Maintaining a healthy and nourished liver is one of the most important things you can do to support your body’s ability to detox. By eating an abundance of liver supportive foods, you can help your liver do its many jobs. Your liver is responsible for several hundred functions including:
- Metabolizing and detoxing your body of bilirubin, ammonia (a byproduct from the breakdown of proteins), medications, environmental toxins, and other exogenous and endogenous compounds
- Synthesizing non-essential amino acids, proteins, and cholesterol
- Breaking down sugar for energy in a process called glycolysis and storing glycogen
- Activating vitamin D
- Filtering the blood at a rate of about 2 quarts per minute!
Your liver is actively at work performing these functions through complex enzyme systems that are highly individual and require specific nutrients. Let’s dive into a broad overview of liver detoxification and what you can do to optimize it. In this post, you’ll learn about various foods that support Phase I and Phase II detox, as well as proper nutrition for both the methylation process and the production of glutathione.
Liver Detoxification: An Overview
Liver detoxification involves two main steps — Phase I and Phase II. During Phase I, your liver begins the process of breaking down compounds and preparing them for removal from the body. The reactions that take place during Phase I produce an intermediate molecule that has to be further altered before it can be eliminated (either via sweat, urine, BM, etc.). These intermediate molecules are often more reactive and toxic than the parent molecule, which is why proper support of Phase II detoxification is so important.
During Phase II, called the conjugation phase, a water-soluble molecule such as glutathione, glycine, or sulfate, is bound to the intermediate molecule from Phase I. This changes the once-toxic, reactive molecule into a non-toxic and water-soluble compound that your body can eliminate.
You’re going to hear a lot about glutathione in this post and for good reason. Glutathione is a critical nutrient for detoxification and one of the most powerful antioxidants. It is protective against toxicity and disease. Your body can produce glutathione endogenously through proper methylation. Methylation requires adequate intake of B vitamins, especially B6, folate and B12.
You can support Phase I and Phase II liver detox by choosing liver supportive foods. Certain foods can help protect the liver from damage by preventing accumulation of fat in liver tissues, upregulating the production of glutathione, stimulating the production of bile, and even thinning the bile for easier flow.
Nutrients and Foods That Support Liver Detox:
Cruciferous and allium vegetables:
Cruciferous vegetables provide strong support for both phases of detoxification, but especially Phase II. Sulfur is crucial to proper Phase II and cruciferous and allium vegetables are loaded with this mineral. Cruciferous vegetables, especially cauliflower, contain compounds called sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol. These compounds activate enzymes that are required for proper Phase II detox. Studies show that sulforaphane has the ability to detox especially harmful, cancer-causing compounds from the body and may even be effective at fighting cancer.
Many of these sulfur-containing vegetables also contain other vitamins and nutrients that are essential to proper detoxification including vitamin C, B vitamins, and manganese. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, are also rich sources of flavonoids, compounds needed for Phase 1 liver detox. Garlic, an allium vegetable, also contains selenium, an antioxidant mineral that can protect the body from mercury toxicity.
Studies also show that sulforaphane work synergistically with curcumin, found in turmeric. This means they work together to make each other even more effective at fighting inflammation.[3a] You know what’s extra tasty together? Roasted cauliflower with turmeric and spices! You can add turmeric to your cauliflower mash or cauliflower rice to take advantage of this synergistic, liver-loving, anti-inflammatory effect.
You know what else is a great source of sulfur? Animal protein!
There are many detox-promising cleanses on the market these days that ironically don’t include a lot of protein. Protein is highly important to the detoxification process. Your body needs adequate protein (and yes, this includes animal protein) because animal protein provides the building blocks necessary for the formation of proteins and amino acids, including glutathione and metallothionein, that support the liver’s ability to do a very important job — detox! These amino acids include cysteine, methionine, and taurine — all of which are supportive for phase I and/or phase II liver detoxification. Deficiencies in these sulfur amino acids are associated with decreased levels of glutathione.[3b]
Sulfur is crucial to the detoxification pathway, especially in metal chelation and overall detoxification support. Pasture-raised eggs and poultry, grass-fed meat, and high-quality seafood are all excellent sources of sulfur.
One more thing about animal protein and then we can move on. B-vitamins are essential to the methylation process, a process required to produce glutathione. If you don’t methylate properly, you won’t detox properly so you better be sure you’re getting adequate amounts of these vitamins. Cold water fish (such as cod, sardines and salmon), grass-fed beef and lamb are all excellent sources of B-vitamins.
If you’re interested in learning more about protein’s role in detoxification, there’s a great article on the Weston A. Price website.
These algae are highly regarded for both their nutritional value and their role as powerful detoxers. Chlorella is especially useful in Phase I liver detoxification. It binds with toxins and removes them, via the stool. It also contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein (and, as discussed, we know protein is important for liver support and detoxification!). This is a great protein option for the vegetarians out there, but omnivores should eat it too!
Chlorella can help speed detoxification through its abundant supply of chlorophyll. It also exerts a protective effect on the liver and can improve immune function. Studies show it can even protect from toxic metals, such as cadmium and lead.[4, 5]
So how to get more of this super algae in your diet? Well, there are a few options. First, like all foods and supplements, pay attention to the quality of the product. Make sure it’s sourced from reputable companies. Second, chlorella has an extremely hard cell wall that is difficult to break down and, therefore, making it difficult for our bodies to access all of those great nutrients. You can, however, find broken-cell wall chlorella that’s easier to digest.
Here are a few options I like (and use!):
- Organic Broken-Cell Wall Chlorella by Mercola
- Organifi – Green Juice Super Food Supplement
- RECOVERYbits® by energybits (They use a sound vibration chamber to crack chlorella’s cell wall. This process uses no heat or chemicals.)
This bitter herb contains the liver-protective bioflavonoid, silymarin, that can stabilize cell membranes and help repair liver cells. Studies show that silymarin also helps strengthen liver cell walls and also promotes their growth.[7, 8 ] Milk thistle can also increase your body’s production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps the liver detoxify fat before the release of bile (this takes stress off the gallbladder). Mountain Rose Herbs has a great Milk Thistle Extract and other milk thistle supplements.
While this rampant weed may be an annoyance in the garden, it’s a huge help in the kitchen and medicine cabinet. Dandelion root is a natural diuretic and can help speed the elimination of toxins from the body. It also increases bile production and can stimulate a sluggish liver. I am a huge fan of dandelion tea and try to drink a cup every day.
Other beneficial herbs:
Burdock root stimulates bile flow, helps a weakened or sluggish liver and can restore damaged cells. Gentian also supports liver function and stimulates the production of bile.
Bitters, found in citrus peel and bitter greens, strengthen the functions of digestive organs. Bitter tastes prompt bile production and healthy bile flow helps rid the liver of waste products.
This high-antioxidant vegetable provides important nutrients for liver health and proper detoxification. A study on beet consumption and liver protection showed that consuming beets increased the enzymatic antioxidants (glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase), two anti-inflammatory compounds important to liver health and detox function.
Beets are a good source of betaine, a molecule that encourages liver cells to eliminate toxins and protects both liver cells and bile ducts. It also plays an important role in methylation. Studies show betaine is very effective at lowering homocysteine levels (high levels of homocysteine can lead to inflammation and atherosclerosis).[11, 12] Betaine is also produced endogenously, in the liver, from dietary choline (found in eggs, liver, shrimp and poultry).
Two other powerful substances found in beets are betalains and pectin. Betalains are anti-oxidants that support liver detox. They are also responsible for turning urine a reddish tint after eating beets. (It looks a little scary, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s harmless.) Pectin is a type of fiber that helps clear toxins from the body that have been removed from the liver. This helps prevent these toxins from being reabsorbed by the body. This is why it’s important to eat beets in their whole form, and not simply rely on beet juice. When you juice beets, you remove this beneficial fiber.
To Sum Things Up:
- Your liver is responsible for hundreds of bodily functions, including detoxification.
- There are two main phases of liver detoxification, Phase I and Phase II. Both phases need proper nutrient support.
- Your body needs to methylate properly to have proper detoxification and to produce glutathione. B-vitamins are important nutrients for methylation, especially B6, B12 and folate.
- Eat more of the following liver supportive foods for a happy, healthy liver:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, kale, cabbage
- Allium vegetables: Garlic, onions and leeks
- Protein, especially animal proteins: Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised lamb, poultry and cold-water fish
- Chlorella: Look for high-quality, broken-cell wall chlorella
- Bitter herbs: Milk thistle, dandelion root, burdock, gentian and bitters
- Beets. Lots of beets.
Anything you think should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
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