How To Look After Your Liver

How To Look After Your Liver

The liver is one of the body’s powerhouses, performing hundreds of functions, but it’s not invincible. In fact, liver disease is a growing health issue in the UK, with deaths increasing by 400% in the last 50 years. Because this shocking statistic is down to our increasingly unhealthy lifestyles, we asked four experts to share their top tips for better liver health – from the importance of regular exercise to the best foods and supplements…

Start By Understanding Its Importance

Nestled in the upper right side of your abdomen, behind your ribcage, you probably don’t give your liver very much thought, but it’s the largest internal organ and is constantly hard at work. “Your liver provides over 100 different functions,” says Dr Vikki Petersen, certified clinical nutritionist, chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner. “Beyond your skin, it’s your largest organ and, interestingly, is the only organ in the human body that you can remove a piece of, and it will grow back. The liver is responsible for detoxifying your blood and carrying waste out of the body. It’s involved in digestion and excretes cholesterol, hormones and drugs, while also metabolising carbs, proteins and fats. It also activates enzymes and acts to store blood sugar, vitamins and minerals.” However, despite its integral role, 39% of us can’t even identify where it is, according to a recent study. Plus, liver disease is one of the UK’s most fatal health issues – deaths due to liver disease have soared by 400% since 1970, and 12,000 lives are claimed because of it every year. The Lancet commission on liver disease predicts that it will overtake heart disease to become the leading cause of early death in Britain within two years. 

But Know That Not All Is Lost

Despite the severity of the nation’s liver health (the UK has one of the worst liver disease death rates in Europe), it’s never too late. “Your liver is a hardy organ and if you look after it, it has the capacity to bounce back, as long as liver disease or damage isn’t at an advanced stage,” adds Vikki. So, what are the signs your liver isn’t functioning as well as it should? “Early signs include a general sense of being unwell, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite and unintentional weight loss, diarrhoea, pain around your liver and bloating,” adds Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click. “Other signs include fluid retention, jaundice, disturbed sleep, easy bruising, itchy skin and bleeding that is hard to stop. Usually, when someone goes to the GP with symptoms they are struggling to attribute to something, they’ll be sent for a blood test, which would normally pick up the fact that the liver is not functioning well.”

Start By Drinking Less

Alcohol misuse is one of the main causes of liver disease, with research showing the more you drink, the more likely you are to develop liver disease. As Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director at Bupa Health Clinics, explains: “If you drink more than five units daily for two to three weeks, you’re likely to develop what is known as a fatty liver, when fat builds up in the cells of your liver. The good news is that if you stop drinking for a few weeks and then drink sensibly within your limits going forward, your liver should start to shed these excess fatty cells. In fact, science shows your liver has the capacity to regenerate and repair itself within four to eight weeks.” For around 20% of us, these fatty cells cause inflammation, which in turn causes liver cells to die, only to be replaced by scar tissue – too much of which leads to cirrhosis, a condition where the liver begins to fail because of long-term damage. While the liver is a resilient organ that has the capacity to regenerate itself, the experts recommend sticking to 14 units of alcohol per week, ideally spread over three days or more. Try to have a few alcohol-free days, too. Vikki says drinking wine is preferable over spirits, too. “A glass of red wine a few times a week is fine, but it’s best to avoid spirits, which can take their toll.”

Your liver is a hardy organ and if you look after it, it has the capacity to bounce back. Dr Vikki Petersen,
Dr Vikki Petersen

Eat The Rainbow

Abbas says a low-sugar diet with high amounts of antioxidants and fibre will support liver health and can even reverse liver damage and disease. Aim to eat whole foods, including unrefined sources of carbohydrates, veggies, fruits and healthy fats. It’s also worth eating more cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale and cauliflower, which increase production of digestive enzymes that support liver function and enhance its ability to draw toxins out of the blood. When it comes to fruit, eat more berries and melons, which provide and balance electrolyte minerals required by the liver. Experts agree bitters are also worth exploring. Foods that often taste bitter tend to be high in essential minerals that balance fluids – think chicory, rocket and leafy greens like Swiss chard. 

Nourish Your Gut

Your liver plays an often-overlooked role in healthy digestion and is closely linked to the health of your gut. Plus, the type of bacteria that live in your gut can also affect your liver by promoting fat deposits and reducing insulin sensitivity, which could eventually lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. With this in mind, populate your gut with healthy bacteria by eating prebiotic foods: asparagus, leeks, onion, bananas and garlic are all good sources. Filling up on fibre can also help, says Vikki. Aim to eat 30g of fibre per day, from fruit and vegetables as well as nuts, seeds, pulses, lentils and wholegrains. “Aim for five to six portions of fresh vegetables daily as well as two to three portions of fruit, organic if possible,” she recommends. 

Try Supplementing With Herbs

“Milk thistle is a very well-known tonic when it comes to liver health,” says Dr Philip Berry, consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at London Bridge Hospital. Milk thistle is rich in silymarin, an antioxidant that protects the liver, while dandelion root has a natural diuretic effect, balancing fluid levels and boosting the liver’s ability to efficiently eliminate toxins and relieve indigestion. Some studies suggest it could also be worth supplementing with holy basil, which contains essential oils that help combat bacteria. 

A low-sugar diet with high amounts of antioxidants and fibre will support liver health and can even reverse liver damage and disease.
Abbas Kanani

Stay Active 

“Regular exercise is vital for a healthy liver,” says Abbas. “Staying active allows for an increase of oxygenated blood to reach your organs, ensuring they operate more effectively. Plus, obesity is also linked to liver disease and exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight. In fact, a four-week study in obese individuals who trained for 30-60 minutes, five days per week, saw a 10% loss in liver fat, despite their bodyweight remaining unchanged.” Further still, a Japanese study showed that just over four hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week significantly reduced inflammation, oxidative stress and liver fat. Even two-and-a-half hours led to an improvement.  

If In Doubt, Get Tested

“Liver disease is often silent, meaning symptoms develop only when the liver is severely damaged,” explains Phillip, underlying the importance of testing if you are worried about your liver. “The easiest way to test the liver is with a blood test but also ask your doctor about a Fibroscan, which can identify fat levels and signs of early (or more serious) liver scarring. It is a painless and totally safe procedure. A liver clinic will often refer a patient for a Fibroscan if the doctor feels there is a chance of liver damage. Using high frequency sound waves, the test involves having a probe pressed against your skin. The probe vibrates against the skin to get a reading.” The scan tests the stiffness of your liver, an indicator of how healthy it is. “It only takes five minutes, but you’ll need to be referred by your GP or a liver specialist,” Phillip adds. “The good news is that this machine can be found in many NHS as well as private hospitals. It’s a very efficient way to assess liver health.”
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DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme. 

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