Liver Detoxification: Starve or Nourish?
Liver cleanses are in style these days, with many doit- yourself diets out there on the Internet. Detox and cleanse advocates will usually produce a bulletpointed list of why their specific liver cleansing protocol is healthy for you, why your body needs it, and why you are practically irresponsible if you choose not to go through with their protocol. However, upon closer inspection one soon realizes the lack of medical literature to support these claims.
In fact, many liver detox proponents seem to be blowing hot air. Even “The Master Cleanse,” a popular detox regimen which claims to be the most successful cleanse diet of its type and which thousands of people undertake each year, has no scientific grounding—a shocking fact considering the number of people who participate in it on a regular basis! This so-called “Lemonade Diet,” promoted by Mike Olaski, claims to “rest and relieve” the digestive system. However when viewed from a biological understanding of the liver and how it functions, it is clear that the master cleanse does no such thing. In fact, it might actually work to put stress on the liver and deprive it of nutrients, and consequently have the opposite effect of its purported claims.
Other liver detox diets, such as the liver cleanse promoted by Jon Barron, or Dr. Oz’s forty-eight hour liver cleanse, are similar, promising magical results on a starvation regime of vegetable juices and vegetable broth. These regimes often include detox formulations that contain a mix of herbs and other compounds. In this article I will address the claim that a juice cleanse is an effective way to detoxify or cleanse the liver.
Detoxification is a term given to the process of removing toxins from the body. A toxin is a poison, so it is understandable why many people feel that embarking on a detox diet in order to lower their levels of toxicity is a good idea. Lowering the levels of toxicity in one’s body is something that all health enthusiasts, regardless of their particular school of thought, agree is beneficial to health. However, how to achieve this goal is a much more controversial issue.
Detoxing and cleansing product advocates will claim that the most effective way of removing toxins from the liver is via a detox diet or cleanse, usually one that involves some form of juice or a product that can be purchased on the Internet. It is important to understand that the detoxification industry is an industry like any other, and like any industry, there are people who want to make money from your belief that you need their product. Many seemingly genuine health gurus who tout the acclaimed health benefits of liver cleanses have an underlying motivation to promote their own special detox plans. That motivation often comes down to a desire for cash.
However, the idea of lowering the amount of toxins within one’s body is arguably a commendable route towards greater health. It is undeniable that we exist in a toxic environment: pesticides sprayed on vegetables, phthalates in plastics and cosmetics, chlorine in household cleaners, PCBs and heavy metals in farm-raised fish, and antibiotics and dioxins in commercially produced animal products are just a few examples of toxins that are in most people’s environment every day. Even those of us who take extreme care to eat only organic foods, avoid commercial cleaners, and make our own skincare products are affected by the levels of chemicals that industrial mechanisms have put into our environments.
It is helpful to understand that every chemical is toxic at a certain dose, even water! Dose is important to consider, not only because it teaches us that balance is relevant to everything in our lives, but also because the dosage levels of toxins in our environment are accumulating to higher amounts each year. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, releases of toxins on land rose by 19 percent from 2010 to 2011, primarily due to increases in land disposal at metal mines. As a result of all these factors, discussion of detoxification is now more relevant than ever before, but that does not mean that a juice cleanse will help lower levels of overall toxicity, or that doing so is actually beneficial to one’s liver.
CLEANLINESS AND CLEANSING
Cleansing is a term that is commonly used to describe the process of cleaning one’s system by severely restricting food intake. Liver detox juice cleanses are purported to work on the assumption that in abstaining from food, one is giving one’s system a chance to push out the toxins that may have accumulated. Interestingly, the dictionary definition of “cleanse” is “to free from dirt or guilt; purge or clean.” Utilizing the term “cleanse” is a clever subliminal marketing word choice that leads consumers towards lofty aspirations of greater purity.
It is important to understand before embarking on a detox protocol the role the liver plays in the body, and whether a detoxification diet will in fact be effective in supporting the liver.
The word “liver” is rather aptly derived from the Old English word for “life,” in full regard of the many functions that the liver has within the body. The liver has the ability to synthesize the proteins that the body needs and also makes bile so that food can be digested, but the function that the liver is most famous for is detoxifying the blood.
Most people understand that their liver is where the toxins go, although thinking of it as a dumping point for toxins is not entirely accurate. Most food substances that enter the human body go to the liver from the small intestine for sorting via the portal venous system. The liver sorts out what to keep and what to get rid of.
The blood passes through the liver, which takes out harmful chemicals before, one hopes, they reach toxic levels. They are then made water-soluble so that they can be sent out of the body via sweat or urine. Therefore what happens in the liver is a form of filtering, but it is not like the lint filter in your tumble dryer that regularly clogs up. In a healthy body, toxins leave the liver pretty soon after they come in. They are not merely dumped there as though the liver were a landfill.
Because many toxins are fat-soluble, large quantities of such toxins that enter the body can be stored in fat. It is true that they may be stored in the fat cells in the liver, and that this is not desirable. However, in a healthy functioning body, which is being fed a balanced diet, this is rarely a problem as the liver does a very good job of discarding the toxins that enter the system in a timely manner.
Should one want or need to detoxify the liver at all, it is not quite as instant, simple and easy as spending a day or two (or ten) on a juice cleanse. To get these fat-soluble toxins out of storage is a multi-stage affair. Cleansing for a few days is unlikely to affect the liver directly and may actually deplete it of essential vitamins and minerals. For the majority of the population it seems somewhat misguided to go on a cleanse regimen in order to clear the liver, which is probably doing a good job already!
The truth is that most detoxification diets have less of a direct effect on cleansing the liver than advocates would have you believe. While detox diets might be a step towards healthier eating for a person whose standard diet is high in processed foods and toxic beverages, in reality most people who undertake liver cleanses are those who already eat a relatively healthy diet. Unfortunately, it is the more health-conscious individuals who are attracted to the health-boosting claims touted by detox gurus.
So from this biological point of view, one could argue that a detox diet may be somewhat ineffective, but there are also researchers who point to detox diets as being potentially damaging, mostly because people wrongly believe that if they “do” a detox once a year, that gives them a free ticket to eat and drink whatever they like the rest of the time.
Another concern arises from the premise that when a person embarks on a detox diet, the drastic reduction in calories, fat and protein forces the body to metabolize its fat stores for energy. As the fat stores are rapidly converted into more usable energy, any fat-soluble toxins that have been stored within them are released into the bloodstream in larger amounts than is normal. This means that the liver suddenly has a massive amount to process in a short space of time. This is how detoxification diet advocates claim that their cleanse protocols force the body to release toxins, and this is why some people claim that they feel slightly euphoric when on a detox regimen while others can feel headachy or sick.
In order to clarify the importance of proper nutrition in the way the liver works when detoxifying naturally, we must understand the process by which the liver breaks down unwanted chemicals. The process can be divided into two main stages.
STAGE ONE: OXIDATION
A special set of enzymes, called the cytochrome P450, are needed to alter the chemical makeup of the toxin that is being stored within the fat cell. The particular enzyme from the group that is used at any one time is different depending on the specific toxin that needs to be altered, but usually this reaction makes the toxin more reactive and more water-soluble. This chemical reaction causes free radical release, so antioxidants are important here, as they reduce the damage that free radicals can cause. Nutrients that are required in this part of the process include the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E; therefore a diet that eliminates fat can be problematic for the liver as these vitamins may be depleted.
After stage one is complete the toxin is very reactive, so it is important that the body has the enzymes that are required for stage two so that it can happen soon after.
STAGE TWO: CONJUGATION
Here the liver continues to work on the chemical that it is trying to release from the fat cell. Its job now is to make this toxin even more water-soluble, so that it can be excreted via urine or bile. The liver usually achieves this by adding another substance to the toxin which dilutes it. Sulfur-containing foods such as egg yolks and amino acids such as taurine and cysteine are important in this stage of detoxification. These amino acids are also found in grass-fed meat and dairy products. If you are not eating these foods regularly, a detox regimen could potentially deplete your stores of these amino acids or the elements that are needed to synthesize them. Should this happen, your body might not be able to process the toxin from stage one into stage two, which will leave you with highly reactive toxins in your system.
So far this is a massive simplification of a very complicated system, yet it will give you a basic understanding of the incredible process involved in detoxification, and just what a great job your liver does on a daily basis. This should also help you understand that your liver needs specific nutrients in order to detoxify well. Your liver does not require a juice cleanse to do its job, and such measures could potentially be unhelpful and even rather meddlesome. This is because you are giving your liver much work all at once and may have depleted the enzyme stores that it needs in order to break down the fat-soluble toxins released in response to your detox regimen.
FATS HELP LIVER FUNCTION
There is another way that you can detoxify your liver, and that is by eating healthy fats. In the simplest form, when you eat fat, your liver releases bile to metabolize the fat. Bile helps the body metabolize those essential fat-soluble vitamins. As bile is a crucial part of the natural detoxification process within your body, if your bile levels are adequate you will eliminate toxins efficiently. One of the ingredients in bile is cholesterol; therefore if you are not consuming enough cholesterol your body will not be able to produce an adequate amount of bile. Cholesterol is found along with healthy fats from grass-fed animals, so eating these foods is a wonderful way to help your body detoxify. The key to a healthy detoxification regime is to do it gradually so that you do not overwhelm your body with a flush of toxins.
Detox cleanses seem to treat the body like a machine, as if it were a car that one could drain of its dirty oil at once and swap it for clean oil. Bodies are not cars, and changes in what is introduced into one’s body usually need to be made slowly so we can adjust and make the necessary metabolic changes. Few systems in the body change instantly. By design our bodies tend to alter themselves incrementally. For this reason, a better way to cleanse the liver is a long-term habit of eating healthy fats rather than a short bout of juice cleansing.
Another consideration when you are thinking about ways to detoxify is to look at the stressors present in your life. When you are stressed, your liver will focus less on detoxification because your body will be operating within its sympathetic nervous system. When the body is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system it diverts resources to the muscles (fight or flight) and away from organs (rest and digest). Stress affects our bodies in many different ways: our muscles tighten and energy is shunted away from our repair and renewal system—and this means that we will not be detoxifying optimally. For this reason, our bodies will store more toxins in fat cells when we are stressed because they do not have the energy required to convert and excrete them.
GELATIN AND RAW MILK
If your diet is full of highly processed foods and toxic drinks, a better plan than a cleanse would be turning to long-term healthy eating. As far as detoxing and the liver are concerned, if you already have a relatively healthy diet, you may be better off focusing on adding more of the foods that deliver those nutrients your liver uses to detoxify. To do something wonderful for your liver, give it a greater supply of nutrient-dense foods, such as cod liver oil, pastured butter, egg yolks, liver and bone broth. Bone broth in particular is an incredible source of nutrients, especially gelatin, which is very beneficial for the digestive tract as well as the immune system and heart.
Gelatin contains proline and glycine, which are amino acids that support liver detoxification. The human body can generate both of these amino acids itself, but if the idea of a cleanse is to give the body a restful experience, then eating foods that offer an abundant supply of such wonderful nutrients is surely the most advisable route to greater health.
You might also consider adding more exercise to your life. In a study with laboratory rats whose running wheels were removed from the cages, it was shown that they began to show signs of fatty liver disease after only a week of a sedentary life. In fact, this study demonstrated that fatty liver disease developed in 100 percent of the rats that had their running wheels removed—a staggering case for the role of physical activity in health.
The best thing that one can do for one’s liver is to eat foods that are low in toxins in the first place; choose organic produce that has not been sprayed with chemicals and limit the intake of processed, commercially produced foods as much as possible. These foods are nutrient-sparse and abundant in toxins. Grass-fed meats and dairy are richer in healthy fat-soluble vitamins A and E, which are involved in synthesizing those enzymes the body needs to break down the fat-soluble toxins in stage one of the detoxification process.
You may also want to consider raw milk produced by cows that are grazing on fields that have not been sprayed by toxic pesticides—an incredibly good source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. When cows are fed commercial feed, shut in small stalls and deprived of sunlight, these vitamins are diminished. Because pasteurization destroys enzymes, denatures proteins, and lowers the vitamin content of the milk, raw milk is a much more nutrient-dense food.
Raw milk is also a wonderful source of glutathione. Glutathione is an incredible detoxifier and has been elevated to the status of “master antioxidant” by many nutritionists because it increases the activity of all the other antioxidants as well as vitamins C and E. Glutathione is comprised of three amino acids: glycine, glutamate, and cysteine, all found in undenatured form in raw milk. One can take oral supplements of glutathione, but these have been shown to be poorly absorbed rendering them a waste of time and money. There is also some evidence that supplements in this form may interfere with the natural process of glutathione production in the body. The best way to increase levels of glutathione is to digest it by consuming raw milk, as well as red meats and organ meats. Additionally, raw whole milk provides vitamin D, which increases intracellular glutathione.
The same “supplement charade” is true of calcium. Calcium glucarate is helpful in the stage two part of the detoxification process, specifically, in the glucuronidation stage where toxins are bound to water substances such as bile so that they can be removed. Raw milk and raw milk products are our best sources of usable calcium however it is believed that it is not the calcium that is active but the glucarate (http://examine.com/supplements/Calcium-D-Glucarate/).
The take-home message is that your liver is an incredible organ that seamlessly performs a number of essential functions in your body every day, and it can do its job without the intervention of a commercial cleanse. If you want to help your liver detoxify your body, the best thing that you can do is eat nutrient-dense foods such as organic free-range eggs, liver and meats, homemade bone broths, as well as full-fat raw dairy. These healthy foods will provide your liver with a rich supply of vitamins, amino acids and minerals and help it do what it does best: detoxify.
MIKE OLASKI’S MASTER CLEANSE OR LEMONADE DIET
The Master Cleanse involves three phases:
Ease-In: 3 days of slowly removing processed foods from your diet.
The Lemonade Diet: “10 days to lose weight fast, and feel great at last.”
Ease-Out: 3 days of slowly eating more and more complex foods.
The magic “lemonade” consists of fresh lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water. Olaski suggests drinking a minimum of six to twelve glasses per day, for a total of ten days.
Apparently this cleanse is not so great for the bowels because Olaski recommends taking a laxative before bed and doing the “salt water flush” in the mornings. This consists in drinking a quart of warm water to which is added one tablespoon of salt.
Says Olaski, “Every day of the Master Cleanse that you overcome the psychological need to eat, you feel a growing sense of control that motivates you to complete the process.”
DR. OZ’S 48-HOUR WEEKEND CLEANSE
Dr. Oz’s 48-Hour Weekend Cleanse “is based upon eating certain ‘detoxifying’ foods that he thinks will keep [your] systems running smoothly. The plan couldn’t be simpler to follow so you’re not always focused on what to eat next.”
The cleanse starts with a breakfast of quinoa with prunes, nutmeg, grated ginger, flaxseed oil and rice milk. Lunch is a smoothie of almond or hemp milk, flaxseed, frozen blueberries and banana, all blended with ice. Dinner is a vegetable broth soup served with a side of sauerkraut.
Snack items allowed include a blended drink of kale, pineapple and ginger or a mixture of pineapple, lemon and
pomegranate juices. Raw vegetables are also allowed as snacks.
Dr. Oz’s also promotes a three-day detox cleanse that will “eliminate harmful toxins and reset your body.” The program consists of a morning detox tea, multivitamins, and smoothies containing flax seeds, fruit, spinach, kale, almond butter, almond milk, coconut water and coconut oil.
JON BARRON’S LIVER DETOX & BLOOD CLEANSE
This program is promoted with the following promise: “By cleansing the liver, we’re talking about inducing the liver to purge all of the fats, old cholesterol deposits, gallstones, poisons, drug residues, and toxic waste stored therein. Probably nothing else you do (including even the colon detox) will make a greater difference in your overall health. The liver is so important to our well-being that many healers maintain that most diseases cannot develop in the body (that, in fact, no form of cell degeneration can occur) if the liver is functioning in an efficient, healthy manner. Conversely, an unhealthy liver is very likely at the root of most serious health problems.”
The cleanse begins with 8 ounces of pure water on arising, “to flush your digestive tract,” followed by a smoothie
made with fresh citrus juice, fresh apple or grape juice, garlic, olive oil, and ginger, blended with water. Liver detox teas and tinctures are consumed throughout the day. Fresh salads with homemade dressing are allowed. He also recommends potassium broth (made with potato skins), grated beets, digestive enzymes and herbal “blood cleansers.”
TRUE DETOX SOUP
This recipe incorporates a number of potent ingredients for a most nourishing and detoxifying broth:
Several pounds of bones optimally from grass-fed/pastured animal sources
1 diced onion (onions contain cystine, an amino acid which the liver uses to produce the powerful antioxidant glutathione)
1 head of garlic, crushed
A couple of pounds of mixed, chopped organic vegetables. (Sulfur-rich vegetables will increase your stores of glutathione.)
Celtic sea salt to taste
A dash of raw apple cider vinegar to help extract the minerals from the bones
About 1 gallon of water, or enough to cover the bones
Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 4 hours or longer. The longer it cooks the better, as the simmering water will extract more gelatin from the bones. Don’t be afraid to allow it to simmer for up to 72 hours! Drain broth and discard the bones.
To serve as soup add some chopped vegetables, fresh garlic and chopped ginger. Once the vegetables are cooked blend and serve with sourdough bread and grass-fed butter.
- Rector, RS et al. Cessation of Daily Exercise Dramatically Alters Precursors of Hepatic Steatosis in Otsuka Long-Evans Tokushima Fatty (OLETF) Rats. The Journal of Physiology, Sept. 2008.
- Harvard Health Publications. The dubious practice of detox. HealthBeat Newsletter July 2008.
- Lipid Detoxification, Whole Health Network, Mark Squibb, http://publications.whnlive.com/.
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- Tendler D., Lin S., Yancy Jr. W.S.,Mavropoulos J., Sylvestre P., Rockey D.C., Westman E.C. The Effect of a Low-Carbohydrate, Ketogenic Diet on Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Pilot Study. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 2007.
- Alternative Detox, British Medical Bulletin, http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/ 2012/01/31/bmb.lds002.full.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2014