Cadmium in ground flaxseed. Mercury in tuna higher than once thought. Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Teflon pans and floss. Everywhere we look there is another new toxic exposure. While the outlook may seem grim, the liver is well-equipped to get rid of waste and biotransform toxins. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids are critical to detox your liver naturally.
Clinicians and consumers, keep reading to learn the foods and nutritional supplements the body needs every day to clear out even the most troublesome toxins. You’ll find the science to back it up and resources for avoiding common toxins in food, air, and household items. With liver detox covered, you will feel like a brand new person with renewed energy, focus, a healthier weight, and glowing skin.
Our bodies are made to deal with waste on a regular basis. However, the modern world contains more toxins than ever before, including new-to-nature molecules that our bodies did not evolve to handle. That means eating a healthy, fiber-rich, organic diet and drinking plentiful amounts of clean water is not enough to ward off all of the toxic exposures we face every day.
We are grateful to our sponsor, Metabolic Maintenance, for making this blog possible.
Do You Need a Liver Cleanse?
Talk of liver cleanses or juice fasts for detoxifying the liver and losing weight quickly is all over the internet. The idea is to flush out toxins, take antioxidants, and give the liver a break from the toxins that come in every day. However, popular liver cleanses don’t always do what they claim. They don’t provide critical ingredients for helping the liver detoxify like fiber and certain amino acids. Also, a liver cleanse is short-lived. What you really need is a strategy to detoxify all day every day.
Before you dive into a juice fast, the suggestions in this blog will tell you how you can detox your liver every day by providing the foundational nutrients it needs according to human biochemistry and published literature. If you believe your liver needs extra special attention, work with an integrative and functional medicine practitioner to design a specific liver detox or liver cleanse customized for your needs. They often involve a whole-foods, anti-inflammatory, allergen-free diet along with the same nutritional supplements for healthy detoxification discussed here.
Although no one seems to talk about it much, toxic exposures are a well-known cause of cancer. Toxins damage cells, leading them to malfunction. While more sinister toxins like arsenic or asbestos can cause cancer, something as simple as UV light can cause cancer (skin cancer, of course). These substances, or even UV light, can harm DNA.
When DNA is damaged, your body’s blueprint is damaged. Damaged DNA is a prerequisite for developing cancer. Cancer is a disease of cells gone wild. They don’t listen to signals. They don’t behave properly. They don’t die. Avoiding toxins and helping your body detoxify can reduce your risk of cancer. Given that cancer is a leading cause of death, we should all be working each day to stop cancer before it starts. My colleague, Terry Pollock, often cited an old proverb when it came to cancer, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Memory, Attention, and Movement Worse with Toxins
Toxins can cause problems with the brain and nervous system. Mercury can harm the brain and you might have heard of the “mad hatter syndrome,” which exemplifies it. Brain cells are particularly sensitive to poisons. Headaches, tremors, difficulty walking, and all-over pain and fatigue can show up when someone has been poisoned. Autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been linked to certain toxic exposures in utero.1
People who have high levels of heavy metals or pesticides may have trouble thinking, poor memory, and difficulty speaking. They may leave their jobs because they cannot function. Unexplained neurological illnesses need to be investigated for toxicity.
Toxins Harm the Skin and Hair
Skin rashes and eruptions can be a sign of toxic exposure. The skin is a detoxification organ and many clinicians view unexplained skin problems as a final attempt by the body to detoxify– by exuding toxins through the skin. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are known to cause skin manifestations after accidental exposures.
Hair loss that has no other clear cause could be a sign of toxicity. The sulfur-rich nature of hair acts as a sponge for heavy metals and it is a major way we get rid of toxins. In fact, hair testing is a legitimate technique to estimate the last three months of heavy metal exposure. In unexplained cases of hair loss, I suggest evaluating for toxicity.
Immune System on the Fritz? Check Toxins
When the immune system is malfunctioning, one possible cause is that it has been damaged by toxic exposures. In integrative and functional medicine, a misguided immune response can indicate too many toxins that the liver cannot handle. Toxins can harm immune glands and imbalance immune cells.2 The risks for asthma, allergy,3 or autoimmune diseases4 are increased with toxic exposures. And autoimmune diseases of the thyroid are more common in people who live in polluted cities.5
Toxins Masquerade as Hormones
If your hormones are wildly out of balance, toxins are probably playing a role. Some of the toxins we face each day are called xenoestrogens or estrogen-like manmade chemicals. Found in plastics and pesticides, they displace our normal, natural hormones and masquerade as the real thing. Others are known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can push our hormones out of balance. Endocrine disruptors can damage glands such as the thyroid, causing cancers,6 interfering with thyroid function, and disturbing thyroid hormone transport.7,8
Certain illnesses can be a sign of excessive toxins (or poisons).9-13
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Attention problems
- Autoimmune diseases
- Difficulty walking and/or weakness
- Hormone imbalance
- Immune system dysfunction
- Multiple chemical sensitivity
- Parkinson’s disease
- Poor memory
- Skin rashes and eruptions
- Thyroid disorders
- Unexplained hair loss
When developing babies are exposed to toxins in the womb, it can pose serious problems for the newborn and future child, as I describe in my blog, “Things to Avoid When Pregnant: How to Make a Non-Toxic Baby in a Toxic World.”
How Your Liver Helps You Detoxify
All day long your liver helps to rid your body of toxins, both those made inside of the body and those that come from outside of the body. More than just a filter, your liver is in charge of transforming toxins into molecules that are not as harmful and shipping them out of the body quickly.
Your liver naturally detoxifies these pollutants every day:14,15
- Air pollutants
- Food additives
- Heavy metals
- Microbes and their metabolites and harmful toxins
- Over-the-counter medications
- Pharmaceutical medications
- Recreational drugs
- Toxic byproducts of normal daily metabolism
Natural liver detoxification is a three-step process that takes hard-to-dissolve substances and makes them water-soluble so they can be purged. The first phase is a preparation step. The second phase tags a molecule to the toxin so that it can be easily shipped out of the body. The third phase physically removes it from the body.
Phase I liver detoxification is the step where toxins are chemically prepared for processing. In phase I detox, enzymes called cytochrome P450 (CYP450) enzymes change toxic chemicals so that they are ready for phase II. Usually in phase I, the toxin is stripped of an electron, or turned into a free radical, so that it will easily go through Phase II. By making it a free radical, the toxin is ready to grab onto any nearby molecule. That’s a good thing for getting rid of it. The problem with this phase is that the toxin becomes more unstable, harmful, and damaging. CYP450 liver enzymes use different chemical reactions in phase I detoxification: oxidation, reduction, hydrolysis, hydration, and dehalogenation.14
In phase II liver detoxification, the unstable toxin from phase I is bonded to an amino acid or another molecule such as a methyl group. This helps to stabilize the toxin so it is not as damaging to the cells and tissues around it. Once the toxin is joined to an amino acid or another molecule, the body can expel the toxin or “send it packing.” Phase II is referred to as a “conjugation” step of detoxification because the toxin is conjugated to a molecule before it is sent out of the body.
Phase II conjugation pathways include:
- Glutathione conjugation
- Amino acid conjugation (with glycine, taurine, glutamine, ornithine, or arginine)
It’s important to support phase I and phase II at the same time so that every toxin is handled quickly and effectively as it gets escorted out of the body. If you don’t have enough antioxidants for phase I, your body can become overwhelmed with damaging free radical toxins. If you don’t have enough amino acids or nutrients for phase II, you can build up unstable, harmful toxins. The goal is to get rid of toxins quickly and make sure they do the least damage possible on their way out of the body.
Phase III detoxification refers to the final stage of detoxification. Phase III involves transporting the packaged toxin out of the body through bile or urine.15 Sweat is another great way to get rid of toxins.
Vitamins and Nutrients Important for Daily Phase I Detoxification14
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Branched-chain amino acids
Antioxidants, Vitamins, Minerals, and Nutrients That Protect Us from Free Radicals
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Thiols from garlic, onions, and cruciferous vegetables
- Silymarin from milk thistle
- Oligomeric proanthocyanidins
Liver Detoxification Foods
Food is a wonderful way to support your detoxification pathways. You eat it all day long. It is in a whole-food form, which promotes health, unlike processed foods. Colorful plant foods have thousands of beneficial chemicals that can work together for better health. Eating an organic, plant-rich diet with a rainbow of vegetables and fruits is a safe bet for supporting detoxification pathways. You can boost your liver detoxification even more by eating and drinking more of the following foods and herbs.
These foods have been shown to promote detoxification in humans.16
- Black raspberry
Tea & Coffee
- Black tea
- Chamomile tea
- Dandelion tea
- Green tea
- Honeybush tea
- Peppermint tea
- Rooibos tea
- Chicory root
Vegetables, Roots, Beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Purple sweet potato
- Soybean/black soybean
Remember: Successfully detoxifying means you also have to stop the influx of new toxins! At the end of this article, you will find resources on how to “turn off the tap” of constant toxic exposures (see the section, “Recommended Foods, Supplements, and Lifestyle Changes to Naturally Boost Liver Health and Detoxification”).
Foods Containing Amino Acids for Liver Health
Amino acids play an important part in phase II detoxification. When the liver attaches an amino acid to a toxin, it is preparing the toxin for clearance from the body through the urine or feces. Protein, which is made of amino acids, is therefore vital to healthy detoxification. Select healthy meats that are grass-fed, organic, and free-range.
Foods to Support Phase II Amino Acid Conjugation Pathways
- Arginine- turkey, pork, chicken, pumpkin seeds, soybean, butternuts, and eggs.16
- Glutamine- beef, pork, chicken, dairy products, spinach, parsley, and cabbage.
- Glycine- turkey, pork, chicken, soybean, seaweed, eggs, and amaranth.
- Methionine- turkey, pork, chicken, beef, eggs, Brazil nuts, soybeans, and sesame seeds.
- Taurine- cooked meats and fish.
Glutathione is a three-part amino acid molecule that is known as the body’s “master antioxidant” and heavy metal chelator. Glutathione conjugation is a vital part of phase II detoxification and a major reason why you need adequate protein. Cysteine (from the amino acid methionine), along with the amino acids glycine and glutamic acid, together form the glutathione molecule. Since glutathione supplements are not readily absorbed in the gut, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is often given instead to boost a person’s glutathione levels.
Metabolic Maintenance’s Metabolic Detox Protein Powder is a great foundation for a liver detoxification program because it provides amino acids as well as other critical nutrients to support phase I and phase II detoxification. It is ideal for people who have a low-protein diet or those who have digestive symptoms and need additional support.
Gut health is necessary for liver health. In order to get detoxification amino acids from your diet, you must have good digestion. That means you need healthy levels of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. This goes for all nutrients, not just amino acids. Taking acid-reducing medications for heartburn (proton pump inhibitors)- by necessity- reduces stomach acid and interferes with healthy digestion of protein. Bacterial overgrowth in the gut can hamper digestion and slow down absorption of amino acids. Bacterial overgrowth can also add more toxins into the mix and make it more difficult to get rid of toxins. If you have chronic problems with digestion, see an integrative and functional medicine provider to get your whole body on track and get your detoxification pathways turned back on.
Eating a diet rich in liver-supporting foods is a great way to detox your liver every day, but diet may not be enough. Detoxification supplements that cleanse the liver may be needed in a variety of situations:
- If you don’t eat a healthy diet.
- If you are chronically ill.
- If you have had a past or recent toxic exposure in your home or work.
- If you have genetic susceptibilities to toxicity.
- If your functional medicine practitioner thinks that toxicity is contributing to your symptoms.
Even if you eat a healthy diet, you may have toxicity problems because modern-day, conventionally grown food does not contain all of the nutrients it should. Further, you may have been exposed to far more toxins than your diet alone can protect you from. A person can also have genetic differences in their detoxification enzymes, leading to weak detoxification pathways and a buildup of toxins.16,17 Lastly, when someone has a chronic illness, the body demands more nutrients as it tries to repair. In this example, a person can run out of “liver health supplies,” so that basic detoxification pathways cannot run properly.
Look for these detoxification support supplements for the liver:
- Amino acids, including NAC
- Minerals, including selenium, iron, calcium, and zinc
- Vitamins, including B vitamins
- Water (not a supplement, but critically important)
Look for detoxification supplements that contain activated B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. Other nutrients may include alpha lipoic acid, silymarin from milk thistle, and N-acetyl cysteine, the amino acid precursor to glutathione. I like Metabolic Maintenance’s trio of detox products, which support phase I and phase II detoxification, as well as a fiber supplement that helps with phase III.
Minerals are an important part of natural liver detoxification. Heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and lead are more likely to damage the body if there are empty spaces for them to move into. Taking plenty of nutrient minerals protects you by filling up the spaces in enzymes and cells so that heavy metals cannot move in and cause harm. Specifically, healthy levels of iron protect you from aluminum, cadmium, and lead toxicity. Zinc wards off cadmium, lead, and mercury. Calcium fends off lead. Selenium protects the body from mercury and lead.
Milk thistle is a herbal medicine that has been used for over 2,000 years for liver diseases.18 Its constituents, silymarin and silibinin, have a seemingly miraculous effect on liver health. In patients who had accidentally ingested a deadly poisonous mushroom (death cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides), it saved their lives and prevented liver failure. It has also been recommended in the treatment of liver cirrhosis.19 It seems to suppress inflammation and protect the liver by increasing liver antioxidants and glutathione.20
Find Out if You Need Liver Support by Measuring Your Toxins
Wondering if you need extra detoxification foods and supplements? You can find out by testing your blood, urine, or hair for toxins, with the help of your integrative and functional medicine practitioner. Blood levels tell you if you have current problems with pollutants. For example, a blood heavy metals test is a nice check to see if you and your home are low in toxic metals.
You can also order a blood test for volatile solvents or a urine test for phthalates or bisphenol A (BPA). You can ask your doctor to order a test to find out if you have high pesticides in your body. And you can order an air quality test for your home. Organic acid testing can identify toxins in urine and oxidative stress. Testing is a nice way to tell if your detoxification pathways are overloaded or if your diet and environment are as healthy as you think.
Don’t Fear Toxins, Transform Them
Ground flaxseed was recently reported to contain cadmium. Tuna contains more mercury than once believed. While this can be scary at first, don’t avoid healthy foods such as flaxseed or fish because of toxins. Their benefits outweigh the risks. Instead, figure out which brands of flaxseed are better to buy. Learn which fish are lower in mercury and eat more of those. This wallet card is super handy when shopping for low-mercury fish. Many foods carry toxins and are never reported. Information is power. Get informed about the toxins that surround you and avoid them. Include liver detoxification foods and supplements (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids) into your everyday routine. This will build up your liver and strengthen your defenses against the toxins you confront each day.
Recommended Foods, Supplements, and Lifestyle Changes to Naturally Boost Liver Health and Detoxification
Liver Detox Foods
- Eat a whole foods organic diet rich in a variety of plant foods and phytochemicals,16 with attention to the vegetables, fruits, and teas listed above.
- Eat healthy, non-allergenic proteins (avoid dairy if you are sensitive or allergic, for example),21 with attention to the proteins listed above. If you weigh 145 pounds, you need a minimum of 50 grams of protein per day, but possibly much more based on your weight, goals, and health status.
- Eat at least 25-35 grams of fiber every day.
- Drink half of your body weight in ounces of water.
- Use high-quality supplements to boost your body’s detoxification such as the Deep Detox Protocol by Metabolic Maintenance:
- Metabolic Detox Complete protein powder, Metabolic Detox capsules, and BioMaintenance Prebiotic + Fiber.
- Clinicians and consumers can use code HEALTH20 for 20% off of a one-time order!
- Vitamins A, C, E
- B vitamins
- Multiminerals, especially iron, selenium, zinc, calcium
- Amino acids, including NAC and/or glutathione
Stay Clear of New Toxins
- Avoid alcohol.
- Avoid toxins in food and cookware.
- Follow my 10 tips for cleaner air and water.
- Get rid of common household chemicals.
- Wear protective gear when working with toxins and wash hands regularly.
- Keep your list of medications (both over-the-counter and prescription) down to the bare minimum.
- Buy a Consumer Labs subscription to learn about hidden toxins in your food and supplements.
- Test for heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, and/or glyphosate in blood, urine, or hair.
Move Toxins Out
- Pee, poop, and sweat out toxins regularly.
- Optimize digestion, gut health, and the gut barrier.
- Work with an integrative and functional medicine provider to address chronic illness or unexplained digestive symptoms.
Take small steps.
Based out of the High Cascades in Sisters, Oregon, we are fortunate to live and manufacture nutritional supplements in a community that is beaming with health and wellness professionals, extreme world-class athletes, and families that strive for optimal health and longevity of life. We work closely with our vendors to ensure all raw materials are sourced ethically and meet cGMP standards for quality. Our products are free from preservatives, fillers, binders, artificial ingredients, and contain no added excipients. We are gluten, dairy, artificial sweetener, dye, and contaminant free. Our finished products are sent out for third-party testing to ensure the integrity and potency of our formulas.
- Polanska K, Jurewicz J, Hanke W. Review of current evidence on the impact of pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and selected metals on attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder in children. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health. Mar 2013;26(1):16-38. doi:10.2478/s13382-013-0073-7
- Park HY, Hertz-Picciotto I, Petrik J, Palkovicova L, Kocan A, Trnovec T. Prenatal PCB exposure and thymus size at birth in neonates in Eastern Slovakia. Environmental health perspectives. Jan 2008;116(1):104-9. doi:10.1289/ehp.9769
- Hsu NY, Lee CC, Wang JY, et al. Predicted risk of childhood allergy, asthma, and reported symptoms using measured phthalate exposure in dust and urine. Indoor air. Jun 2012;22(3):186-99. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0668.2011.00753.x
- Nasr Z, Schoeps VA, Ziaei A, et al. Gene-environment interactions increase the risk of paediatric-onset multiple sclerosis associated with household chemical exposures. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. Feb 1 2023;doi:10.1136/jnnp-2022-330713
- Benvenga S, Elia G, Ragusa F, et al. Endocrine disruptors and thyroid autoimmunity. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. Jan 2020;34(1):101377. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2020.101377
- Macedo S, Teixeira E, Gaspar TB, et al. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and endocrine neoplasia: A forty-year systematic review. Environ Res. Feb 1 2023;218:114869. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2022.114869
- Sokal A, Jarmakiewicz-Czaja S, Tabarkiewicz J, Filip R. Dietary Intake of Endocrine Disrupting Substances Presents in Environment and Their Impact on Thyroid Function. Nutrients. Mar 6 2021;13(3)doi:10.3390/nu13030867
- Gorini F, Bustaffa E, Coi A, Iervasi G, Bianchi F. Bisphenols as Environmental Triggers of Thyroid Dysfunction: Clues and Evidence. International journal of environmental research and public health. Apr 13 2020;17(8)doi:10.3390/ijerph17082654
- Schoeters GE, Den Hond E, Koppen G, et al. Biomonitoring and biomarkers to unravel the risks from prenatal environmental exposures for later health outcomes. Am J Clin Nutr. Dec 2011;94(6 Suppl):1964s-1969s. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.001545
- Wigle DT, Arbuckle TE, Turner MC, et al. Epidemiologic evidence of relationships between reproductive and child health outcomes and environmental chemical contaminants. Journal of toxicology and environmental health Part B, Critical reviews. May 2008;11(5-6):373-517. doi:10.1080/10937400801921320
- Norman RE, Carpenter DO, Scott J, Brune MN, Sly PD. Environmental exposures: an underrecognized contribution to noncommunicable diseases. Reviews on environmental health. 2013;28(1):59-65. doi:10.1515/reveh-2012-0033
- Moulton PV, Yang W. Air pollution, oxidative stress, and Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of environmental and public health. 2012;2012:472751. doi:10.1155/2012/472751
- Van Oostdam J, Donaldson SG, Feeley M, et al. Human health implications of environmental contaminants in Arctic Canada: A review. Sci Total Environ. Dec 1 2005;351-352:165-246.
- Liska DJ. The detoxification enzyme systems. Review. Altern Med Rev. Jun 1998;3(3):187-98.
- Aronica L, Ordovas JM, Volkov A, et al. Genetic Biomarkers of Metabolic Detoxification for Personalized Lifestyle Medicine. Nutrients. Feb 11 2022;14(4)doi:10.3390/nu14040768
- Hodges RE, Minich DM. Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application. Journal of nutrition and metabolism. 2015;2015:760689. doi:10.1155/2015/760689
- Hausman-Cohen SR, Hausman-Cohen LJ, Williams GE, Bilich CE. Genomics of Detoxification: How Genomics can be Used for Targeting Potential Intervention and Prevention Strategies Including Nutrition for Environmentally Acquired Illness. J Am Coll Nutr. Feb 2020;39(2):94-102. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1713654
- Horowitz BZ. Silibinin: a toxicologist’s herbal medicine? Clin Toxicol (Phila). Nov 2022;60(11):1194-1197. doi:10.1080/15563650.2022.2128815
- Saller R, Brignoli R, Melzer J, Meier R. An updated systematic review with meta-analysis for the clinical evidence of silymarin. Forsch Komplementmed. Feb 2008;15(1):9-20. doi:10.1159/000113648
- Wellington K, Jarvis B. Silymarin: a review of its clinical properties in the management of hepatic disorders. BioDrugs : clinical immunotherapeutics, biopharmaceuticals and gene therapy. 2001;15(7):465-89. doi:10.2165/00063030-200115070-00005
- Cline JC. Nutritional aspects of detoxification in clinical practice. Alternative therapies in health and medicine. May-Jun 2015;21(3):54-62.
Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.