the liver is a truly vital organ—it helps the body process fats and carbs from everything we eat, and detox from medications, chemicals, and toxins we encounter every day. The liver doesn’t need a lot of help from us, but it does require some consistent support. That includes avoiding certain unhealthy habits that cause inflammation, potentially leading to liver disorders and liver failure. These are the most common ways you’re ruining your liver, according to experts. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
“The biggest threat to the liver nowadays is fatty liver, or NAFLD, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” says Ohio-based gastroenterologist Dr. Jesse P. Houghton. “This is an extremely common condition present in 30% of Americans.” Over time, fatty liver can lead to a condition called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis), inflammation that can lead to cirrhosis.
The main risk factors for fatty liver are obesity, diabetes, and high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and products containing high fructose corn syrup, says Houghton. The most effective treatment is weight loss. “Losing weight will cause the fat to come out of the liver. Even a 10% weight loss will significantly help,” he says. Controlling your blood sugar is also key. Drinking coffee (which contains an antioxidant beneficial to the liver) can be helpful too.
“Drinking too much alcohol too regularly—more than one standard drink daily—can wreak havoc on our livers by causing scarring,” he says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of the book Recipe for Survival. “If prolonged, that can cause alcoholic liver disease and potentially cirrhosis, which can lead to the need for a liver transplant.”
“Trans fats are terrible for your liver,” says Dr. Anthony Puopolo, chief medical officer at RexMD. “Trans fats are not able to be processed effectively by your liver and cause liver cells to become inflamed. Eating large amounts of trans fats can cause permanent liver damage and scarring.” Trans fats are found in some fried foods and baked goods, and in foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Be sure to check Nutrition Facts labels, where trans fat content is listed.
“Ultra-processed foods harm the liver by causing inflammation and fat deposition,” says Hunnes. That can lead to fatty liver. “Consuming too many refined or ultra-processed foods and beverages, such as sugar-sweetened or high-fructose corn syrup sweetened beverages, for too long can lead to cirrhosis and a need for a liver transplant,” she says. Having too much visceral fat (the type of fat that resides in and around organs), can also increase that risk.
“It’s well known that excess alcohol is harmful to the liver and can ultimately result in cirrhosis. However, cigarette smoking is also harmful to the liver, especially if someone already has some underlying damage to the liver, say from alcohol or fatty liver,” says Houghton.
“Alcohol intake and extreme diets, like high fat/low carb, and unnecessary herbal and dietary supplements (which can include protein powders) are the two most common patterns of liver injury I see in my clinic,” says Dr. Vanessa Mendez, a triple board-certified gastroenterologist, internist, and lifestyle medicine physician in Florida. “The liver does a great job of cleaning up our blood from chemicals and the excess fats we introduce into our bodies daily. However, when we overload our detox pathways with unnecessary supplements, fats or toxins like alcohol, we disrupt our liver’s ability to clean the body, which results in accumulation of liver-injuring chemicals.”
“We should become wise and discerning consumers of supplements, just as we are of prescription meds,” says Méndez. Make sure any supplements you’re taking come from a reputable manufacturer. And it’s always a good idea to tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking, and before you start a new one.
“There are a lot of simple ways to support optimal liver function on a daily basis that don’t require radically restructuring your diet or buying into a trendy cleansing product,” he says Dr Jaclyn Tolentino, senior physician at Parsley Health. “One of the best ways is to up your water intake. Water keeps the things we put in our bodies moving, so we’re eliminating as we’re taking in new things.”
A healthy diet rich in certain whole foods can also help. “Research suggests that some foods may be particularly beneficial for boosting liver function, including cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, ginger, and blueberries,” says Tolentino. “These foods offer a host of other health benefits, so adding them to your diet is a great way to increase the nutrient profile of your meals.”
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