You probably give your liver little thought, but your body’s largest internal organ is a multitasking miracle, filtering toxins, working with your immune system to fight off infection and storing and releasing nutrients from food so that your body can access and use them to function.
If you don’t protect and nurture your liver—or worse, out-and-out ignore it—it can get overtaxed, and the spillover affects your entire body. Liver disease is on the rise—30 million Americans suffer from some sort of liver disease that can, if untreated, lead to scarring (cirrhosis), organ failure or even death. The problem is most people don’t know it, because liver disease is silent.
The good news is that loving your liver isn’t complicated. It benefits from many of the same healthy habits you already know to do (but maybe aren’t yet doing) for your heart and your body as whole. Here, nine easy ways to love your liver…
1. Brew a pot of coffee. Aside from coffee’s ability to help you get up and go in the morning, it has many health benefits, including boosting liver health. A study at Southampton University, UK, of 430,000 people found that consumption of two cups of coffee a day was related to a 44% lower risk for liver cirrhosis. Note: The benefit isn’t related to the caffeine, so you can enjoy decaf if you would rather. Coffee beans contain hundreds of antioxidants and other compounds that offer protection from liver disease and cancer. Tip: Green tea is another source of antioxidants that are good for the liver, though it is not as well-studied as coffee.
2.Eat oatmeal for breakfast. Your digestive tract loves all fiber, of course, but you can show your liver extra TLC with foods that help move toxins through the body and out of your system. That lightens the load your liver needs to process. If you don’t like oatmeal, other top fiber sources are oat bran, barley, flaxseed, beans, apples and citrus fruits. Also: If you replace starches and simple carbs with these high-fiber foods, you’ll eat fewer calories and feel less hungry.
3. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup. If you make only one change to your diet, eliminate all sugar-sweetened beverages, especially those with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). As you probably know, HFCS has been associated with a greater risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but you may not be aware that HFCS has a direct impact on your liver. It raises your risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a very common disorder affecting nearly one in three people. In human trials, consuming HFCS was found to be more likely to contribute to NAFLD than dietary fat. NAFLD can lead to liver damage and the more serious condition nonalcoholic steatohepatitis and ultimately cirrhosis. Also, HFCS fails to activate the body’s normal signal to stop eating when full—your appetite isn’t satisfied, so you continue to eat, putting even more stress on your liver.
While there has been a push in recent years to remove HFCS from foods and beverages, read all labels carefully because it is still hidden in many packaged products such as ketchup and salad dressing.
4. Lose weight. Carrying extra weight is toxic to your liver. NAFLD occurs in about 15% of nonobese patients but its prevalence increases along with your body mass index (BMI). Obese (BMI of 30.0 to 39.9) and extremely obese (BMI of 40 or more) patients have a prevalence of 65% and 85%, respectively.
Livers don’t need fancy or quick weight-loss diets. A healthy, balanced eating plan that you can stick with for life, such as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, is the best way to lose weight and support your liver. Focus on good fats, such as olive oil, nuts, fish and avocado, and more vegetables than animal protein.
5. Add strength-training to get your liver in fighting shape. While better muscle tone is the obvious benefit of strength training, having more muscle mass boosts health in many ways that you can’t see, including reducing fat in the liver. Though the exact mechanism isn’t yet known, a three-month study at Tel Aviv Medical Center found that three strength-training sessions a week led to reduced fat in the liver. Another study found that doing just push-ups and squats, three sets of 10 reps of each exercise, three times a week over six months lowered markers for liver disease.
6. Know your liquor limits. You think you know how much is “too much,” but safe alcohol limits are probably lower than you realize—just one drink a day for women…two for men. One drink means 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), five ounces of wine (12%) or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (40%). Getting one generous pour, ordering beer by the pint or sharing a full bottle of wine with a friend can put you well over that limit. That’s fine for special occasions, but steady drinking damages your liver even if you don’t have an alcohol-use disorder, also known as alcoholism. The number of deaths from cirrhosis is on the rise across the country, especially among adults ages 25 to 34. Important: Saving up during the workweek for a Saturday night splurge is not a safe plan and does not keep you within the week’s alcohol limits—overindulging is always toxic to the liver.
7. Limit your liver’s exposure to acetaminophen. Most people think of acetaminophen (Tylenol) as safe, but it’s often overused. In fact, overdoses account for about 50,000 emergency room visits, 25,000 hospitalizations and nearly 500 deaths a year, half of them unintentional. A total of 12 regular-strength, 325-milligram (mg) pills per day is considered safe. Beyond that, the risk increases. At 25 regular-strength pills a day, it’s toxic. Important: To avoid getting a double dose by mistake, always read a medication’s ingredients list because acetaminophen is in many other over-the-counter remedies such as cold medicines.
8. Boost liver health with CoQ10, an enzyme that helps generate energy in your cells, and n-acetylcysteine (NAC), a powerful antioxidant. Both are found in many foods, such as spinach, legumes and certain fish—but it may be hard to get enough in your diet. That’s where supplements can help. Studies have found that 600 mg of NAC twice a day improved liver function. Between 100 mg and 300 mg a day of CoQ10, also known for heart health, did this as well. Ask your doctor or nutritionist if either or both of these may be helpful to you.
9. Have your liver enzyme levels checked. Your blood pressure and cholesterol are taken by your doctor at every doctor’s visit, but you probably have no idea about your liver enzyme levels. Liver enzymes are the proteins needed for the liver to do its work. They’re also markers of liver health. When the liver has to work harder than normal or is damaged, higher levels of enzymes show up in your blood. Unfortunately, the basic blood tests done at wellness visits may not include checking liver enzyme levels. For that you need what’s called a comprehensive metabolic blood test. An elevated number could be the only early warning sign of liver problems. Important: Some general practitioners might not think that mildly elevated enzymes, such as alanine aminotransferase (ALT), warrant investigation, but if your enzymes are at all high, you should be checked to see if fatty liver disease or another condition is the cause.