Natural Ways to Help Treat Liver Disease
Did you know that your liver is actually your largest internal organ (it’s roughly the size of a football!) and responsible for crucial functions like digesting your food, storing energy, plus removing toxins from your body? Many ancient populations, including the Chinese, considered the liver to be the most important organ — hence the word “live” in its name.
One of the hardest-working organs in the body, the liver works tirelessly to detoxify our blood, to produce the bile needed to digest fat, to break down hormones, and to store essential vitamins and minerals, like iron. If you haven’t been eating a vegetable-based diet, regularly getting exercise, and making sure to limit your alcohol and toxin exposure — like most people — you might be in need for a liver cleanse.
It’s the liver’s responsibility to process nutrients absorbed by the intestines so they’re more efficiently absorbed. The liver also regulates blood composition to balance protein, fat and sugar. Finally, it removes toxins from the blood, and breaks down both alcohol and medications.
If the fat in your liver makes up 5–10 percent of the organ’s weight, then you are diagnosed with fatty liver disease. There are two main types of fatty liver disease, alcoholic liver disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is another rare condition that happens when fat builds up in the liver of a pregnant woman.
For people with fatty liver disease, the handling of fat by liver cells is disturbed. Increased amounts of fat are removed from the blood and produced by liver cells, and not enough is disposed of or exported by the cells. As a result of this, fat accumulates in the liver. There is an imbalance between the uptake of fat and its oxidation and export. (1)
Today, we’re faced with so many environmental toxins occurring in our homes, places of work and in our food supply, so it’s essential for our general health and well-being to keep our livers functioning properly.
Types of Fatty Liver Disease
Liver disease is a serious problem that affects millions of people in the Unites States each year alone. One out of every 10 Americans is affected by liver disease, making it one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States yearly. (2)
There are more than 100 types of different kinds of liver diseases including fatty liver syndrome, jaundice, genetic disorders, and various viruses like hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Liver disease can be caused by a range of factors — many are lifestyle related — including a poor diet, drinking too much alcohol, drug use, obesity, infections and environmental pollutants.
Alcoholic liver disease is the result of drinking alcohol excessively. This condition is in direct correlation to the amount of alcohol you drink; your blood is not able to break down the alcohol properly, and it affects your liver. This can also be a hereditary condition because genes that are passed down from your parents may increase your chances of becoming an alcoholic.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is considered the most common liver disorder in the Western world. (3) It’s recognized as one of the most common forms of chronic liver disease and is among the most common forms of chronic liver disease across the globe. NAFLD is most likely to happen in people who are overweight and middle-aged, but recently, due to an increase in childhood obesity, there are more and more cases of children with NAFLD as a result of the standard American diet. People with NAFLD often have high cholesterol and diabetes as well. Typically, this condition is linked to malnutrition, medications, inherited liver disease, fast weight loss and too much bacteria in the small intestine.
There are three types of NAFLD:
Nonalcoholic fatty liver is when fat builds up in the liver, but it won’t necessarily hurt you. This means that it’s causing excess liver fat, but there are no complications, which is common. According to a study conducted at the University of Sydney at Westmead Hospital in Australia, NAFLD is present in 17 percent to 33 percent of Americans. (4) This growing percentage parallels the frequency of obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.
Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis happens to a small number of people with fatty liver. The fat causes inflammation in the liver, and this can impair the liver’s ability to function. This can also lead to cirrhosis, or the scarring of the liver.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease-associated cirrhosis is when liver inflammation leads to the scarring of the liver tissue, making the liver heavier than any other solid organ in the body. This scarring can become so severe that the liver no longer functions, leading to liver failure.
Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is a serious condition where fat builds in the liver; it can be dangerous to the baby and mother, especially if it leads to liver or kidney failure. This condition can also be caused by a serious infection or excessive bleeding. When a mother is diagnosed with fatty liver disease during pregnancy, the baby is typically delivered right away, and within a few weeks the mother’s liver will return to normal (sometime this requires time in intensive care).
Liver Disease Symptoms
There are often no symptoms of fatty liver disease, so you may live with the condition and not realize it. Over time — sometimes it can take years or even decades — some signs and symptoms may begin to surface. These symptoms include:
- feeling tired
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- trouble concentrating
- pain in the center or right upper part of belly
- enlarged liver
- bloating and gas
- dark urine
- bruising easily
- excessive sweat
- pale or dark tar-colored stool
- dry and dark patches on neck and under arms
- swelling in the legs and ankles
Sometimes, fatty liver disease leads to cirrhosis. (5) This is the most dangerous and life-threatening type of fatty liver disease. Over time, healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, which prevents the liver from functioning properly. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs and naturally produced toxins, as well as the production of proteins and other substances made by the liver. Symptoms of cirrhosis include:
- the buildup of fluid in the body
- muscle weakness
- internal bleeding
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- liver failure
Commonly, fatty liver disease isn’t noticed until a checkup with your doctor. There are medical tests and devices that can be used to detect the formation of NAFLD. (6) A doctor may notice that a patient’s liver is larger than usual. The disease can also be detected with a blood test; a high number of certain enzymes will suggest that you have fatty liver disease. An ultrasound can be used to get a closer look at your liver, and a biopsy would be able to diagnose NAFLD. Your doctor would take out a tiny piece of liver with a needle and test it for inflammation, signs of fat, or damaged liver cells.
If you think you are at risk of getting NAFLD or you notice some of these symptoms, ask your doctor for these tests.
Root Causes & Risk Factors of Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease occurs when the liver has trouble breaking down fats, causing fat to build up in the liver tissue. Some root causes of this disease include:
There are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of having NAFLD; they include:
- Gastric bypass surgery
- High cholesterol
- High levels of triglycerides in the blood
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)
According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, obesity is associated with an increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. (7) A major feature of NAFLD, called steatosis, occurs when the rate of hepatic fatty acid uptake from plasma and fatty acid synthesis is greater than the rate of fatty acid oxidation and export. This metabolic imbalance is a significant factor responsible for the formation of NAFLD.
A 2006 review published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology states that NAFLD is extremely common among patients undergoing bariatric surgery, ranging from 84 percent to 96 percent. (8) The review also noted that the disease seems to be most common among men, and it increases with older age and after menopause in women.
Foods that Make Fatty Liver Disease Worse
Most people associate liver disease with alcoholism, but essentially anything that can’t be broken down and used for energy immediately ends up in the liver for detoxification. This means that your liver needs all the help it can get. But when you overindulge in alcohol, chemicals, drugs, fried foods, processed or refined foods (white flour, conventional dairy, white sugar, and low quality animal products, for example), your liver gets heavily taxed.
Drinking high amounts of alcohol is one of the fastest ways to damage or destroy liver cells — and alcohol combined with prescription or over-the-counter medications, cigarettes, or a poor diet is even more harmful. If you have fatty liver disease, and you are a heavy drinker, quitting is the most important thing to do first. According to a review conducted at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York, fatty liver disease is common among alcoholics not only due to malnutrition, but also because of toxicity and inflammation. Even if you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, it’s best to eliminate alcohol from your diet. (9)
Foods such as bread, rice, grits and corn should be avoided. All white bread and carbs should be eliminated or reduced from your diet, and some whole grain products aren’t great either. When we consume too many refined carbohydrates, insulin levels spike, and insulin sensitivity is a major factor in the cause of liver disease. (10) Read the label on whole grain packages, and avoid buying anything that is labeled “enriched.”
If you want to have some bread here and there, buy fresh bread that is made in the bakery or health food store — you can also try breads from gluten-free flours or these sandwich substitutes. If you are going for rice, choose brown rice.
Sports drinks, soda, energy drinks and juice are full of sugar and artificial sweeteners. This sugar that enters your body causes fatty liver disease. The average 12-ounce can of soda, for example, has 10 teaspoons of sugar! Your body isn’t able to break down the amount of sugar that most Americans consume every day. And it’s impacting the liver, big time.
According to a study conducted at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, sugars, particularly fructose, are suspected to contribute to the development of NAFLD and its progression. (11) There have been substantial links between increased fructose consumption and obesity, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance.
Hydrogenated oils, refined sugar, convenience foods and lunch meats are notoriously toxic to your system. Nitrates and nitrites, for example, are commonly found in processed foods and lunch meat, and they have been linked to serious conditions, including cancer. The high fructose corn syrupfound in our processed foods is the single biggest cause of fatty liver. You must stay away from these products in order to heal liver disease.
Foods that Improve Fatty Liver Disease
What are some simple ways to prevent liver disease from forming and to take care of an overworked liver?
First and foremost, eating a healthy diet is key. Your liver is considered one of the hardest-working organs. Most of this is due to the enormous energy it takes to digest foods daily, especially when you’re eating a toxin-heavy, low-nutrient diet. Exercising regularly and reducing toxin exposure by limiting the amount of alcohol, medications, pesticides, herbicides and hormone-disruptors you consume also helps the liver to work well.
The Importance of Organic Foods
By now you know that your liver pays the price for a diet that’s high in chemicals, pesticides and other toxins. For this reason, choosing to buy as many organic foods as you can is important for preventing liver problems and, potentially, liver disease. Just by focusing on buying organic varieties of the toxin-heavy “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables,” you can dramatically lower your intake of toxins.
To make it easier to figure out how to buy organic in a smart way, each year the Environmental Working Group puts out the “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™”− a helpful list of the types of produce that are most contaminated with toxins, and those that are the least contaminated.
The best thing you can do to treat fatty liver disease is maintain a healthy diet. Many people with fatty liver disease are overweight and malnourished. A healthy diet that provides the vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to function is very important. The number one treatment of fatty liver disease is weight loss and a healthy diet. (12) It’s essential that you eat a well-balanced diet that is predominately plant-based; plus, you should exercise regularly — shoot for doing physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, even if it’s taking a walk.
A review published in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry states that natural products that are found in vegetables, as well as fruits, plant extracts and herbs, have been traditionally used for treating liver diseases. (13) It’s so important to add vegetables to your everyday diet.
An easy way to do this is by juicing vegetables. With impaired liver function, juicing vegetables has the added benefit of making the vegetables easier to digest and more readily available for absorption. Vegetables ideal for a liver detox include kale, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, beets and celery. You can try something like beetroot juice to start.
As often as you can, include these liver-loving veggies in your meals and juices:
- leafy greens like kale, spinach, dandelion, watercress
- Brussels sprouts or cabbage
- herbs including parsley, mint, cilantro, basil
High-fiber foods help support a healthy digestive tract, hastening the elimination of toxins in the body. For example, ginger root benefits the digestive system. Make ginger tea by boiling ginger slices in green tea or water. You can also add ginger to a stir-fry, salad or smoothie.
Because of their potassium content, sweet potatoes are beneficial and they help cleanse the liver. One sweet potato contains nearly 700 milligrams of potassium! It’s also rich with vitamins B6, C, D, magnesium and iron. Sweet potatoes are easy to eat because they’re naturally sweet. The sugars are slowly released into the bloodstream through the liver, so it won’t cause a spike in blood sugar. There are a ton of healthy sweet potato recipes that you can try at home today.
Containing 470 milligrams of potassium, banana nutrition is also great for cleansing the liver and overcoming low potassium levels; plus, bananas assist in digestion and help release toxins and heavy metals from the body.
The vitamins and nutrients present in dandelions help cleanse our livers and keep them working properly. Dandelions also aid our digestive system by maintaining the proper flow of bile. They’re natural diuretics and allow the liver to eliminate toxins quickly. Dandelion tea and stems are also high in vitamin C, which helps with mineral absorption, reduces inflammation and prevents the development of disease.
As a liver support and aid, milk thistle is a powerful detoxifier. It helps rebuild liver cells while removing toxins from the body that are processed through the liver. According to a study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, milk thistle has the power to improve mortality in patients with liver failure. (14) It’s able to naturally reverse the harmful effects of alcohol consumption; pesticides in our food supply; heavy metals in our water supply; pollution in the air that we breathe; and even poisons.
Liver from young, healthy, grass-fed cattle and chicken liver pate is full of nutrients and vitamins. It’s rich with vitamins A and B, folic acid, choline, iron, copper, zinc, chromium, and CoQ10. In fact, it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can eat. If you’d rather not eat animal liver, take liver supplements that guarantee no hormones, pesticides or antibiotics were used in the feeding and care of the cattle.
Best Supplements & Natural Remedies for Liver Disease
Research done at the University of Florida suggests that lifestyle changes, along with vitamin E supplements, are helpful for people with liver damage caused by nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. (16) Vitamin E benefits include its role as a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation. It also increases immunity and helps the body fight serious conditions.
By adding beneficial turmeric to your diet or taking a supplement every day, you reduce inflammation in the body and treat digestive conditions. If using a supplement, take 450 milligrams of curcumin capsules each day.
Black Seed Oil
This amazing oil can greatly speed the healing process for people with fatty liver disease. A study published in the European Review for Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences measured black seed oil’s ability to inhibit liver oxidative stress markers. (17) The results of the study indicated that black seed oil benefits liver disease patients because it’s able to reduce the complications and progression of fatty liver disease.
Only Take Medications When Necessary
The liver is responsible for sorting through chemicals in your blood stream including those you intentionally ingest from prescription medicines. Many medications are over-prescribed today, or taken incorrectly and mixed with the wrong things. If you do take medications regularly, learn about how they can affect your liver, carefully follow dosing instructions and talk to your doctor to find out if there are any natural remedies that you could turn to instead.
Limit Your Toxin Exposure
We all come into contact daily with various forms of toxins through the air we breath, foods we eat and products we use. Do your best to avoid breathing in or touching toxins, especially by limiting the amount of chemical household, cleaning and beauty products you use. Chemicals found in aerosol products, insecticides, synthetic beauty products, and additives in cigarettes all injure liver cells. Use natural cleaning and household products whenever possible.
This article is from DrAxe and written by Dr. Josh Axe.