Love your liver and it will look after you

2014-09-12 00:00

THE new spring season is on us and people are spring-cleaning their homes and feeling inspired to clean out the winter cobwebs.

Often the warmer weather also encourages us to take a good look at our health and make plans to ditch the bad eating habits that crept in during the cold months. Extreme detox diets rear their heads and people are tempted to spend a week or more eating only fruits or vegetables, or eating nothing and just drinking water to “help the body cleanse itself”. Fortunately (for those of us who enjoy our food), detox diets have no scientific backing. The body’s organs and systems are designed such that detoxification is constantly under way.

Potentially harmful substances are removed by the body’s most metabolically complex organ — the liver. These unwanted substances enter the body through air pollution, tobacco smoke, food, medications and alcohol.

Our genetic make-up means people differ in the way they deal with toxins. Some remove toxins quickly and efficiently, others allow them to linger a little longer. Poor detoxification may be a risk factor for developing cancer.

How detoxification works

Detoxification occurs in two distinct phases. Phase one is an elaborate process converting a potentially harmful molecule into a less harmful one that can be more easily eliminated from the body. When phase one is sluggish and doesn’t occur sufficiently, there is a build-up of toxins. If you battle to fall asleep at night after drinking a cup of coffee, your phase one is quite possibly a little slower than it needs to be. Cutting down on caffeine intake is advisable.

On the other hand, some people have an overactive phase one, resulting in an abundance of toxins being formed, at a faster rate than they can be eliminated. It is particularly important for these individuals to avoid smoking and avoid all foods containing potentially carcinogenic substances like smoked meats. We will discuss the dietary considerations in more detail below.

Phase two is the final detoxification step. It changes the activated toxins from phase one into water-soluble molecules that are eliminated in the urine, sweat and stools.

Some individuals are genetically predisposed to a faulty phase two process. Fortunately, this step can be greatly enhanced by eating more vegetables, particularly cruciferous (broccoli and cabbage) and allium (onion and garlic) vegetables. In summary, detoxification varies between individuals and the two phases can be more or less active in individuals. Eating a healthy diet is vital to support the liver and assist both phase one and phase two to proceed smoothly. Obviously, the greatest support we can give to the liver is not adding additional toxins and limiting the potentially harmful substances introduced to the body.

Some simple guidelines to

assist the detoxification process

• Eat more antioxidant-rich foods, particularly red, blue and purple-coloured fruits and vegetables. These colourful foods are rich in polyphenols, which assist phase-one detoxification.

Also, increase your intake of beetroot, pomegranates and berries.

• Increase the cruciferous and allium vegetables on your plate. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts offer protection against cancer by reducing the toxicity of carcinogenic substances.

Onions, garlic, spring onions and leeks are known to reduce free radicals and the resultant damage to the body cells.

• Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a toxin that can damage, and in time, destroy, liver cells. Liver damage can result in a build-up of fat in the liver, inflammation and the scarring of liver tissue. This limits the effectiveness of all the liver processes, including detoxification. For people who already have liver disease, even a small amount of alcohol can worsen the damage.

Limit your daily alcohol intake to two units for men and one unit for women. A single unit is counted as 125 ml of wine, one beer or one tot of whiskey.

• Limit your exposure to toxins like poisons, insecticides and smoke. Limiting the intake of fatty foods, smoked and cured meats (bacon, smoked chicken breasts) and charred braai meat will assist the liver in not being overloaded with unnecessary toxins. Be aware of medications and try to minimise unnecessary intake. Always check with your pharmacist before mixing medications and never take higher doses than what is recommended.

A healthier diet leads to a healthier liver, which will lead to a healthier you. Supporting your liver daily is far more important than a crash diet to “detox”.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at

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