Cleanses and detoxes have been proliferating across the health spectrum for some time now, but few have been positioned as vitally integral to your overall health like the liver cleanse.
Credited with solving a host of health issues, ranging from gas, bloating and weight gain to fatigue and excessive sweating, the liver cleanse is touted as the ultimate cure-all. But how beneficial is it?
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“The reality is that detoxing and cleansing are marketing buzzwords that are used to gain attention and appeal,” says Brooke Bulloch, a registered dietitian and president of Food to Fit Nutrition in Saskatoon. “These terms have what’s called a health halo effect, which means they overestimate the healthfulness of an item or product. It’s incredibly controversial to participate in misleading messages of this nature.”
Bulloch says the reason she would never endorse a cleanse or detox is because the science simply isn’t there.
“There’s very little evidence that detoxing or cleansing will actually have an effect on your health.”
In fact, this is especially true for the liver, which is one of the body’s natural detoxification systems, along with the skin, which is where you sweat out toxins, the bowels, which excrete toxins through bowel movements, the kidneys, lymphatic system and lungs.
Basically, you don’t need to cleanse the liver because it’s already doing that on its own.
While there is a growing body of evidence that regular consumption of certain foods can help support the liver, like garlic, cruciferous vegetables, berries, turmeric, soy-based foods like edamame, Rooibos tea and fish oil, even this is supposition at this point.
“I came across one study that looked at the effects of a lemon detox on body fat reduction in overweight Korean women and the researchers concluded that there was reduction in inflammatory markers and greater fat loss in the group , but even they concluded that it needed further research,” Bulloch says.
And even in the case of so-called liver supporting foods, she points out that the effects of these foods are primarily studied in the cells of animals, so it’s questionable if the same results will be seen in humans.
So why are liver cleanses so popular and why are health proponents so adamant about pushing them on consumers?
Bulloch says there’s an element of cleanliness being next to Godliness when it comes to cleansing.
“We live in this world where it seems like if we rid the body of toxins or cleanse it of impurities, we’ll be better people. There’s a moral value placed on health and food right now. It’s as though detoxing is the religious antidote to sin — if you eat something sinful or shameful, you need to detox to absolve yourself.”
That’s not to say there isn’t benefit in doing an overhaul of your diet if you eat a lot of overly processed foods that cause inflammation.
“At this time, the dietary pattern of eating whole, unprocessed, plant-based foods has the best overarching scientific underpinning ,” she says.
Of course, it’s also not to say that everyone’s liver functions well without needing to show it any TLC. Some signs of acute liver failure include yellowing of the skin and eyeballs, pain and swelling in the upper right abdomen, nausea or vomiting, a general feeling of malaise, and disorientation or confusion. Unfortunately, however, these symptoms could also be an indication of any number of other health issues.
That’s why Bulloch says the best thing you can do is to have a liver function test, which is a blood test that will measure the efficacy of your liver function.
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For anyone looking to make changes to their diet with the express desire to help support their liver, they should add the aforementioned foods to their diet, in addition to increasing consumption of all fruits and vegetables, and whole grains (like brown and wild rice, quinoa, barley and buckwheat), as well as increase water intake.
And if need be, seek help.
“The point of working with a dietitian is to help you find the right pattern that you can sustain, because it’s not enough to just tell someone to eat more broccoli if they don’t like eating it.”
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