Public health campaigns promote annual flu shots. Pink ribbons symbolize breast cancer awareness. The whole month of February is officially designated as “American Heart Month.”
So why doesn’t liver disease get much attention? More than 100 million Americans have some type of liver disease. It is our ninth leading cause of death and ranks fifth among people ages 45 to 64. And because chronic liver disease has no overt symptoms, most people don’t know they have it.
This needs to change. That’s why I am on a mission to increase awareness of both the growing burden of liver disease and natural therapies for prevention and treatment.
What Are the Functions of the Liver?
The liver’s best-known function is detoxification. Everything you swallow, inhale, or absorb through your skin is ultimately processed by your liver. As blood passes through this 3.5-pound organ, environmental toxins and waste products of normal metabolism are filtered out and converted into safer compounds for elimination via the kidneys and intestines. This is no small task. Your liver filters more than a quart of blood a minute, 24 hours a day.
Your liver also performs more than 500 other functions that are essential for survival. In addition to detoxification, the liver:
- Produces bile, which aids in digestion by breaking down fats.
- Synthesizes cholesterol, albumin, coenzyme Q10, and other vital substances.
- Converts excess glucose into glycogen for storage and back into glucose as needed for energy.
- Produces proteins required for blood clotting.
- Metabolizes and balances hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, and thyroid hormones.
- Stores nutrients such as iron, copper, and vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K.
As you can see, your hard-working liver deserves all the TLC you can provide!
What Causes Liver Disease?
Several medical conditions and toxins are linked with liver damage, but there are three main causes of liver disease.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and an unhealthy diet and lifestyle are hard on the liver. NAFLD is the fastest-growing chronic liver disease and an increasingly common cause of high liver enzymes. The latest statistics reveal that about 37% of adults and 10% of our children have NAFLD.
- Alcohol-related liver disease. Alcohol is a toxin. Even light drinking stresses the liver, and heavy drinking is a major cause of cirrhosis. The toll of alcohol-related liver disease, including death, has increased in the past decade in all age groups, with the sharpest rises in people who are younger than age 35 or older than 65.
- Viral hepatitis. Hepatitis B and C affect more than 3 million people in the US. These viral infections, which are acquired through contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person, are also on the rise.
What Happens if You Have Liver Disease?
Early NAFLD and alcohol-related liver disease are characterized by a buildup of fat in the liver. The next stage, when fat replaces more than 5% of normal liver cells, is known as alcoholic or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and involves inflammation, liver cell damage, and fibrosis, or scarring.
Over time, steatohepatitis may progress to cirrhosis, marked by severe scarring and impaired liver function. This is when fatigue, weakness, weight loss, and other symptoms become evident and the risk of liver failure, cancer, and premature death dramatically increases. The only treatment for advanced cirrhosis is a liver transplant.
I don’t want to paint too dark a picture. Many people with chronic liver diseases have no long-term ill effects. Unfortunately, about 20% of those with NAFLD progress to NASH, and a quarter of with alcoholic liver disease develop cirrhosis.
The good news is that the liver has an incredible capacity for regeneration, as long as you remove the sources of damage and provide the nutrients needed for healing and repair.
What Can You Do to Support Liver Health?
For starters, do everything you can to take some of the load off your liver. Processed foods, preservatives and additives, alcohol, medications, recreational drugs, tap water, polluted air, cosmetics, cleaners, herbicides and pesticides, heavy metals, hormone-disrupting PCBs and BPA… Your liver must work overtime to detoxify this onslaught of chemicals and environmental toxins.
Give your liver a break by drinking filtered water, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and using natural cleaning and personal care products. Go easy on NSAIDs (Motrin, etc.) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) and talk to your doctor about reducing other medications with known liver toxicity. Clean up your diet by eating unprocessed, organic, GMO-free whole foods and avoiding excess fructose, which is rapidly converted to fat in the liver.
Liver support also requires attention to your microbiome and digestive system, since an unhealthy leaky gut places undue stress on the liver. You also need to get your weight under control. Obesity is a primary cause of NAFLD, but studies have shown that losing 7%–10% of your body weight can reduce liver fat and fibrosis and even reverse NAFLD. Type 2 diabetes is also closely linked with NAFLD, so getting your blood sugar under control is another priority.
What Supplements Are Good for the Liver?
For thousands of years, traditional medicine practitioners in cultures around the world have used milk thistle seeds, artichoke leaves, dandelion roots, schisandra berries, berberine-rich plants, and other botanicals to treat liver ailments.
Today, clinical research supports the benefits of these and other natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories for the prevention and treatment of disorders affecting the liver. I am particularly enthusiastic about these three natural ingredients:
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid derivative that boosts the production of glutathione, the most active antioxidant in the liver. This natural compound is so effective at neutralizing toxins that it is used in hospital emergency rooms to treat acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose. Suggested daily dose: 600 mg
- Milk thistle’s benefits for liver health come from its active ingredient silymarin. Scores of clinical trials have demonstrated silymarin’s ability to improve liver enzymes in patients with liver disease. It has also been shown to have anticancer and cardioprotective properties. Suggested daily dose: 900 mg (80% silymarin standardized extract)
- 4’Liver is a combination of two adaptogenic herbs: Terminalia chebula and Sphaeranthus indicus. My interest was piqued by a 2022 clinical trial that tested its efficacy against milk thistle in overweight patients with NAFLD. Compared to study participants who took milk thistle extract, those who took 300 mg of 4’Liver daily had significantly greater improvements in GGT, ALT, and other liver enzymes as well as markers of inflammation. Suggested daily dose: 300 mg
Liver Health Recap
Chronic liver disease has few, if any symptoms, so it often goes undiagnosed. That’s why it’s important to have periodic blood tests and follow up with your doctor if your liver enzymes are elevated. Experts also recommend that all adults should get tested for hepatitis B and C at least once in their lifetime.
If you are diagnosed with a liver disease, don’t despair. Although there are no approved treatments besides antivirals for hepatitis C, NAFLD and alcohol-related disease respond well to the natural therapies we have discussed. Laying off alcohol, reducing your exposure to toxins, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar, and taking supportive supplements give your liver a chance to recover and rebuild.
The real ticket to liver health is prevention. This same approach of lifestyle changes and suggested supplements is also recommended if you have any of the risk factors for liver disease.
In fact, given the unavoidable exposure to environmental toxins—plus the indulgences we all allow ourselves from time to time—I believe everybody needs to give their liver a little love.