You have probably seen it on social media: “The Next Best Liver Cleansing Diet,” “Magic Detox Tea,” or any number of supplements. Do we really need a kidney or liver cleanse?
Get ready for a hot button topic! The two polarizing arguments seem to circle around one of two theories:
- A liver and kidney cleanse isn’t needed because these organs do it on their own, or,
- Take a pill to magically eliminate all the toxins from your body
What’s the Truth?
In true 131 Method fashion, we’re here to disrupt the detox world, and speak to the updated evidence behind this popular topic! The truth is, YES, you should be supporting your liver naturally. But, not with oversimplified pills or detox teas. We can support our liver detox pathways through REAL foods that cleanse the liver and provide a foundation of specific nutrients, vitamins, and beneficial compounds.
This article reviews the liver detox process, why general detox products don’t work, and specific foods that truly cleanse the diet.
The Liver’s Job
The liver is your body’s garbage disposal and filtration system rolled into one organ.
About the size of a football, the adult liver is a half-moon shaped organ that sits to the left of the stomach. It has about 500 vital functions in the body!
While we won’t review every one, the main jobs of the liver include (1):
- Digestion – producing bile, cholesterol, and more.
- Storage, activation, and transport of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
- Inactivation and excretion of sex hormones – like estrogen and progesterone.
- Detoxification – clearing the blood of drugs, alcohol and other toxins.
Despite the public’s persistent interest in detoxing and “cleansing,” few people focus on liver health. Our liver is responsible for disposing toxins from both inside and outside of the body. So, optimal detoxification requires a strong, healthy liver.
The diet industry likes to oversimplify things: weight loss, vitamins, and of course – detoxing. However, the detoxification process that occurs in the liver is very complex!
Liver Detoxification – in Plain English
The liver detoxifies your body in two essential phases. We’ll try not to nerd out too much! So, here it is, broken down:
How to Liver Detox: Phase 1
Phase 1 is the liver’s first line of defense against eliminating toxins. In this phase, the liver utilizes a family of enzymes called “cytochrome p450.” Each one of these detox enzymes breaks down certain drugs or substances. For example, the enzyme group called CYP1 metabolizes certain hormones, pharmaceutical drugs, and cancer causing substances (2). Go a little overboard on the alcohol last night? Don’t worry, we have an enzyme for that! The CYP2E1 enzymes detoxify alcohol out of your system.
What Happens in Phase 1?
The cytochrome p450 enzymes must transform toxins from a fat-soluble state into a water-soluble one, so our body can eliminate them in our fluids. To do this, the enzymes have to add a chemical compound to the toxin. There are various chemistry names for this reaction, but the most common one is called oxidation. Here’s the problem: adding that compound really pisses the toxin off, and it becomes potentially more dangerous as a result (2)!
If the liver stopped at phase 1, our body would be full of free radicals. These are dangerous compounds that do more harm than good. Luckily, our body is super smart and involves a second phase to address this problem.
How to Detox Liver: Phase 2
Phase 2 is the conjugation phase. Conjugation is a fancy word that basically means combining two different compounds.
What Happens in Phase 2?
In phase 2, our liver takes the angry, water-soluble toxin and gives it a present to make it happy. There are five different presents the liver can give the toxin (2):
- Glucuronic acid
- Amino acids
- Methyl group
Have your eyes glazed over yet? Stay with us! The best part is coming. Once the toxin is made water-soluble in phase 1, and combined with a phase 2 compound, our liver can effectively eliminate the toxin by passing it through bile, urine, sweat, or stool. We can modify how well our body eliminates toxins by fueling it with specific foods in a liver cleansing diet!
Certain Foods Speed up the Revolving Door
Think of the phase 1 enzymes and the presents in phase 2 as revolving doors. The American lifestyle generally involves a nutrient-deficient diet, and a high toxic load. As the popular saying goes, we are overfed yet undernourished. Toxins from products such as plastic, glyphosate, cleaning products, and makeup/skincare are everywhere (3). As a result, our metaphorical revolving doors move pretty slowly! Meaning, our liver cannot efficiently eliminate toxins.
Here’s the good news: certain foods and compounds in foods help speed it up. We can naturally support our liver detox pathways by eating foods that cleanse the liver.
Where Liver Cleansing Teas and Supplements go Wrong
What is good for your liver? Are all teas and supplements that promise a liver and kidney cleanse full of bull? Many of the popular teas and liver detox products include a few nutrients or compounds required in the detox process. However, quick fixes supply many downfalls.
1. They don’t consider the individual
Genetics play a large role in how well our liver eliminates certain toxins. For example, research shows that some individuals may have altered gene expressions of individual detox enzymes. Plain English: something in their genes was disrupted, causing the P450 enzymes in phase 1 to work either better or worse (4). Additionally, while some food compounds enhance the activity of these enzymes (speed up the revolving door), the SAME food, at higher doses, may inhibit (slow down) these enzymes (2).
A general detox supplement that provides a mega dose of certain vitamins or compounds may actually slow down detoxification in certain people. No bueno.
2. They don’t consider both phases
We know from above that the end product of phase 1 is a super angry, oxidized toxin. Just as genetics may influence the phase 1 enzymes, our genes can also affect phase 2. For example, some individuals have a genetic mutation of the MTHFR gene. Because this gene mutation may reduce methionine (one of the key “presents” in phase 2), it may harmfully affect the individual’s ability to neutralize and eliminate toxins.
Detox products that only focus on phase 1 may put some individuals in a place of more harm than before starting!
3. They don’t promote a solid foundation
Taking a liver and kidney cleanse supplement without first focusing on nutrition and lifestyle is like building a straw house in a windstorm. It just doesn’t work! And quite frankly, it’s usually a waste of your money. The first line of defense in supporting a natural liver detox is fueling the body with the right foods! In general, a diet with a primary focus on real, unprocessed foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, fish, and small amounts of grass-fed protein is a great place to start. Drinking lots of water and avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages tops the list too!
Now without further ado, let’s discuss a few specific and essential foods that that support liver detoxification!
Foods that Cleanse the Liver
Cruciferous vegetables are the Muhammad Ali of liver detox foods. Seriously. If you get one takeaway from this post – it’s to increase cruciferous vegetables! This includes vegetables such as:
- Brussels Sprouts
Cruciferous vegetables can enhance both phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification. In phase 1, crucifers induce activity of a one of the P450 enzymes called “CYP 1A2” (2,5,6). This particular family of enzymes is responsible for eliminating known cancer causing environmental chemicals and toxins (7). A large review study found that broccoli and watercress, in particular, have strong detoxification effects in the liver.
In phase 2, cruciferous veggies help add glutathione and/or glucuronic acid (the presents) to angry toxins in order to neutralize and excrete them. Cruciferous vegetables also provide protective nutrients such as polyphenols, vitamins, fiber, and flavonoids.
Garlic & Onions
The allium family of vegetables, garlic and onions in particular, are two other foods that cleanse the liver. Specifically, these veggies promote phase 2 activity, by enhancing the enzyme that connects glutathione to a water-soluble toxin from phase 1 (8).
Stinky breath aside, these veggies are flavorful additions, making them easier to incorporate. Sauté garlic and onions into stir fry recipes, add to browning meats, or incorporate with soups or omelets. Add chopped red onions to salads or sandwiches, and mince garlic or add garlic powder into homemade salad dressings and sauces.
Throw those juice and smoothie “detox drinks” to the curb. High-quality protein sources, like pasture-raised eggs, are extremely important in the detox pathways. These eggs contain a multitude of nutrients and compounds that benefit both phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification (2):
- Amino acids – methionine, glycine, and arginine
- Sulfur – provides organosulfur “presents” for phase 2
- B12 – aides enzymes in phase 1 and methylation for phase 2
In comparison to conventional eggs, pasture-raised eggs also contain higher levels of vitamin A and vitamin E, as well as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (9).
Technically, it’s a compound inside turmeric called curcumin. It’s the main active ingredient in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and acts as an antioxidant in the body. This means it helps to deactivate those angry toxins from phase 1.
Curcumin also increases glutathione synthesis in the body, which is an important factor for phase 2 detoxification (2, 10). By itself, curcumin is not very well absorbed. Fortunately, we can enhance its absorption by combining it with black pepper, which contains an important compound called piperine. One study showed that piperine enhances curcumin absorption by over 2,000 percent (11).
Here are a few ways to incorporate turmeric (i.e. curcumin) into your daily meals:
- Add it to scrambled eggs or quiches.
- Mix it into rice dishes.
- Sprinkle it onto roasted vegetables.
- Incorporate it into smoothies.
- Simmer it with coconut milk and raw honey to make “golden milk.”
We can’t get enough of this powerful spice!
Dark Leafy Greens
Popeye had it right on this one. But, dark leafy greens do a lot more than make us big and strong. Dark leafy greens include vegetables like: spinach, chard, collard greens, bok choy, microgreens, arugula and more. These veggies are rich sources of folate, a key vitamin required for phase 2 methylation (2).
Dark leafy vegetables are also a great source of chlorophyll – the plant pigment that gives them their green coloring! Chlorophyll provides two main benefits for a liver cleansing diet. First, it decreases oxidative damage from chemical carcinogens in the environment (12). Chlorophyll’s second key benefit is its effect on phase 1 enzymes. But, it’s not quite what you would think. While we do want the phase 1 revolving door (i.e. enzymes) to work effectively, we don’t always want to speed up the doors. Inhibiting, or slowing down, phase 1 enzymes allows our phase 2 pathway to “catch up” and eliminate the dangerous byproducts. Chlorophyll helps to slow down the revolving doors of phase 1 (12).
Forget the pumpkin-spice latte, pumpkin seeds are where it’s at! Especially when it comes to foods that cleanse your liver. Pumpkin seeds provide a multitude of benefits for liver detox pathways, but there are two key benefits overall.
First, pumpkin seeds contain higher levels of the amino acids glycine and arginine (2). While most people recognize amino acids as the building blocks of proteins, they are also vital to phase 2 detoxification. In this phase, amino acids (like glycine and arginine) attach to the oxidized byproducts of phase 1 to neutralize and eliminate them. The glycine in pumpkin seeds is also required to make glutathione, which is known as the “master antioxidant” of the body.
Additionally, pumpkin seeds are excellent sources of magnesium, folate, and vitamin B6. Just 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds provides 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of magnesium for women (13). These nutrients are particularly helpful in supporting the body’s methylation pathways (2). By producing adequate methionine (an amino acid), our liver is able to connect it to toxins for excretion.
How to incorporate pumpkin seeds in your meals and snacks:
- Add them to oatmeal in the morning.
- Incorporate them into homemade granola.
- Throw onto a salad for a nutrient-rich crunch.
- Substitute pine nuts for pumpkin seeds for a fun pesto alternative.
Berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries contain a polyphenol called ellagic acid. This compound can help the amino acid glutathione attach to toxic compounds in phase 2 to improve detoxification (2). Ellagic acid also has strong antioxidant properties, making it a must-have for reducing inflammation and eliminating free radicals during a liver cleansing diet. In research, ellagic acid has also shown to prevent estrogen induced tumors because of its effect on liver detoxification enzymes (14).
Other Lifestyle Interventions for an Effective Liver and Kidney Cleanse
Our liver constantly detoxifies every minute. However, certain circumstances may require additional liver support through wholesome foods. For example, research shows that our fat cells are storage units for toxins (among other things). When we lose weight, our fat cells shrink and release fatty acids along with estrogen, fat-soluble vitamins, and organic pollutants (15). This means that supporting our liver with detoxifying foods and nutrients is super important during and after weight loss to prevent a build up of toxins or excess hormones.
Besides the above foods that cleanse the liver, other lifestyle interventions can support and enhance a natural liver cleansing diet:
1. Drink LOTS of Water
Liver detoxification as a whole transforms toxins into a water-soluble form. We must eliminate these water-soluble compounds through our bodily fluids, namely – our pee! We should be drinking a lot of water every day, but especially during a liver cleansing diet so that our body can effectively eliminate these toxins. That’s why we created our 131 Hydration System to encourage you to drink more water throughout the day – wherever you may be! Read our blog post here for other ways to amp up the H20.
2. Sweat, Baby, Sweat
Another effective way to rid the water toxins is to eliminate them via sweat. And you know what that means……exercise! (Wait, were you thinking of something else? 😉). Among the many other obvious benefits of exercise, it can also support our liver detoxification. One large review study found significant levels of heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, and mercury in sweat after exercising (16). Infrared Saunas work too!
3. Reduce Environmental Toxin Exposure
This may seem like a “DUH” factor, but it’s still important to note. If we are working hard to eliminate toxins naturally through food and exercise, it’s prudent to also reduce toxin exposure as much as possible. Aim to select organic foods (prioritize foods in the Dirty Dozen to save some dough), choose glass over plastic storage containers, and use eco-friendly cleaning products. The Environmental Working Group website is a great resource to learn more information about reducing environmental toxins in your life.
Liver detoxification is a complicated process, and most oversimplified detox pills and supplements likely waste your money. So, look to small healthy interventions to make a difference. Foods that can support a liver cleansing diet naturally include: cruciferous vegetables (especially broccoli and watercress), onions and garlic, pasture-raised eggs, turmeric, leafy green vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and berries. Incorporate lots of water throughout the day, and make sure you are including some type of physical activity into your daily routine.
You may feel a little overwhelmed right now. Where do I start? How can I take this giant bubble of information and put it into action? Fortunately, the 131 Method takes all of this into consideration! Our science-backed method of dietary phasing incorporates liver supportive interventions, including a specific phase completely focused on nourishing your body with essential micronutrients and liver supporting compounds! Learn more here.