The days are finally getting longer and it’s time for spring cleaning. After a long winter, it’s an excellent idea to clean and refresh your home. Since your body is actually your primary home, it could use a little spring cleaning too.
Let’s explore how a healthy body stays vibrant and working smoothly.
What the liver is
Our bodies have many ways to stay clean, orderly and working properly. Most folks may not realize that the liver is especially important to our health and well-being. This 3-pound organ is credited with performing over 500 tasks critical to survival. Sometimes called the body’s “chemistry lab,” the liver cleans our blood, balances blood sugar, makes digestive juices hormones and cholesterol. OK, that’s only five things — 495 left.
Interestingly, all nutrient-rich blood leaving the stomach and intestines goes straight to the liver before being allowed into the general circulation. The liver inspects, cleans and removes toxins. And the growing list of toxins in our foods, air and homes can be overwhelming these days. Liver cells die in the process of doing their jobs, but the liver is uniquely able to regenerate itself. This organ can miraculously grow back in less than two weeks, even if 75% of it is removed.
What the liver does
The liver is in charge of regulating blood clotting, blood sugar and cholesterol. Blood clotting is a very important and complicated job. There is a very fine balance between blood that is too thick or too thin. Thick blood can cause strokes; thin blood can allow bleeding. Either extreme is deadly. You need your blood thickness to be just right. A life-or-death version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The liver makes, stores and breaks down sugar, depending on what your body needs. A steady, moderate supply of sugar is crucial to survival. Any highs or lows in blood sugar can cause fatigue, brain fog, irritability or worse. A healthy liver takes care of all this automatically. Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver because it is so important to every cell in the body.
What harms the liver
Having so many responsibilities makes the liver vulnerable to problems. You can take simple steps to make life easier for your liver. What you eat, drink, and do every day makes a difference.
A few of the biggest challenges for your liver are alcohol, sugar and drugs. Packaged foods with added sugar, especially “high fructose corn syrup” (HFCS), are contributing to the current epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and “fatty liver disease.”
These are some of the leading causes of death in the USA. A recent study found that children drinking one soda containing HFCS per week had problems; 90% were obese and 38% had fatty liver disease. HFCS clogs and inflames the liver. These are major problems — to the health of the individual, society and the health care system! HFCS is a cheap sweetener synthesized from corn and used in soft drinks, baked goods, candy and cereal.
Similarly, synthetic fats, such as “partially hydrogenated” oils that contain trans fats, are cheap man-made unhealthy substitutes found recently in the human diet.
Some drugs are also a challenge. Many drugs are detoxified in the liver and some cause damage. “NSAIDS” like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and acetominophen (Tylenol), statins, some antibiotics and steroids can cause liver disease.
Tylenol is especially important to monitor because it’s in more than 600 popular drugs used to treat symptoms (not the cause) of allergies, colds, headaches and insomnia. Tylenol’s maximum therapeutic dose is close to the toxic dose, so you need to be cautious. Mixing Tylenol with alcohol further increases risk.
What helps the liver
Even a cursory understanding of what harms the liver offers answers to what helps it. Often the best “treatment” is stopping harm. You can reduce risk of liver disease by being careful with alcohol and drugs — both OTC and prescription — and by never mixing the two.
Weight loss, even just a few pounds, is very helpful. Hot tip: “body fat” is more important than “total weight.” If possible use a scale that measures your “percent body fat.” As people get healthier their body fat decreases while their lean muscle mass increases, often resulting in no net weight change. This is discouraging if you only measure total body weight.
As always, what you do most days is the most important factor in your health. Improve your nutrition — more whole foods, less processed synthetic fake foods. “Good fats” from nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado help the liver. Whole grains, vegetables and low-sugar fruit is great, as is lean protein from fish, chicken, turkey and beans. Stay — or get — active. Allow yourself plenty sleep and have some fun every day. Chip away at your goals on a daily basis, and try not to be perfect right away, OK?
Thank and appreciate your liver for the amazing organ it is, and for all it does to keep a “spring in your step” this spring.
John Winters is a naturopathic physician, who recently retired after operating a practice in La Grande since 1992.