Our liver is a sensitive organ. Here's how to take care of it.
By Steve Diogo
Substance abuse takes a toll on the body as well as the mind and spirit. As the organ tasked with stripping toxins from the blood, the liver of a heavy drinker or drug user undoubtedly has seen some rough times. Many people in recovery and their livers need some serious tender loving care.
Except in the most extreme cases of alcoholic cirrhosis, liver damage can be reversed—or at least stabilized—according to physicians and natural-health practitioners.
Weighing in at just around three pounds, the liver filters circulating blood and secretes bile into the small intestine to help digest fats and make them ready for the body to use. It also regulates blood clotting and can mobilize a chemical and cellular arsenal for self-protection. It is the liver’s unique ability to regenerate itself that makes it so amenable to repair.
Experts agree that armed with information, guidance and a commitment to lifestyle changes, you can take charge of your body and be on your way to a healthy, toxin-free liver.
If you have stopped abusing alcohol or drugs, you have taken the first major step in arresting the damage, says Alejandro Fernandez, an acupuncturist, naturopathic practitioner and owner of the Art of Natural Healing in River Forrest, Ill. He has seen improvement through the use of cleansing and nutritional supplements—even in patients with hepatitis B and C.
“The liver is the body’s filter that keeps the blood clean,” Fernandez says. “When the liver is overwhelmed by poison, the first step is to stop ingesting the poison. Then we can begin cleansing the liver through natural herbs and nutrients.”
In addition to kick-starting the physical rehabilitation, cleansing the liver can play a major role in overall recovery as well, Fernandez says. “The sooner we can remove the toxins and addictive substances from the liver, the sooner the cravings can dissipate and the easier recovery can be,” he says.
There are numerous liver cleansing techniques, some as simple as drinking more water and others as extreme as coffee enemas. Debra Alsvig-Einhaus, a massage therapist and nutritional consultant in Ottawa, Ill., urges her clients to avoid extreme measures.
“There’s a lot of disconcerting information on the internet,” Alsvig-Einhaus says. “If you are already dealing with a compromised system, you don’t want to throw something at the body that it’s not going to be able to handle.” The most effective cures, she says, are usually the simplest. “Most people really don’t realize how effective simple changes like drinking lots of pure, clean water and eating the right food can be.”
And it’s not just alternative healthcare practitioners who emphasize the power of nutrition in revitalizing the liver. In an article for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, physician and University of California-San Francisco medical professor Jacquelyn J. Maher writes, “Aggressive nutritional support is recommended for all patients with alcoholic liver disease.” Particularly important, she says, is the use of antioxidants to counteract the free radicals that can threaten even a healthy liver. Many berries, fruits, spices, nuts and grains contain high levels of antioxidants.
Alsvig-Einhaus recommends juicing as one of the best ways to deliver the antioxidants your liver needs to restore its cells. Beyond simple nutritional changes, Alsvig-Einhaus is a proponent of active probiotics, which help boost the body’s immune system and empower the digestive system.
Probiotics replace the good bacteria stripped from our systems by what she calls “a lifetime of overusing antibiotics.” Yogurt is the most commonly available probiotic, but Alsvig-Einhaus says the cultures in regular store-bought yogurt are very weak, and she encourages seeking the advice of a nutritional expert to get safe, high-quality products.
Like all aspects of recovery, liver restoration is best done with help. It’s best to consult an expert, especially when it comes to nutritional supplements and herbal remedies. “With nutritional supplements you have to be very, very careful,” says Troy Spurrill, a chiropractor and practitioner in functional medicine in Eagan, Minn.
“Most supplements on their own will not cause damage if they’re clean and you’re taking them within the recommended daily allowance. But when you start combining them with medications, it becomes a whole different story.”
He suggests monitoring dosages of both herbs and medications over time. “Once you start stabilizing the body through nutrition, the need for medication often decreases.” For example, Spurrill explains that some people with liver damage who are on high-blood-pressure medication may find the need for medication decreases as the liver heals.
“Our cells are essentially replaced every seven years,” says Spurill, “so whatever you’re eating and however you’re taking care of yourself, if you can hit that seven-year mark, you’ve got new cells to work with.”
This is Your Liver on Alcohol
You liver’s job: To combat naturally occurring toxins.
What excessive drinking does: Even one night of heavy drinking can leave fatty deposits in the liver, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Years of alcohol abuse cause major trouble—from alcoholic hepatitis (occurring in up to half of all heavy drinkers) to cirrhosis, usually fatal and found in about 15 to 30 percent of heavy drinkers.
Stages of liver damage:
From “Exploring Alcohol’s Effects on Liver Function,” Jacquelyn J. Maher, M.D. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Research and Health, VOL. 21, NO. 1, 1997
- Fatty Liver: Some degree of fat deposited in the liver occurs in most heavy drinkers. It is reversible and not believed to lead to more serious damage.
- Alcoholic Hepatitis: Scar tissue replaces healthy tissue. Symptoms may include fever, jaundice and abdominal pain. This condition, which occurs in 50 percent of heavy drinkers, can be fatal but may be reversible with abstinence.
- Alcoholic Cirrhosis: The most advanced form of liver disease, diagnosed in 15 to 30 percent of heavy drinkers, is characterized by extensive fibrosis that stiffens blood vessels and distorts the internal structure of the liver. This often leads to the malfunction of other organs such as the brain and kidneys. It usually is fatal but can stabilize with abstinence.
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