The liver has over 500 functions in the body.
A few of the more notable roles of the liver are detoxification, hormone synthesis and regulation, immunity, and metabolism of macromolecules (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins). Obviously, if your liver isn’t working well, the rest of your body isn’t, either.
There is a mounting body of evidence that implicates impared liver function in the development of chronic disease. Given the high rate of chronic disease in America, with 133 thousand Americans personally diagnosed, this is a huge problem, especially since this number is on the rise.
There has been a big focus on detox diets and gut health lately, and these things are definitely an important part of treatment, but unless the underlying causes of liver toxicity are addressed, natural therapies that support the liver will only go so far in healing the liver.
The list of toxins that affect our livers each and every day is huge — and we’re likely not even aware of all of them. And because we can’t really control many of our exposures to various toxins (many environmental toxins, for example), this list is limited to what CAN be identified and controlled by most individuals.
Here’s our list of the top 5 toxins that burden the liver:
- Stress. Chemical mediators of chronic stress (adrenaline and cortisol) depress immune function and can affect blood flow and inflammation in the liver. Studies have shown that people who experience chronic stress have poorer liver function than those who don’t. Americans are more stressed than ever with our fast-paced lives, poor work boundaries, and lack of meaningful social interaction. It is imperative that stress is managed. Mindfulness, prayer, meditation, and exercise are a few easy ways to manage stress. But also remember that no amount of exercise and meditation is going to save you from the negative effects of a stressful job or relationship.
- Medications and alcohol. Everybody knows too much alcohol is bad for the liver, but many don’t think about prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and synthetic hormones that are metabolized by the liver. The liver filters them out of the blood, alters them to a different chemical structure, then the kidney can excrete the metabolite(s) out of the body. This is an important process - without it, medications would build up to toxic levels and you would experience side effects and then death, in most if not all cases. Even the most commonly prescribed medications and hormones (often thought of as harmless), burden liver enzymes and substrates, leaving them unable to handle other toxins you may be exposed to. Many people find that if they change some of their lifestyle behaviors into healthier ones, they are able to reduce their dependence on medications. A functional or integrative medical practice can help you through this process.
- Molds. The aspergillus family of molds have been found to secrete a toxin that causes liver dysfunction and even liver cancer. Many people who work in industries where these molds may be present (agriculture, construction, and mold remediation) or who live or work in buildings where mold is present may want to consider making a change.
- Household and hygiene products. Synthetic dyes, fragrances, surfactants, plastics, heavy metals, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), phthalates, and many more toxins are found in the products we surround ourselves with and put on our bodies, and all have to be handled by the liver or they will cause toxicity in our bodies, often affecting the neurologic system. It can be difficult to know and understand all the ingredients in a product, even when they are listed, which they rarely are. Use natural products that have undergone as little processing as possible, and educate yourself. Here is a good article about indoor toxins.
- Food and beverages. There are many points in the food production chain where toxins potentially find their way in and then into our bodies. Soil and water on farms may be contaminated. Herbicides and pesticides may be used to grow plants for food and for livestock. Antibiotics are often used in livestock. Food that is processed beyond its original form may contain artificial flavors, colors, and ingredients that have been processed into something else that the body doesn’t know how to handle. Packaging may contain toxins - of particular concern is plastic containers. All of these things have the potential to damage your gut and liver, with many of them shown to be directly toxic or of concern as carcinogens. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate (Roundup) as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, and since then several court judgements have supported this, yet glyphosate is still being used on a massive scale in industrial agriculture. 93% of Americans tested had glyphosate metabolites in their urine. This underscores the importance of knowing exactly what’s in your food, where it comes from, and how it has been handled. As much as possible, eat local, organic food, ideally from people and organizations you know — maybe even grow your own — and process it as little as possible, opting for eating whole foods most of the time.
To find out more about the many ways to achieve better liver function and potentially ameliorate chronic disease, check out Reclaim Your Health, our online course with Dr. Jennifer Lyon.
-Jill Butryn, MD
Prevalence of chronic disease in America
Stress/psychological issues and liver disease of many types
Psychosocial stress and liver function
Chronic stress depresses immune function
Mold and liver
Roundup as a probable carcinogen
Roundup in urine of Americans