By Christal Blanchard, ND
Your liver is an incredible machine. It participates in nearly 500 activities in the body, the most important one being the metabolizing and elimination of toxins. The big question, however, is can it handle our modern day lifestyle which is bombarded with over 80,000 chemicals since the industrial revolution? We find these toxins everywhere, from:
- our food (i.e. pesticides in produce, GMO, high fructose corn syrup, mercury and other heavy metals in fish, antibiotic hormone-injected meats, etc..)
- chemicals in our personal care products
- air and water pollution
- prescription medications and vaccines
- phtalates and BPA in plastics
- overuse of stimulants like coffee, cigarettes, alcohol
- synthetic clothing (i.e. polyester, rayon, nylon, etc…)
Worried? Don’t be. The liver was designed specifically to protect us from stressors on the physical body. So if you take care of it, you shouldn’t have any problems. The liver, however, does have a threshold where its ability to perform all of its responsibilities becomes compromised.
And when those responsibilities include detoxifying the blood of impurities, metabolizing endogenous and exogenous hormones, participating in blood sugar regulation, producing proteins that help the blood to clot, managing cholesterol molecules, it shouldn’t come as a surprise how important our liver function is to our survival. This threshold is reached when the level of exposure to toxins is higher than the level of elimination.
Other organs in the body, like the intestines and bowels, kidneys, lymphatic system, sweat glands and bladder, also act as routes of elimination and can even do double duty when the liver is overloaded. In fact, when one route of elimination is compromised, another will compensate, which is where you will often find symptoms.
Here are some clues that may indicate that the liver has reached its threshold and has recruited other systems:
Skin and odor issues: anything from acne and eczema to itchiness and puffy dark circles around the eyes. If the liver is overworked, it will move toxins toward the skin. Less than one good bowel movement per day will worsen this situation since this means that one more route of elimination is compromised. There may be bad breath, the body and/or urine may have a strong odor and you may find yourself sweating more than usual.
Digestive and cholesterol issues (poor digestion of fat): the liver makes bile acid and stores it in the gallbladder. It is released in the intestines to metabolize fat and then eliminated through our bowels. You may notice bloating, gas, heartburn when eating fats and food cravings especially to carbs and sugar.
Bowel and urination issues: high exposure to toxins means frequent elimination. You may notice foul smelling, loose and/or sticky stools, diarrhea, and strong smelling, dark colored urine as the body is trying to eliminate as much as it can.
Sleep issues: Chinese Medicine belief suspects an overactive liver if one consistently wakes up between the hours of 1 and 3 a.m.
Sensitivity to chemicals: you may sneeze when someone wears too much perfume, break out in a rash from laundry detergent, and can only tolerate the lowest recommended dose of prescription medication.
Fatigue: detoxing requires a lot of energy therefore you may feel sluggish, low in energy, have difficulty concentrating and have occasional headaches and sinus congestion.
Difficulty losing weight: toxins are mostly fat soluble, therefore excess circulating toxins that the overworked liver can’t get to predominantly store in fat. Weight loss breaks down fat cells and these toxins are re-released into the blood stream where the liver is burdened with them once again.
So why would the body want to expose you to these very toxins that it was trying to eliminate in the first place? In order to achieve effective weight loss we must minimize our exposure to toxins and ensure that all routes of elimination are optimally working.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: This was once a disease diagnosed from alcohol abuse and it is now prevalent in 30 to 40 per cent of obese youth eating a high carb/high sugar diet.
Muscle and joint pain: Circulating toxins that the liver can’t get to can be deposited in fat, but also in any other number of places. They can even be found in cysts and lymphnodes and may even present as cellulite.
Mental health issues: toxins can deposit in the fatty tissues of the brain creating neurotoxins that exacerbate cognitive conditions like ADD/ADHD, autism, parkinsons, alzheimers, MS, etc.
Please note that the symptoms presented here are simply a guide and do not rule out other health conditions that may have overlapping symptoms. A liver function test and ultrasound are more specific to determine liver health. On average, one in three people unknowingly have abnormal liver function tests.
Negative results, however, do not rule out liver dysfunction and may just mean that it is not serious enough yet to be detected by laboratory and imaging methods. We shouldn’t wait until it is ‘detectable’ before implementing preventative strategies.
So how do we minimize our exposure and help our liver handle excess toxins?
Make a list of all the places/products in your life that expose you to toxins. It would be impossible to avoid them all, but it will get you started in avoiding those that you can control. Your bathroom is a great place to start. Look for natural substitutes to replace cosmetics and cleaning supplies. Shop organic as much as you can. Download the ‘Dirty Dozen APP’ on your smart phone, which prioritizes which produce items are most important to eat organic.
Eat local and look for meats that are hormone and antibiotic free. Eliminate refined and processed foods. Quit bad habits like smoking, drinking, alcohol and drugs. Wear clothing that is 100 per cent natural like cotton, wool, hemp as much as possible since synthetic fabrics are like wearing a garbage bag, preventing us from eliminating toxins from our skin.
In addition, increase your vegetable intake to increase dietary fibre and other important vitamins and minerals that assist the colon in binding and eliminating toxins.
A green smoothie goes a long way and it doesn’t have to be complicated. In a blender or juicer, throw in some organic dandelion, parsley, half a peeled lemon, ginger, beets and
sweeten it up with carrots, pineapples and/or apples.
There are many liver smoothie recipes online so have fun experimenting until you find a few that you like. You can always opt for a green veggie powder that mixes in water on days where time is a factor. Drinking a glass of warm lemon water in the morning can also stimulate liver function. Most importantly, make sure you are drinking plenty of water to flush out the toxins.
There are many ‘liver detox’ supplements on the market. These are most definitely necessary and I often recommend them. However I do not suggest attempting these without the guidance of a healthcare professional. As I mentioned, we need to ensure that all routes of elimination are fully functional otherwise you will re-expose your body to all the stored toxins, which can make you feel worse.
In addition, a supplement protocol is individualized and will have varying results from person to person.
No matter how young or old, creating an individualized liver protection protocol is necessary. It is not possible to live 100 per cent clean, nor would I even suggest you try. The liver can in fact handle processing and eliminating its fair share of toxins. Just remember, the liver can only handle so much and that threshold varies from person to person. So take care of your liver to live long, live happy and live healthy.
Christal Blanchard is a Naturopathic Doctor in Sudbury and Toronto. She has a special focus in women’s health, digestive disorders and pain management.