Well Health

What to Know Before Trying a Liver Detox

July 13, 2020
A cup of green tea.
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Quick Read

Liver detoxes are a lie

  • Your liver cleanses itself — no need for a detox.
  • Detoxes aren’t proven by scientific research to be helpful.
  • In some cases, they may even cause harm.
  • To keep your liver healthy, eat nutritious food, exercise and limit alcohol.

“Detox” is a word you hear all the time now, especially on social media. Influencers have detox days to try to compensate after a night of drinking and partying. Juice cleanses supposedly rid your body of toxins. And then there’s the infamous “teatox” promoted by celebrities like Kylie Jenner.

But there’s one type of detox that’s been around longer than social media: the liver detox. 

For decades, people have turned to juices, teas and supplements to supposedly rid their liver of toxins. 

The problem is, the claim that you need to cleanse your liver is a lie, says Paula Cox-North, a nurse practitioner and liver disease specialist at the Liver Clinic at Harborview Medical Center.

Does anything actually help cleanse the liver?

Most liver cleanse products involve herbs, vitamins, supplements or a combination of those things. 

The problem is that none of these types of products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning there’s no science to prove they have any impact on your liver, Cox-North says.

A few things, like milk thistle or turmeric, that have been popularized as liver detox solutions, could potentially be healthy for your liver, but there’s not enough research to prove that they’re helpful — or safe.

“There may be a single ingredient in a liver cleanse that does have some data to show it might be helpful with inflammation of the liver. But for the most part, we tell people not to take them,” Cox-North says. 

Why? Because some of those supplements might not be as harmless as they seem.

Are liver detoxes harmful?

The answer is: potentially.

Many of us perceive herbal supplements and other “natural” remedies as safe, maybe even safer than prescription drugs. But that safety halo isn’t always justified.

“They can build up in your body, and because we don’t know much about them, there can be bad effects because of them,” Cox-North explains.

She uses green tea extract as an example. It’s included in many liver cleanses, weight loss supplements and other detox products.

“There have been reported cases of liver injury that’s occurred from taking green tea extract,” she says.

Before you freak out, that doesn’t mean you should stop drinking green tea. It just means that taking it regularly as a supplement or drinking multiple cups a day may not be the best idea — and that’s true of many other nutrients that are healthy in smaller doses.

And if you consider wasting your money on products that aren’t doing anything to make you healthier a type of harm, then yes, liver detoxes are clearly harmful.

“People spend a lot of money on these supplements; it’s appalling how much,” says Cox-North.

How the liver cleans the body

So, why don’t you need to detox your liver? Because it’s already an expert at cleansing itself. Its job is to filter your blood and provide nutrients to the rest of your body. 

After your blood picks up nutrients from your gut, its first stop is the liver. Liver cells called hepatocytes process and package those nutrients. They also metabolize and excrete toxins, rendering them harmless.

Another set of cells in the liver called macrophages help rid the blood of dead cells and cellular debris and help clear the blood of any invading microbes.

“Your liver is designed to take care of itself,” Cox-North says.

Aside from being self-sufficient, it’s also regenerative — it’s one of the few organs in your body that can actually repair itself and has the ability to grow new cells after it has been damaged. 

However, this ability is limited if your liver is severely damaged. So as awesome as your liver’s regenerative abilities are, it doesn’t mean you should stop practicing healthy habits to keep your liver in top shape. 

How to keep your liver healthy

There are simple things you can do to help your liver function at its best — no detox teas needed. 

Get regular exercise

Moving your body can help protect your liver. Exercise burns calories, which reduces your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high blood fats. These conditions have been linked to fatty liver disease, a common cause of liver inflammation and scarring that can ultimately lead to cirrhosis. 

Eat healthy food

Eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains and avoiding too much fat and salt will also help keep your liver healthy. Eating a high-fat diet is another contributor to fatty liver disease. 

Limit alcohol

Even though your liver can clean itself and regenerate, it’s still important to prevent damage to it, especially damage caused by alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis can cause inflammation that can trigger a serious condition called alcoholic hepatitis. Over time, heavy drinking can lead to permanent scarring called cirrhosis, which can lead to liver failure and liver cancer. 

The bottom line

Since your liver cleans itself, there’s no need to do any kind of liver cleanse or detox — and in fact, those things could cause more harm than good. Instead, focus on keeping your liver healthy by exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and limiting your alcohol intake.

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