Monday, July 28, 2008

Feeling liverish?

Once thought of in the past as a culinary delight, today the liver is more thought of as a saving grace after that one glass of red too many. Being the largest internal organ in the human body, it seems likely that it will have an important role to play in maintaining our health and well being. But what exactly does the liver do for a living and how can its dysfunction contribute to our dysfunction?

An adult liver weighs an average of 1.4-1.6 kilograms and is vital for our survival. It is a driving force behind our metabolism and digestion and also acts as a storage unit for vitamins and minerals, helps breakdown red blood cells, aids detoxification and is a major centre for many biological reactions. What’s more, it has amazing potential to regenerate lost tissue and can grow back to its original size with as little as one quater of its usual mass.[1]

With so many vital roles to play, it makes sense that in order for these things to happen, the liver must be functioning at its full potential. This is often easier said than done as the many excesses of daily life contribute to what the liver has to process. These commonly come in the form of:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs – prescription, over the counter and recreational
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Environmental toxins :herbicides, pesticides and hormones used in food production
  • Stress
  • Poor diet high in refined carbohydrates
  • Synthetic chemicals found in common beauty products

With a number of these things circulating through our system at any given time, we rely on our liver to take care of them and see them safely on their way. But like most things that are overloaded, our liver will eventually reach breaking point and just not have the ability to do its job properly. This is when we start to develop liver related symptoms such as:

  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Digestive upsets
  • Nausea
  • Reduced or non existent morning appetite
  • Poor sleep

Most people don’t associate the liver with hormones but it is the liver that breaks down the hormones once they have done their job throughout our body. It is for this reason that the liver can have an impact on hormonal imbalance. The steroid hormones pass through the liver to be metabolised and these include:

  • Sex hormones: controls the menstrual cycle and reproduction
  • Cortisone: preparing us for the fight or flight response
  • Aldosterone: controls the balance of sodium, potassium and water, thereby influencing fluid retention

Let’s look specifically at oestrogen and testosterone. Once oestrogen passes through the liver, it is broken down into a less active form which can then be excreted into the intestine where a number of things can happen. Elimination via the bowel can take place or the oestrogen can be activated once again and re-absorbed through the bowel wall and back into circulation.[2] This re-absorption will increase the level of oestrogen in the body and contribute to oestrogen dominant conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis, PMS (lumpy &/or painful breasts, heavy &/or painful menstruation) and weight gain, especially around the hips, bottom and thighs. This weight distribution is the classic example of a pear shaped body.

Testosterone, like oestrogen, circulates in both males and females. Its synthesis begins in the liver and if not metabolised efficiently, can cause elevated levels to re-circulate through our system. Elevated testosterone levels are found in conditions such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and due to the masculinising effects of this hormone, contribute to male pattern hair growth and acne that are so common with PCOS. Increased testosterone levels can also affect the menstrual cycle, reproductive function and weight gain especially around the abdomen. This is your classic apple shaped body.

So if you feel like your liver can do with a helping hand, here are some simple steps you can incorporate to ease the toxic load:

  • Limit alcohol consumption. In order to prevent liver damage, it is recommended to have no more than 2 standard drinks a day. 2-4 drinks per day are thought to be a hazard and 4+ drinks per day are thought to be harmful.[3] If weight loss is a priority, the extra calories alcohol provides should be further reduced to a maximum of 3-5 drinks per week.
  • Increase your intake of bitter foods – endive, chicory, silverbeet, radicchio, outer leaves of cos lettuce, dandelion root, and grapefruit. These foods will stimulate your liver by increasing bile flow, which will assist in removing those substances that your liver breaks down.
  • Ensure you are getting adequate amounts of protein in your diet. This will help to bind toxins and get them ready for elimination.
  • Antioxidants, such as Vitamins A, C, E, beta carotene and selenium will protect liver cells from damage.
  • Lecithin protects liver cell membranes from damage from the constant barrage of toxins and free radicals they come into contact with. It acts as an emulsifier and is derived from soybeans or egg. Sources include brewers yeast, grains, legumes, fish and wheatgerm but can also come in capsule or granule form (it can be sprinkled on cereals and soups or can be added to smoothies). It’s also fantastic with assisting the digestion of fats and absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
  • Sulphur containing foods found in foods from the cabbage family, garlic and dandelion can help with detoxification.
  • Exercise at least twice a week. Not only will this help your body eliminate toxins, it will leave you feeling fantastic.
  • Squeeze half a lemon into a cup of warm water first thing in the morning to give your body an early morning cleanse.
  • Opt for natural beauty products.

Making a conscious effort to reduce the toxic load presented to your liver will assist in achieving and maintaining good health and well being. If you can identify with any of the above mentioned liver symptoms, spare some thought for your overworked liver and cut it some slack. You will reap the benefits…

Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 58
[3] Ruth Trickey, (2003) “Women, Hormones & the Menstrual Cycle”, Allen & Unwin NSW, pg 384