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Liver Health

17 September 2018

Should you detox your liver?

Marketing fad or essential to a healthy liver? We investigate whether or not you need a detox.

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The liver has a pretty demanding job – it performs more than 500 functions every day to keep your body functioning properly. Everything you consume – food, alcohol, medication – is processed through your liver.

But does that mean you should detox your liver? Experts say probably not.

Your body is a natural detoxifier

One of the many jobs your liver has is as your body’s natural detoxifier. Every day it works hard at getting rid of toxins and producing bile to keep your digestive system happy. 

In fact, our entire body is a natural detoxifier. According to an article published by Cleveland Clinic, “Our digestive tract, liver, kidneys and skin are responsible for breaking down toxins for elimination through urine, stool or sweat.” 

Ranit Mishori, a faculty member in family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine has reviewed medical literature available on colon cleanses. He told NPR, "The body has its own amazing detoxification systems: the liver and the kidneys. Unless there's a blockage in one of these organs that do it day and night, there's absolutely no need to help the body get rid of toxins."

But does that mean your liver needs a bit of extra help? Not so according to Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University. He told The Guardian that there are two types of detoxing, and that you need to distinguish between the two. “One is respectable and the other isn’t,” he said.

According to Professor Ernst the respectable type of detox is the medical treatment of people who have life-threatening drug additions. “The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”

He says that if toxins build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete you’d either die or need serious medical intervention. “The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak,” he said. “There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.”

No scientific evidence that liver detoxing is beneficial

According to Dr Tinsay Woreta, a Johns Hopkins hepatologist, common ingredients found in liver cleanses may have some positive effects on your liver. For example, milk thistle can decrease liver inflammation, while turmeric extract can protect against liver injury. However, there have not been enough clinical trials to recommend using these natural extracts for prevention against liver inflammation or injury.

“Unfortunately, these products are not regulated by the FDA, and thus are not uniform and have not been adequately tested in clinical trials," Dr Woreta said in a Johns Hopkins article.

If you overindulge in alcohol or food, a cleanse or detox won’t undo the damage you’ve done to your liver. Instead, she says, you should adopt a "less is always best" attitude when it comes to liver health.

In addition, Dr Woreta says, “Liver cleanses have not been proven to treat existing liver damage but there are many other forms of treatment available for those who are affected.”

woman holding green smoothie

There are certain health risks associated with a liver detox

Unfortunately, there are some potential health risks that may come with a liver detox. These include:

Dehydration: Although you might be instructed to drink vast amounts of fluid, you are at risk of dehydration if a cleanse includes ingredients such as Epsom salts, which may increase your urination and bowel movements.

An overdose: Epsom salt is actually toxic if consumed in large amounts. Although the liver detox may stay within a safe range, people might be tempted to use more than the recommended dose to improve the cleanse. Symptoms of an Epsom salt overdose include vomiting, low blood pressure, muscle weakness or coma, and can result in death. 

Blockages: During a liver cleanse, you may be at risk of dislodged gall stones, which can get stuck in the ducts and canals that go from the liver through the gall bladder and into the intestines, causing a dangerous blockage. Severe pain during a liver detox could be a warning sign that a stone is stuck. 

Allergies: The ingredients in a detox might be something you haven’t consumed before, which could trigger an allergic reaction.

Skip the liver detox; follow a healthy lifestyle instead

Although it may be tempting to do a liver cleanse or detox, always speak to your doctor before starting one. In the meantime, here are six ways you can keep your liver happy and healthy:

1. Practise safe sex.
2. Take medication (over-the-counter or prescription) correctly; speak to your doctor if you are worried about mixing two different types.
3. Follow a balanced diet.
4. Maintain a healthy weight.
5. Exercise regularly.
6. Stay hydrated.

Image credit: iStock