thighs and mid-section), endometriosis, fatigue, low libido and skin issues. One of the reasons you might not be regulating estrogen properly is that your liver is falling down on the job. For thyroid sufferers, higher levels of estrogen in the body is especially problematic. Estrogen dominance further obstructs the essential conversion of thyroid hormones in the liver described above.
Mold Exposure or Toxicity – If you have a mold problem it is akin to a chemical exposure and can affect every organ of your body, especially the liver which is tasked with dealing with toxins. An acute infection like this means your immune system can become suppressed. It also means by its very nature that your liver has more on its plate than usual and might have trouble keeping up with every day tasks like balancing your hormones. Anything that supports your immune system and lymphatic system will be especially beneficial (check out the castor oil pack below!). More on mold here.
Fatty Liver Disease – This condition can either stem from alcoholism or other lifestyle factors. It means that excess fat builds up in the liver over time, in more serious cases, eventually leading to liver failure. Lifestyle interventions—diet, exercise — like many of the below are the best tools to getting your liver back on track and reverse fatty liver disease naturally.
Nutrient Deficiencies – One sign that you might have MTHFR, hormone imbalances, or an issue with your liver are certain nutrient deficiencies like folate, vitamins A, B, D, E and K.
THE BEST NATURAL WAYS TO DETOX LIVER
The best strategy for supporting your liver is to simply get out of its way. As your second biggest organ of elimination, it is fully capable of detoxing itself. It’s only when we overload it with too many chores, or have an underlying condition that makes it less efficient, that we can get into trouble.
Quitting sugar, caffeine and alcohol at the same time. I wrote about my own personal experience giving these vices for a month in my book The Wellness Project (you can also read more about it here). It’s also where I begin with my clients in the 4 Weeks to Wellness course because each of these prongs have a huge impact on liver health. Alcohol is an obvious one, but let’s break down the other two:
SUGAR. The added sugar in fizzy drinks and packaged foods is really the liver’s cross to bear because it’s the only organ that metabolizes fructose. And to deal with the deluge, it engages the pancreas in a complex game of Ping-Pong to control your blood sugar. When levels are too high, the pancreas steps in and signals to your liver—using the blood’s favorite gang sign, insulin—that it needs to store all that excess energy. While your liver is controlling the sugar situation, it is depositing fat in places you don’t want it, like around your belly. While unflattering for some, these fat deposits aren’t always apparent to the naked eye. Being thin on the outside doesn’t necessarily indicate how lean your organs are. More on fatty liver disease above.
COFFEE. The issue of caffeine and liver health comes down to personal tolerance. Some studies link people who drank coffee every day to a reduced risk of liver disease and certain types of cancers. Others find that coffee compromises the central nervous and immune systems. Many moving pieces make it hard to prove cause: the issue of quality (the type of bean used), how it was processed and prepared (boiled coffee often produced different results than filtered), and the value of a single dose versus long-term chronic use.
In other words, the verdict is still out on whether coffee is friend or foe. But individual sensitivity depends in large part on how coffee is metabolized by the liver. Not only does caffeine cause blood sugar and cortisol spikes, a big downside of coffee is that it competes for precious enzyme resources that are also needed to process estrogen during the detoxification process. This is one reason why women taking hormone replacement drugs (like birth control pills) metabolize caffeine more slowly and can feel its effects longer.
If coffee is causing a pile up of estrogen, those excess hormones get sent back into circulation. See above for more on estrogen dominance.
Make lemon water your beverage of choice. While you’re switching up your beverage menu, consider replacing your morning coffee with a mug of warm lemon water. Lemon juice, in general, is one of nature’s secret weapons. Its antiseptic nature acts as a solvent for toxins, and though it makes zero sense on paper, when added to water, becomes an alkaline solution, instead of acidic. Starting the day with an alkaline drink rather than something acidic, like coffee, helps your liver flush all the junk it accumulated overnight when it was doing double duty cleaning your blood.
Apply a castor oil pack. Castor oil is an ancient practice that’s been used in Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurveda, and Ancient Egyptian cultures, among others. It’s a great economical way to improve lymphatic congestion, reduce inflammation and get your biggest organ of elimination running smoothly. When castor oil is absorbed through your skin it speeds up the removal of toxins from your tissues. You can use the oil anywhere on your body that needs love – liver, ovaries, kidneys, even your thyroid! It also has a calming effect on the nervous system. Only once you’re in a relaxed state is your body able to cleanse the junk. When your body is in a stressed state, these functions go on the back burner.
The oil itself is very sticky and viscous, which means that it needs either heat or time (preferably both) to get absorbed. To use it, you simply want to drizzle it on a piece of flannel and strap it to your body so that the oil can slowly seep into your skin. The only downside to this practice is that it can be messy! There are a bunch of work arounds, like plastic wrap or doggy wee pads, but I don’t love using plastic when I’m trying to detox. Which is why I was so thrilled to find this well-designed castor oil pack (10% off with code PHOEBE). It fits the shape of your body very well, especially for the liver area, and allows you to tie it into place easily. I’ve been using mine a few times a week for a few months now and it’s still holding up great. NOTE: Castor oil is not safe for pregnancy.
Get sweaty: infrared sauna (or hot bath). People forget that the best way to detox is to simply SWEAT. Your skin is, after all, your biggest organ. But because of my Hashimoto’s I struggle with intense cardio and have to focus on gentler movement that doesn’t always leave me dripping. Enter: my infared sauna blanket. The blanket has all the benefits of a normal infrared sauna—the detoxification, the increase in blood flow and circulation, and the lowering of cortisol levels—but you can roll it up and put it under your bed. I spend 30 or 45 minutes in here twice a week and have noticed a huge improvement in my mood, sleep, skin, and general inflammation. My face and body feel less bloated and puffy, and my pants are even fitting better. Thanks to their podcast sponsorship, you can use code SIBO100 for $100 off via the link here. Of course this is a big ticket item and there are other work arounds, like simply taking a hot bath! But infared works particularly well in that it isn’t ambient heat–it heats your body directly without warming the air around you, which directly targets the lymphatic system.
Double down on crucifers & leafy green vegetables. In broad strokes, a good liver diet focuses on colorful anti-inflammatory foods. Avoid the beige category: bleached flours, refined grains, and dairy. Some of your liver’s favorite foods are beets, cilantro, parsley, broccoli, kale, cabbage and dandelion root tea. Spices like turmeric, coriander, fennel seed, and cumin can also be therapeutic. When in doubt, try this soup out! For a complete 4-week meal plan with recipes, join my program here.
Choose smoothies over juice cleanses. Natural sugar only becomes a problem when all the fiber is taken away, which is the case with most juices. When you consume 200 calories of fresh apple slices, the fiber slows down the body’s process of absorption. Your blood sugar rises more gradually, and without those spikes, insulin stays out of it. Consuming the same number of calories in the form of organic apple juice, which has all the fiber removed, means all that naturally occurring fructose is funneled straight to your liver. Even juicing sweeter vegetables (like beets and carrots) can cause your blood sugar to spike as much as it would if you were drinking a can of Coca-Cola.
Despite the word “cleanse” being synonymous with the concept of detox these days, spending your money on expensive bottles of Blueprint beet juice isn’t necessarily the solution to your liver’s problems. You’re better off eating your vegetables, or pureeing them into a smoothie that retains all the fiber. Check out my detox smoothie recipe or this immune green drink.
Make sure you’re evacuating properly. The act of detoxing can become dangerous if you’re not pooping at least once a day. When your body is unable excrete waste material, toxins get absorbed back into your system, which can make you experience unpleasant symptoms. If you’re prone to constipation, there are a few natural remedies to help you cleanse in a gentle way:
- cardamom essential oil – Rubbing a few drops on the bottom of your feet before bed can get things moving overnight.
- magnesium – In addition to being an essential mineral, magnesium can be helpful for constipation as it pulls water into the gut and functions as a mild laxative. Best practices are to take it before bed on an empty stomach. Since it’s also a muscle relaxant and generally calming for the body, it’s been known to promote a better night sleep as well. I like the brand Natural Calm.
- castor oil – When taken orally, castor oil can be used as a laxative. Just be careful – a little goes a long way. Start with a teaspoon and go from there. And remember it’s not safe for pregnancy!
- smooth move tea can also be very effective, but like with castor oil, proceed with caution as it can be rather aggressive.
Manage stress. A number of studies clearly show that stress has an impact on hepatic inflammatory response. When you’re mentally stressed out, so is your liver. This makes complete sense as your liver ends up bearing the brunt of any hormone dysregulation – and cortisol is often a driving force of imbalances. If a meditation practice is too hard core for where you’re at, try simply taking 5 minutes out of your day for deep belly breathing.
Get a good night’s sleep. Getting a good night’s rest is essential for your body, but it’s especially important for your liver. In Chinese medicine, our internal clock gets divvied up into phases that each correspond to a specific organ, and the liver works the night shift from 1am to 3am. This means if your sleep is disrupted, so is the liver’s late-night chore of cleaning your blood. This isn’t ideal for anyone, but it’s particularly problematic for those of us with autoimmune issues. If the liver is not doing its nighttime duties, or not doing them well, you’ll have a harder time clearing out the antibodies that are attacking your tissue. It also means if you’re doing castor oil packs or taking supplements to aid in liver detox during the day, your liver won’t do as good of a job processing and eliminating those toxins if not given the proper down time at night.
As you can see the best ways to detox your liver are often the same tactics that everyone should use to support an anti-inflammatory life. I didn’t focus on pills and supplements because ultimately the lifestyle tactics are far more powerful. Despite the sauna and castor oil packs being among my favorite tools, you can detox your liver naturally by simply giving it a much deserved rest.
While some of these things (like giving up sugar, alcohol and caffeine) seem simple enough, I know they can be hard to implement in practice in your daily life. Trust me, I’ve been there! If you need a helping hand, my 4 Weeks to Wellness course might be a great place for you to start. The next session kicks off September 13th! Click here to learn more.
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