Heard of the liver cleansing diet? Here’s what you need to know
Whether you can actually cleanse your liver is open to debate, but these simple and easy diet tweaks can help keep it stronger for longer.
It is probably something you give only a passing thought after a big night out on the town or a fatty food binge, but your liver deserves far greater attention.
From lifestyle to diet hacks, here are some things you can do to take care of your liver health.
What does the liver do?
The liver is the second-largest organ after your skin and is a dedicated multi-tasker that plays a part in more than 500 activities in your body.
Among them are removing toxins, clearing medication from your body, managing blood sugar levels and storing vitamins, dietitian Lisa Renn says.
“Basically all of the blood in your body has to pass through the liver to be processed,” the author of Body Warfare – The Secret to Permanent Weight Loss says.
The liver also adjusts cholesterol levels, builds proteins and makes bile, which helps you absorb fats and regulates hormone levels.
What can harm the liver?
Alcohol, smoking, a poor diet and obesity can all harm your liver, says The Liver Cleansing Diet author Dr Sandra Cabot.
Dr Cabot says Australia and many parts of the globe are seeing what she describes as “an epidemic” of fatty liver disease.
“This build-up of fats in your liver can cause damage and lead to serious complications, including cirrhosis, where liver cells are replaced with extensive scar tissue,” Dr Cabot says.
“Many people with fatty liver aren’t even aware they have a problem because the symptoms such as fatigue and weight gain that you can’t account for, are usually gradual.”
When do you need to do a liver cleanse?
Dr Nathan Connelly, from gastroenterology clinic Moonee Valley Specialist Centre in Melbourne, says understanding your liver health should be a key indicator to determine what needs to be done next.
It might be more appropriate to focus on liver health in general rather than focusing on a liver cleanse, especially after periods of being unhealthy, Dr Connelly explains.
“This may include after periods of poor diet or excess alcohol intake,” he says.
“There may be times when a blood test suggests that there are issues with the liver and this will prompt an evaluation of lifestyle factors that may contribute to liver dysfunction.”
How do you detox your liver?
While Dr Connelly says there is no proven therapy to detoxify the liver, the best way to do this is to pay attention to lifestyle factors.
“Regular exercise, drinking more water, avoiding alcohol and losing excess weight are the most important factors in detoxifying the liver,” he says.
“It may also be of benefit to evaluate whether certain regular medications are necessary and consider a trial of withdrawal of these medications if they may not be needed.
“From a diet perspective, reducing simple sugars including highly processed carbohydrates is likely to be beneficial.”
Signs a liver detox is working
“If baseline liver function tests are abnormal, then improvement in these liver function tests would indicate that any intervention is being helpful,” Dr Connelly explains.
“There may be non-specific perceived health benefits such as improved energy levels, mental health and sexual function.”
Otherwise, he says a fibroscan can also be a good measure of the wellness of the liver, which assesses its steatosis (fat) and fibrosis (stiffness), and is a non-referral test that anyone can do.
“It is a simple procedure and is a non-invasive biopsy to check the health of the liver,” Dr Connelly says.
“Any worried person, overweight, diabetic or alcohol drinker should consider this.”
What foods do I eat on a liver cleansing diet?
“I advise my patients to have a well-balanced diet,” Dr Connelly says.
“The most common liver disease is metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease, and this can be improved by avoiding sugar and highly processed carbohydrates like white bread, white pasta and white rice.
“There is also some evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet can benefit patients with steatotic liver disease by increasing the intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, legumes, complex grains and good oils.”
Dr Cabot also recommends eating plant-based carbohydrates, such as vegetables and legumes, as well as healthy fats found in seafood, cold-pressed olive oil, eggs, raw nuts and seeds.
Check out these recipes for some inspiration:
- Mediterranean salad with chicken
- Beetroot and blood orange salad
- Green tea vegetarian pie
- Ultimate porridge
Otherwise, here are some liver-friendly items to include in your shopping list:
Studies show the bioactive agent betaine found in beetroot may protect against the fatty build-up associated with liver disease.
Extra virgin olive oil
Recent research revealed a natural compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can be used to fight non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
A Japanese study in people with NAFLD found drinking green tea high in antioxidants for 12 weeks improved liver enzyme levels.
It might also help reduce fat deposits and oxidative stress in the liver.
“Caffeine in moderate amounts – so around three cups a day – certainly has some benefits,” dietitian Lisa says.
Scientists have shown drinking coffee many help reduce the risk of developing a common type of liver cancer and has positive effects on liver disease and inflammation.
Does milk thistle help with liver cleansing?
Dr Connelly says while there have been some trials suggesting the use of milk thistle in supporting liver health, there is no convincing evidence that it can be of guaranteed benefit in liver disease.
“There is some medical evidence for the use of supplements and herbal therapies, but not to the level of evidence that would change current Western medical practice,” he explains.
For more on caring for your liver:
- Why the fatty liver diet is so good for general health
- Less booze, more good fats: Top tips for a healthy liver
- Why your HIIT workout is a winner for your liver
- How a low-carb, high-fat diet can reverse fatty liver disease
Written by Liz McGrath. Updated by Melissa Hong, February 2024.