These days, everyone’s talking about the liver. Phrases like “10-day detox” and “liver cleanse” get thrown around frequently. The liver is an extremely important organ, but how do you cleanse your liver naturally—and why?
To learn more, we turned to Dr. Shera Raisen, M.D.—a board-certified family practice physician at Parsley Health Los Angeles —to get all our liver detox questions, answered.
According to Dr. Raisen, “When you take in substances—this can be anything from foods and medications to chemicals that you breathe in through your lungs—your body has to process them.” It does this in a few ways, including through perspiration (sweating), respiration (breathing), and of course, digestion and elimination (aka, getting rid of them through your urine and feces).
Your liver is actually part of the digestive system and does a lot of the heavy lifting to metabolize and eliminate compounds your body doesn’t use (or can’t use, in the case of toxins.) “Without getting too technical, the liver has all sorts of enzymes that help break down the things you’ve ingested into bite-sized pieces so the body can use them or get rid of them,” says Dr. Raisen. This is a crucial job. “The liver is really important,” she emphasizes.
If this liver is supposed to head up the cleansing process, then why do we need to cleanse it?
According to Dr. Raisen, “The liver is like a factory and a factory can only take in so much material at one time,” she says. The liver can easily get overloaded by too much alcohol, too many processed foods, too many medications (Tylenol is a very common one that puts stressor the liver, she says), and the many chemicals and toxins that, unfortunately, we’re exposed to every day in 2019.
Everyone could benefit from giving their liver a little extra TLC, but according to Dr. Raisen there are certain factors that increase the risk that your liver will get overloaded. A big one is the methylation gene (also known as MTHFR ), another buzz word you hear frequently in the context of liver detox. As Raisen explains, “A lot of people have the MTHFR gene defect and when you do, it makes it harder to detox.” Essentially, it impairs the enzyme that converts B vitamins into methyl-folate, which is a crucial step in the detoxification process in the liver. If you have this mutation, it’s particularly important to support your body’s natural elimination pathways. But even if you don’t have the MTHFR mutation, there are plenty of factors—like using plastic food storage containers or drinking too much alcohol— in modern life that put our livers at risk.
So what, exactly, does it feel like when your liver is overloaded? “You might feel a combination of fatigue , brain fog , bloating , and stomach aches,” says Dr. Raisen. Typically, if she suspects a patient may have a liver issue, she will confirm this with blood tests that look at liver function and damage.
But feeling less-than-optimal isn’t where the risk of an overextended liver ends, either. Studies have found that the accumulation of toxins may plan a significant role in diabetes , obesity , and reproductive disorders —among many others.
Clearly, an overloaded liver is not something you should ignore.
If you read the above paragraph and suspect your liver needs some support, don’t worry. There are plenty of foods, supplements , and lifestyle practices that can support your liver’s function.
Here’s where to start:
“Water would be first,” says Dr. Raisen. “Start drinking up to 2 to 3 liters of purified water per day,” she says. Water will help your kidneys flush toxins out of the body and keep your bowel movements regular, so toxins and chemicals can exit your body efficiently.
If the MTHFR mutation is a factor, Dr. Raisen will suggest a supplement containing the methylated form of the B vitamins. “The liver enzymes are slowed down with the MTHFR mutation; B vitamins fill in the gaps,” she explains.
Next, take stock of all the factors that might be overloading your liver in the first place. This includes recreational and prescription drugs, dairy , grains, soy, caffeine, alcohol, and chemicals in your food, water, and beauty products. You might even want to pull back on or eliminate certain supplements. “Vitamins D , E, and K are fat-soluble and if you take too much, they can build up in the liver,” explains Dr. Raisen. You don’t need to eliminate all these factors, but pulling back on some—or making healthy swaps like opting for green beauty products where you can—will take some of the burden off your liver. Even just a few changes can make the difference in terms of your symptoms.
Once you’ve gotten rid of the bad, add in the good. Dr. Raisen suggests going on a “cleansing diet that gives the liver a break.” Research also supports the idea that foods can help you detox. According to an article published in 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, there’s evidence that certain “components and nutrients can modulate processes of conversion and eventual excretion of toxins from the body.” As the authors explain, certain foods—and even specific compounds found within them—can regulate metabolic pathways in the liver to assist with the elimination of toxins.
According to Dr. Raisen, a few examples of these foods are artichoke, watercress, and green leafy veggies. Studies have shown that artichoke, in particular, has medicinal qualities for the liver. In fact, the authors of a 2015 study wrote that: “In animal studies, liquid extracts of the roots and leaves of artichoke have demonstrated an ability to protect the liver, with possibly even to help liver cells regenerate.” According to other studies, garlic , ginger , and berries also make the list of liver-cleansing foods.
Finally, there are liver-supporting herbs like milk thistle, which has demonstrated liver-supporting properties and is even being researched as a treatment for serious liver diseases. In addition to milk thistle, Dr. Raisen often suggests glutathione, which “acts as an antioxidant, a free radical scavenger, and a detoxifying agent,” according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. In fact, glutathione is known as the “master antioxidant” because it supports other antioxidants in the body as well.
While you’re going through the process of cleansing your liver, it’s possible you may deal with some symptoms as your body gets rid of built-up toxins. Some people, but not all, may experience side effects such as:
As with other lifestyle changes, it’s better to make lasting lifestyle changes than lean on drastic or extremely restrictive diets and cleanses. As Dr. Raisen explains: “It’s a bad idea to live an unhealthy lifestyle all year and then do an extreme liver cleanse at the end of it.” If you know your liver needs a lot of support, start slow and cleanse over a period of 40 days or so. “If you try to overhaul your lifestyle in 10 days, you might feel really sick,” says Dr. Raisen. She also advises against purchasing “liver cleanses” online, which are ineffective at best and could potentially be unsafe.
And if you already maintain a liver-friendly lifestyle most of the time, turning these doctor-recommended tips into a 10-day liver cleanse once or twice a year is a great way to show your liver a little extra love.
Gretchen Lidicker is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She's been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.