"I often say that “I am a liver lover” because, as a pharmacist, I have an immense appreciation for the liver and all of its functions—especially when it comes to metabolizing drugs, supplements, food, and environmental toxins as well as maintaining blood sugar and healthy cholesterol levels." Dr. Amy Sapola
The liver is the largest digestive organ in the body and is responsible for over 500 different essential functions, including metabolism and detoxification, breakdown of red blood cells, making proteins and hormones, making bile, and storing glycogen (a form of energy) in the human body.
In functional medicine, we often talk about how everything is related and interconnected in the body and the liver is a perfect example of this. The most important thing to recognize is that, if the liver is not functioning properly, there can be a host of downstream consequences.
First, Cause No Harm
First consider what to avoid in order to help reduce how much effort the liver puts forth towards doing its many jobs.
You may consider avoiding:
- Alcohol (especially >2 drinks/day)
- Medications (such as Acetaminophen)
- Fried foods
- Highly processed foods
- Foods and drinks high in added sugar
- Environmental toxins
The CDC also recommends Hepatitis C screening at least once in a lifetime for all adults 18 years and older. Four out of ten people with Hepatitis C do not know they are infected, so it is important to get tested if you have symptoms or not. Left untreated, Hepatitis C can cause liver damage, liver cancer, and death.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) and Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH)
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition where fat builds up in the liver of a person who is not heavily consuming alcohol. NAFLD usually does not cause symptoms (other than an enlarged liver) and is associated with little to no inflammation or damage to the liver. Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) is a type of NAFLD that causes inflammation and scarring along with fat accumulation in the liver. If left untreated, NASH can cause cirrhosis, which is a form of permanent liver damage.
It is estimated that about 25% of the U.S. population has non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), including up to 10% of U.S. children between the ages of 2-19 years old. NASH affects up to 6.5% of the U.S. population. Both NAFLD and NASH have very few if any symptoms, so most people do not even know they have it until late into the progression of the disease.
Having NAFLD increases the risk of other health conditions, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
There are no medications approved to treat NAFLD. Often the best way to begin to reverse NAFLD is with lifestyle change, including:
- Increased physical activity
- Mindful eating
- Increasing consumption of whole plant foods (vegetables, legumes, etc.) while decreasing consumption of high sugar, fried, and processed foods.
- Consume foods that have a lower impact on blood sugar
- Increase the use of high-polyphenol olive oil, and eliminate the use of processed and refined oils (especially trans-fats).
- Increase consumption of omega-3-rich foods, such as our favorite—the salmon of the plant world—purslane.
Supporting Your Liver Health with Vegetables
Vegetables and microgreens are a great source of antioxidants (from phytonutrients) and nutrients (such as vitamin C, D, and E, and minerals such as zinc and magnesium), and fiber. Plant-based antioxidants (such as quercetin and resveratrol), may have preventive and therapeutic effects on liver diseases, including alcoholic liver disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, viral hepatitis, and liver cancer.
Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant found in vegetables such as beets, carrots, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes and may help protect against liver damage and NAFLD.
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that helps to support mitochondrial function in cells, and the natural production of CoQ10 decreases as we age and also due to certain medications (such as statins). CoQ10 may help reduce inflammation in the liver and support the liver's detoxification processes. Vegetables that are good sources of CoQ10 include broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach.
Choline is essential to the process of breaking down fats (in the form of triglycerides) and removing them along with other toxins from the liver into the bile. A diet deficient in choline has been associated with a higher risk of NAFLD. Choline is found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Cruciferous (brassica) vegetables including broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and mustard greens (just to name a few!!) contain phytochemicals such as sulforaphane that help to support healthy liver detoxification.
Cruciferous vegetables and Allium species (onions, leeks, garlic, etc.) may help reduce the risk of liver cancer.
Sulfur found in cruciferous vegetables and garlic, leeks, onions, etc. helps the liver to produce glutathione which is one of the body's main antioxidants that protect cells from damage and repair damaged DNA. Vegetables such as parsley, spinach, beets, and asparagus are rich sources of dietary glutathione as well, although glutathione from food is often poorly absorbed. Higher levels are often obtained by focusing on sulfur-rich vegetables and allowing the body to make its own glutathione.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
Our preferred way to nourish our bodies is with food first whenever possible. When it comes to liver health, it is important to be cautious of high dose vitamins and supplements—especially Vitamin A and niacin, which in excessively high supplemental doses have been shown to cause liver injury. Using herbs or other supplements in combination or in conjunction with medications can cause serious interactions, so it is important to always talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist first. Herbs such as ginger, turmeric, and dandelion root all can help support healthy bile flow and are a great addition to meals or consumed as a tea. These can also be found in a capsule; however, part of the benefit of these herbs is that their taste will naturally trigger your body to secrete bile. Learn more about bitters and digestion.
The Farmer as Part of the Healthcare Team
Our goal with Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden is for the farmer to become part of the healthcare team, providing you with the most nutrient-dense, flavorful, deeply nourishing foods possible to help support your health and wellness. We are putting “food as medicine” into practice, making it easy to quickly select vegetables to support your needs through our Health and Wellness Collection pages. We hope you will try our regeneratively farmed, harvested to order, farm-fresh vegetables shipped right to your doorstep and we would love for you to join our Farmacy at the Chef’s Garden family on Facebook!
Natural Sulfur-Containing Compounds: An Alternative Therapeutic Strategy against Liver Fibrosis
Hepatitis C Information, CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/index.htm