The liver has several functions and plays a big part in keeping us healthy. It is also the only organ that is able to regenerate; which perhaps leads some people to take it for granted.
Our bodies come into contact with toxins on a daily basis, such as in the food and drink we consume, and the liver helps to expel these toxins from the body.
‘Liver cleanse’ or ‘liver detox diets’ have become a popular trend in recent years. Many of these diets may promise to help the liver heal faster, or help it to perform better.
But is it really possible to improve how well the liver works by going on a ‘detox’ or ‘liver cleanse’ diet?
We spoke to Vanessa Hebditch, Head of Communications and Policy at The British Liver Trust, to find out more.
Do we need to ‘cleanse’ our livers?
In short, no.
The liver is perfectly equipped to remove toxins from the body without the need for a ‘cleanse’, as Vanessa explains:
‘One of the liver’s jobs is to act as the body's ‘waste-purification plant’ – the liver neutralises and destroys dangerous drugs and poisons (or toxins). However, the idea of ‘liver cleansing’ or a ‘liver detox’ is misleading as usually any damage is carried out over a long period of time.’
Sections of the health and nutrition industry are growing at a rapid rate, in part due to their presence on social media platforms such as Instagram.
A brief search on Instagram shows that there are over 18,000 posts tagged with the term #livercleanse.
We’ve previously written about the claims made by detox diets, which can have a wide appeal due to persuasive marketing techniques.
However, the information being shared does not necessarily have to adhere to any regulations or go through any sort of academic verification. This means that unproven theories can become easily confused with scientifically proven facts, and still gain lots of attention.
‘The liver is an extraordinary organ,’ Vanessa says, ‘it is our second largest organ after skin. The liver is the body’s factory and it has over 500 functions. These include breaking down fats and making them easier to digest, combating infections, making enzymes and proteins, manufacturing bile and breaking down food and turning it into energy.’
Choosing to abstain from alcohol and making good food choices can provide numerous health benefits, but diets associated with the ‘liver cleanse’ trend have not been proven to improve liver function.
As Vanessa goes on to explain:
‘Special faddy diets or supplements are not supported by scientific studies. In addition, many complementary and alternative medicines that are sometimes suggested are processed by the liver, so can actually be toxic to people with liver problems. The liver is remarkable because as long as it does not get too damaged it can regenerate.’
This means that you should not need to follow a fad diet in order to keep your liver healthy.
Vanessa suggests the following to keep your liver functioning as it should:
- ‘A healthy well balanced diet (that is low in fat, sugar, salt and processed foods, high in fibre and includes some protein and a wide range of vitamins and minerals) will help to support your liver to function.
- Eating too much and becoming overweight is one of the main causes of non-alcohol related fatty liver disease and so it’s important to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly.
- Drink plenty of water as well.
- Too much alcohol harms the liver. Try to keep under the Government’s recommended level of 14 units a week. That’s the equivalent of 4 large glasses of wine or 4 and half pints of beer.
- The British Liver Trust also recommends that you have 2-3 alcohol free days every week.'
Furthermore, you should always consult your doctor or a qualified nutritionist before making any significant changes to your diet.
As we’ve already mentioned, the liver is adept at regenerating itself, although it does have its limits. Too much damage over long periods can lead to liver disease.
As Vanessa explains: ‘it depends on what has caused the damage and how much damage has been done. The important thing is to get diagnosed as early as possible and establish the cause. Liver disease is a silent killer and there are often no symptoms in the early stages, as it develops over time.’
Fibrosis and cirrhosis are liver conditions that can affect the organ’s ability to regenerate. They can have several possible causes, as Vanessa elaborates:
- ‘Inflammation of the liver is known as hepatitis, whatever its cause. Sudden inflammation of the liver is known as acute hepatitis. Where inflammation of the liver lasts longer than six months, the condition is known as chronic hepatitis.’
- ‘Fibrosis is where scar tissue is formed in the inflamed liver. Fibrosis can take a variable time to develop – depending on the cause. Although scar tissue is present the liver keeps on functioning quite well. Treating the cause of the inflammation may prevent further liver damage and may stop or reverse some or all of the scarring.’ This level of liver damage may not cause obvious symptoms and its presence may only become known through an incidental finding.
- ‘Cirrhosis is when inflammation and fibrosis has spread throughout the liver and disrupts the shape and function of the liver. Even at this stage, people can have no signs or symptoms of liver disease. When the working capacity of liver cells has been badly impaired and they are unable to repair or renew the liver, permanent damage occurs.’
Treatment will not cure liver cirrhosis but it can prevent or delay the decline of the organ. In some cases surgery may be required to prevent further complications.
Vanessa continues: ‘Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. The chemicals and waste products that the liver deals with begin to build up in the body. The liver is now so damaged that the whole body becomes poisoned by the waste products, this is known as end stage liver disease. In the final stages of liver disease the building up of waste products may cause multiple organ failure and lead to death.’
Keeping your liver healthy
You can look after your liver without needing to introduce any radical lifestyle changes or unusual diet choices.
The British Liver Trust breaks this down into three straightforward principles:
Don’t drink too much alcohol
‘Too much alcohol can cause serious and lasting damage to your liver.’ Vanessa explains.
‘Therefore you should aim to:
- Drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week.
- Take three days off alcohol every week to give your liver a chance to repair itself.
- Avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.’
Alcohol consumption is one of the biggest risk factors when it comes to liver health.
According to Alcohol Concern 63 percent of alcohol-related deaths in 2014 were caused by alcoholic liver disease.
So, whilst it is not necessary to take part in a ‘liver cleanse’, reducing your alcohol intake or abstaining from alcohol can have a positive effect on your liver health.
Reduce your risk of developing a fatty liver
As Vanessa explains: ‘Your liver processes most of the nutrients and fats from the food you eat. If you are overweight you increase your risk of non-alcohol related fatty liver disease, which over time can cause lasting liver damage.’
Your diet and the amount of physical activity you do can impact your liver health. It is important to maintain a healthy weight, as Vanessa tells us:
- ‘Eat a healthy balanced diet and drinking plenty of water.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, reduce portion sizes and cut down on your fat and sugar intake. Swap snacks for healthier alternatives like mixed nuts or fruit.
- Take regular exercise – aim for a total of 30 minutes a day if you can. Find an exercise that you enjoy, as this will help you to keep motivated (e.g. walking, cycling, swimming, dancing).’
You should aim to make changes that you can maintain on a long term basis rather than taking part in fad diets that might make you lose weight over a shorter period of time.
Reduce your risk of contracting viral hepatitis
‘Hepatitis A and E are spread by faecal-oral transmission (usually through contaminated food or water).’ Vanessa explains. ‘Blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B and C can cause permanent liver damage and increase the risk of liver cancer.’
The Treated.com team has recently written about the fight against hepatitis C in the UK and the drive for elimination, but there’s still quite a way to go for this to become a reality.
There are treatments available for the different types of hepatitis. They can help to prevent or slow down the damage to the liver. But it isn’t always possible to ‘cure’ hepatitis C, and it can become chronic in a minority of cases. So really, prevention measures are the best protection against hepatitis.
To reduce your chances of coming into contact with bacterial or viral hepatitis, Vanessa advises:
- ‘Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B when traveling abroad to high risk areas (there is no vaccine for hepatitis C or E).
- Never share personal items like toothbrushes, razors, nail scissors or tweezers.
- Practise safe sex.
- Only use licensed tattoo and piercing parlours and make sure all equipment is sterilised.’
Furthermore, because hepatitis C can be transmitted through the use of shared needles or syringes, people who use injectable drugs are among the most at risk of contracting the virus.
Not sharing needles (and seeking support from your doctor or local NHS services if you are using drugs) can therefore help to reduce the risk of hepatitis C.
As Vanessa explains:
‘If you feel you have been at risk of contracting viral hepatitis at any time then visit your GP and get tested. If you had a blood transfusion before 1991 for any reason then the blood may not have been screened for viral hepatitis – visit your GP for a blood test.’ Vanessa adds.
The British Liver Trust has created an online screen for hepatitis risk. You can access the screening questions via their site. However, should you have any concerns about your hepatitis status, visit your doctor.