Feeling tired, bloated, and headachy after the holidays? It's no wonder. Excessive eating and drinking during the gotta-party season can leave your body begging for a detoxifying overhaul. Although some experts recommend periodic, intensive cleansing programs, a daily liver-friendly lifestyle is much more effective than trying to play catch-up a few times a year.
"The liver does much of the biochemical detoxification for our body and is actually quite forgiving," says Elson Haas, MD, author of The New Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 2004). "But it can only handle so much, and it gets stressed by the wrong foods, chemicals, and excessive fats." Simple, daily, nutrition-based decisions can help your liver rebuild its natural strength and help you develop healthy habits to last a lifetime.
Taming the toxins
Toxins, substances that damage the structure or function of body cells and tissues, exist in the foods we eat, the liquids we drink, the air we breathe. Some come from external sources, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, pesticides, heavy metals, processed foods, preservatives, additives, and airborne allergens. Others are created internally, such as free radicals and metabolic waste.
When healthy, your body works like a well-organized sanitation system to clean out accumulated toxins. The liver acts as the body's dump truck, filtering blood of impurities and producing bile, which carries pollutants out of the body. This hardworking organ also produces essential enzymes that help break down toxins, rendering them harmless.
Daily detox strategies will enhance your liver's health. Try the following steps for optimum energy levels, reduced anxiety and irritability, and a stronger immune system.
Drink plenty of H20.
The liver needs lots of pure water to process waste. For detox purposes, aim for ten-plus cups a day, and be sure you're drinking bottled spring, artesian, or purified water. Consider purchasing a home-filtration system. Products vary widely, so check the box to see whether a filter is certified by NSF International, an independent sanitation testing organization.
Cut down on alcohol and caffeine.
Caffeine overstimulates the adrenal glands that produce stress hormones, temporarily raises blood pressure, and can severely tax the liver. Too much liquor increases acetaldehyde production (a toxic by-product of alcohol breakdown that destroys liver cells) and interferes with the liver's ability to break down fats. Go easy on your liver by drinking herbal teas or caffeine-free green tea instead. A new study suggests that theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, may help protect the liver against alcohol damage (Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 2005, vol. 28, no. 9).
Eat whole foods.
Refined flour, sugar, hydrogenated fats, preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners—processed food is a toxic wasteland, and all of it burdens the liver. As much as possible, eat foods in their whole form—the way nature made them. Whole foods also contain more fiber, which helps move toxins out of your body. Beans, soybeans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, such as barley, buckwheat, oats, and quinoa, are high-fiber sources that cleanse your liver naturally.
Go for green and red.
All fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants and phytochemicals that neutralize harmful free radicals and reduce damage to cells, including liver cells. Dark green and red vegetables and fruits show particular detox powers. For starters, feast on artichokes; current research shows that cynarin, found in artichoke leaves, stimulates bile secretions, which help improve fat emulsification and digestion (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2003, vol. 86, nos. 2–3). Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, are rich in glucosinolates, precursors to sulforaphane, a liver-friendly phytochemical that stimulates detoxification enzymes, helping to neutralize cancer-causing chemicals (Nutrition and Cancer, 2004, vol. 50, no. 2). Spinach contains alpha-lipoic acid, which increases production of glutathione, a compound that helps dissolve toxins and protect against cellular damage. And studies indicate that red-pigmented, lycopene-rich foods—such as tomatoes, papaya, and watermelon—improve liver health (Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 2004, vol. 44, nos. 7–8).
Organic foods are free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, growth hormones, and genetically engineered substances, and that means a whole lot fewer toxins in your body. In a recent study, researchers found that children fed a diet of organic foods were exposed to six to nine times fewer toxic pesticides than children fed a conventional diet (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2003, vol. 111, no. 3). As often as possible, buy organic produce, meat, and dairy, as well as wild-caught fish.
H.K. Jones is a registered dietitian and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.