Spring is a time of cleansing and renewal, of starting anew. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s also the season of the liver, the organ of detoxification, explains integrative-medicine practitioner Elson Haas, MD, author of Staying Healthy With the Seasons.
But why provide extra help for the liver in any season? Isn’t it doing its job without assistance? Unless we’ve been diagnosed with a specific liver problem, why make the effort?
Turns out there are plenty of reasons.
The liver is a filter, explains functional-medicine practitioner Jill Carnahan, MD: It sifts out dangerous materials before they enter your bloodstream. But because the volume of hazardous substances in the environment is steadily increasing, the liver can become overwhelmed.
While the liver benefits from support year-round, harnessing that “spring-cleaning” energy can be especially valuable. “Daily habits can make or break liver health,” Carnahan says.
Understand Your Liver
The liver processes every substance that enters the body, including food, drugs (surgical anesthesia, over-the-counter pain relievers, discarded pharmaceuticals that turn up in drinking water), diesel exhaust, and synthetic chemicals like pesticides. And that’s not all.
“There are thousands of new chemicals introduced into the environment every year,” says functional-medicine practitioner Robert Rountree, MD. This toxic onslaught can outpace the liver’s ability to process it.
Alcohol has historically been considered the liver’s primary foe: Drink too much for too long and you risk alcoholic liver disease (ALD); inflammation and scarring from ALD can lead to cirrhosis.
Chemical exposure can cause toxicant-associated fatty liver disease (TAFLD), damaging the liver in a way that’s similar to that of alcohol. Like its more severe cousin, toxicant-associated steatohepatitis, TAFLD often affects individuals who display none of the traditional risk factors for liver disease, such as heavy drinking or obesity.
Sugar is another trigger: Chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Even a teetotaler can develop NAFLD after a lifelong sugar habit. (For more on fatty liver disease, see “The Hidden Liver Crisis”.)
When the liver is overburdened or damaged, the rest of the body suffers.
“We are detox machines,” says -Carnahan, but these mechanisms can break down from overwork. Research has linked toxic-chemical exposure with negative changes to gut flora, mitochondrial function, genetic health, and hormone balance. When these get out of whack, it puts the body at higher risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and neurological dysfunction.
Liver function can be compromised for some time before we notice, too. Rountree describes a vegetarian patient who was young, fit, and a fan of organic produce.
“She seemed to be doing everything right with her lifestyle,” he says, yet routine blood work showed liver inflammation. Rountree suspected the acetaminophen that she took daily for joint pain. She stopped taking it, started a milk-thistle supplement, and her blood work normalized.
Show Some Love
All of this might tempt you to try a liver detox, but experts agree that this is not enough — or necessarily safe.
“Many of the ‘cleansing’ protocols can be hard on the liver or gall-bladder,” says Rountree. “Plus, there is no real evidence that these protocols lower the body’s burden of a specific chemical. Any scientifically proven detox program should be focused on lowering the total toxic load in the body, either by enhancing the enzyme systems that transform toxins into a less harmful chemical or by gently accelerating their elimination.”
Instead of a targeted detox, he and other experts recommend a holistic and routine approach to liver health. The daily lifestyle and nutritional strategies that follow can support the liver — and reduce its workload.