Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.
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Last updated on July 8, 2022
The idea of a liver cleanse or detox is often divisive, bringing to mind cayenne-infused lemon water and wacky "liver flushes" that involve consuming nothing but apple juice, olive oil, and Epsom salts. When it comes to that kind of liver detox, people are right to be skeptical—but that's not to say your liver doesn't need some support.
But it's not about detoxing or cleansing the liver itself—scientifically, that's not really a thing. It's more about supporting what your liver does naturally and helping to protect and rejuvenate it from inevitable environmental stressors.
Here, discover the simple, safe, and effective ways to help your liver do its job better—and bolster your overall health in the process.
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Are liver "cleanses" necessary?
The liver is a workhorse. It's your body's primary filtration system—it converts toxins into waste products, cleanses your blood, metabolizes a wide range of compounds (from nutrients and alcohol to medications), and produces proteins and bile. And while a healthy liver naturally cleanses itself, dietary stressors and environmental and toxins can get in the way of optimal liver function.
More than ever before, our bodies are bombarded with environmental toxins, from pollution to chemicals in not-so-clean skin care products to preservatives in the foods we eat and plastics, well, everywhere. These stressors can deplete nutrient stores, cause a buildup of unwanted compounds in the body, like contaminants, and lead to health implications down the road—all of which give our livers more work to do.
"In a healthy body, the process of detoxification runs smoothly," Mark Hyman, M.D., functional medicine doctor and New York Times bestselling author, told mbg. When the cumulative toxin load is significant, however, "the mechanism for detoxification in the liver gets sluggish, and certain toxins can remain active longer than we want or than our systems can handle. This impacts normal metabolism and can make us feel subpar. It also can contribute to extra fluid and bloat."
So, helping this vital organ only seems fair—whether you call it a liver "cleanse" or "detox" or whatever, it doesn't really matter. Even though we can't necessarily control our exposure to all pollutants and chemicals, we can make strategic diet and lifestyle shifts that counter their effects by supporting the liver's detoxification pathways and lightening our overall toxic load.
The truth is, liver detoxing requires a holistic approach, not a quick fix. And you certainly don't have to buy into expensive cleanses or extreme detox diets. (In fact, we recommend you don't!)
Signs you might need a liver cleanse or detox.
Think back to the time in your life when you felt the healthiest. How does your current state compare? If you don't feel as full of vitality, then it could be a sign that your liver needs some support or that your diet and lifestyle need a general overhaul.
Your bowel movements aren't as regular as you'd like them to be.
Pollen isn’t your friend during certain times of the year.
You don’t feel as healthy as you expect your nutrient-dense diet should make you feel.
Your skin isn't clear or feels irritated.
You're sensitive to chemicals.
You have concerns about your body odor or bad breath, and hygiene products (e.g., deodorant and mouthwash) aren’t cutting it.
You're feeling stressed or anxious.
You’re resistant to weight change when trying to optimize your body composition.
You struggle with mood swings.
You're dealing with gas and bloating.
What could be messing with your liver function?
There are plenty of factors that can put an unnecessary burden on your body's main detoxifying organ, all of which you should take steps to remedy (and we're here to help):
Holding extra weight
"Back in the day, our fat cells were thought of as static. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, excess adiposity, aka body fat, is linked to a wide range of issues with metabolic dysfunction, and the liver is not immune to these aberrant pathways," explains mbg's vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN.
She goes on to explain that "the storage affinity for toxins in fat cells poses a real problem." Hyman agrees, sharing that "most environmental chemicals like pesticides and plastics are stored in your fat tissue."
To ensure optimal liver (and overall) well-being, prioritizing healthy body composition is key.
One of the many roles of the liver is to make fat out of fructose. When you consume too much refined sugar, it can affect lipogenesis in the liver and lead to health concerns. "Lipogenesis" comes from the Greek words "lípos," meaning "fat," and "gignesthai," meaning "to be born," and is defined as the metabolic formation (i.e., the "birth" or origin) of fat.
While fats are healthy and beneficial in the other parts of the body (think omega-3s for the cardiovascular and central nervous systems), fat accumulation in the liver (e.g., from consuming too much refined sugar) is something to be avoided, as extra fat in this workhorse organ gets in the way of its efficiency.
In fact, research shows that sugar has as profound an impact on your liver as alcohol, even if you're not considered overweight.
Too much alcohol
The liver is charged with processing a lot of things, including alcohol. Anything in excess is typically not associated with overall well-being, and alcohol would likely make the top of the list of things we should refrain from indulging in. Women should aim for no more than one drink per day, and men no more than two.
Ferira comments further "To be clear, one for women and two for men is a max level, not a daily recommended need. Some people treat it like the latter. At the end of the day, alcohol is a toxin." And as the science indicates for cardiovascular and overall longterm health, limiting alcohol intake is just common sense.
Exposure to toxins
Higher cumulative exposures over time to compounds and chemicals found in processed foods, pesticide residues, paint, certain plastics (e.g. BPA), heavy metals, aerosols (e.g. benzene), thermal paper like shopping receipts, plus so much more, can place a burden on your liver and the rest of your body's intricate detoxification pathways and organs (skin, gut, lungs, spleen, lymphatic system, kidneys).
Avoid these types of inputs whenever possible, and if you can't, it might be a good idea to consider detoxing daily as part of a proactive wellness lifestyle.
Suboptimal gut health
Nurturing your gut health is key to promoting sufficient detox pathways in the liver and throughout the body.
Your gastrointestinal tract is not just a tube—it's an active barrier that helps your body digest and absorb nutrients (into your bloodstream), while simultaneously protecting you from and removing unwanted compounds.
When your gut health isn't top notch, toxins have the potential to enter the blood and unnecessarily tax the liver. While still a growing area of research, it’s thought the integrity of gut lining is tied to food sensitivities, inflammatory status, and whole-body health (including that of liver).
5 ways to cleanse your liver naturally.
If you've been wondering how to detox or cleanse your liver without compromising your health, then read on.
Just keep in mind—these strategies aren't about detoxing or cleansing the liver itself per se; they're about supporting the liver so it can perform optimally, in all of its vital actions (including detoxification!).
Adopt a liver- and gut-friendly diet.
Nope, you don't need a fancy cleanse. What you need is a balanced, plant-dense diet that promotes healthy body composition and contains diverse nutrients and phytonutrients that support liver and gut health.
It's been shown in multiple clinical research trials that routines that help you achieve a healthy body weight and composition are linked to less accumulation of fat in the liver (as indicated by liver health and liver function biomarkers). In fact, higher levels of body fat and the subsequent negative impact on the liver is even seen in those who appear to be metabolically healthy.
A good first step: Ditch the processed foods and drink more water. Skip most prepackaged foods, excess caffeine, and alcohol, and focus on whole foods (organic when possible)—including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, sustainably raised meats, fish, eggs, and minimally processed oils, such as olive, avocado, or coconut oil.
Eating a clean, whole-food-centric diet means taking a break from most of the foods, additives, and pesticide residues that tax your system while adding in nutrient-dense foods that will nourish the body.
Consider ditching common sources of food sensitivities and allergens, including gluten (for some). This can help support optimal gut health and barrier function, thereby reducing the number of toxins that enter your bloodstream (which your liver is ultimately tasked with filtering and removing).
Hyman recommends 8 to 10 glasses of filtered water daily. Some experts believe warm water (with or without lemon) is even better because it helps promote good digestion and optimal functioning of the lymphatic system, both of which support liver health and the body's detoxification pathways.
Ferira takes a more global approach to healthful eating, simplifying things further: "If we focus more on just coloring our plates with diverse plants while embracing brilliant flavors and the joy of coming together over food, we'll be naturally consuming antioxidant powerhouses (the boots-on-the-ground detox bioactives) and less stressed about food—and all better for it."
Once you've got the basics down, you can start adding in targeted foods that promote healthy liver functioning—i.e., fuel glutathione production, bind heavy metals and toxins, and help stimulate bile flow.
Here are 13 of our favorite liver-friendly foods:
Almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, wheat germ, salmon, and avocado are all great sources of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that research suggests can combat oxidative stress and help bolster liver health.
Bile helps to transport toxins so they can be removed from the body, so healthy bile flow is essential for optimal liver health and toxin removal. Artichoke contains phenolic derivatives that have been used for centuries to stimulate bile flow and help protect the liver.
Deep-hued berries such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries aren't only loaded with fiber; they contain phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which have potent antioxidant properties that have been shown to scavenge free radicals and promote normal inflammatory processes.
These ruby-hued roots contain phytonutrient pigments called betalains, which help promote normal inflammatory responses and support cellular repair in the liver thanks to their potent antioxidant properties.
Cruciferous veggies—such as broccoli sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and watercress—contain sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates, which help the body remove toxins and promote longevity.
Lemons, tangerines, and oranges contain a phytonutrient compound called D-limonene. In a preclinical rodent study, D-limonene has been shown to buffer the physiological stress of a high-fat diet.
Sipping on lemon water throughout the day is also a great way to stay hydrated, which promotes the movement of toxins out of the body.
Dandelion root and greens
Dandelion is known for its cleansing properties, and one study found that both the root and leaf helped rid the body of reactive oxygen species. Reap the benefits by sipping on dandelion root tea, which makes a great caffeine-free alternative to coffee.
Dandelion greens (along with other bitter greens, such as mustard greens and arugula) are great too, because they help stimulate bile production and promote healthy digestion.
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, lacto-fermented pickles, kefir, yogurt, and other fermented foods are loaded with beneficial probiotic bacteria that promote healthy digestion and the integrity of the gut lining, thereby helping keep toxins out of the bloodstream.
According to functional medicine expert Frank Lipman, M.D., they can also help clear heavy metals out of the body.
Glutathione is an antioxidant concentrated in the liver that helps bind and neutralize toxins and escort them out of the body via urine or bile.* Glutathione can be obtained directly from a few foods—including raw spinach, avocado, and asparagus—and it can also be produced by your body from the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and cysteine.
Some foods containing the building blocks of glutathione include bone broth, whey protein, and sulfur-containing foods (such as broccoli and garlic).
In phase one, toxins are converted into water-soluble compounds by enzymes; and in phase two, toxins are bound to protective chemicals that neutralize them and allow them to be eliminated via bile (and eventually feces) or urine.
Dark leafy greens such as dandelion greens, arugula, spinach, and kale contain plant chlorophylls, which help remove chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals from the bloodstream. Chlorophyll, according to preclinical science, has toxin-binding properties, which can theoretically reduce the toxic burden on your liver.
When feces remain in the bowel, toxins can be reabsorbed into your system. So, it's important to get plenty of fiber-rich foods that bind up toxins in the gut and help promote regularity. Try legumes (especially lentils), raspberries, root vegetables, apples, pears, avocados, and almonds.
There are so many reasons to get more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, and the health of your liver is one of them. A recent research review found that omega-3 consumption was associated with healthy liver fat levels—specifically, lower liver-fat levels and higher HDL "good" cholesterol levels.
Good sources of these healthy fats include oily fish (e.g., salmon, anchovies, sardines, etc.) for EPA and DHA, and plant-based sources like walnuts and flaxseed for ALA.
Try a form of intermittent fasting.
A nutrient-rich diet is key. But once you've mastered that, you might want to consider intermittent fasting for additional liver detox support. Research suggests that during periods of fasting, cells in the liver produce more of a protein associated with improved sugar metabolism and reduced levels of liver fat called GADD45β.
More research in this area is needed, but a number of experts promote intermittent fasting for a variety of reasons. "I love the power that intermittent fasting can have on the body's natural detox processes," William Cole, D.C., functional medicine expert and bestselling author of Ketotarian, told mbg. "Periods without food give our body [and liver] a chance to repair and clean itself out since it doesn't have to focus on or funnel energy to our digestive system.
“Think of this as your body's chance to leave work and catch up on some house cleaning. One of the cool self-cleaning tools utilized during fasting is something called autophagy, which literally translates to 'self-eating.' When this process is allowed to do its thing, our body's healthy cells gobble up unhealthy cells, leading to a true cellular detox."
Ferira likens autophagy to "spring cleaning, but every day, assuming you're giving your body the tools it needs to get after this all-important cellular clean up."
A good introduction to intermittent fasting is the 16-hour fast, in which you confine all of your daily eating to an eight-hour window and fast for the remaining 16 hours. Try this for a week or two and see if you notice any changes in energy or mood.
Use liver-supporting supplements strategically.
We've already compiled our favorite liver supplements, but these are some specific nutrients to look for. When shopping for high-quality liver supplements, be wary of specific products that tout themselves as liver detoxes, liver cleanses, and liver flushes. Many of these "cleanses" are harsh on the body and fail to comprehensively support liver function.
That said, there are individual nutrient and plant bioactives that have scientific backing for their ability to support liver health by protecting liver cells, assisting in the filtering and removal of unwanted toxins, stimulating bile production, and more.*
The following supplements are all generally safe, but you should still talk to a health care professional before taking one or more to ensure they don't interfere with your health regimen (e.g., medications).
One of the most well-known herbal supplements for liver health is milk thistle (silymarin is its MVP bioactive), which is an extract from the seeds of the flowering milk thistle plant.
It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and has also been shown to boost glutathione levels, known as the master antioxidant.*
Look for a milk thistle supplement that's standardized to contain a concentrated dose (e.g., 70 to 80%) of silymarin, and follow the suggested use instructions on the manufacturer's label.
Glutathione is a critical regulator of oxidative stress, quenching free radicals wherever it goes—including the liver, where it assists in conjugating toxic compounds into neutral ones so they can be easily eliminated from the body.*
The turmeric botanical is also an anti-inflammatory powerhouse that helps maintain inflammatory and oxidative balance (thanks to antioxidant properties of turmeric) and promote glutathione production.
Other research suggests turmeric helps stimulate the production of bile—the fluid produced by our livers that aids in the digestion of fats within the small intestine. Of course, more research on turmeric and liver health needs to be done on humans before any official recommendations can be made, but things look promising.
Look for a turmeric supplement that shares info on the curcuminoids percent and part of the plant (i.e., root or rhizome) used to source the extract.
N-acetyl-L-cysteine (aka NAC) is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to promote oxidative balance in the liver and support the essential functions of our detox organs.* As a precursor to the amino acid L-cysteine, NAC also helps stimulate glutathione synthesis, promotes redox balance throughout the body, and supports liver detoxification efforts.*
For optimal oxidative balance and glutathione production, look for a high-quality NAC supplement that includes a useful dose, for example 500 milligrams or more of the potent antioxidant.*
If you haven't noticed by now, antioxidant activity is wildly important when it comes to promoting liver health and supporting the body's detoxification efforts day in and day out. And if antioxidant-oxidant balance is the goal (which, it always is), then potent antioxidant vitamin C simply has to be a part of the conversation.
By quenching free radicals and promoting the regeneration of other key antioxidants—such as vitamin E and glutathione—vitamin C bolsters antioxidant activity and helps regulate oxidative balance throughout the body.*
Lab studies show that chlorella can absorb 40% of the heavy metals in a test solution within seven days, while animal studies show chlorella helps remove toxins like mercury from the system. As a unique sea vegetable, chlorella also contains several nutrients and phytonutrients with antioxidant actions—including vitamin C, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene—so you might consider adding a scoop of chlorella powder to your morning smoothie for a detoxifying boost.*
Like chlorella, activated charcoal can help bind to and remove toxins that are circulating in your system. However, it can also bind to minerals and vitamins, so you should take it between meals and away from other supplements.
Furthermore, robust studies have not been done to determine activated charcoal's long-term safety, so consider it a short-term, targeted strategy and partner with your healthcare practitioner on the best approach. If you take other supplements in the morning, consider taking one activated charcoal tablet between lunch and dinner.
This important antioxidant mineral is vital to the body's natural detoxification pathways for its free-radical-quenching abilities.* When it comes to liver function, selenium helps reduce the toxicity of heavy metal ions (e.g., cadmium and mercury) so they can be effectively removed from the body.*
Additionally, selenium has synergistic relationships with cysteine, glutathione, and other substances with active sulfur groups that help provide a wide range of protective actions and maintain oxidative balance for whole-body health.*
Adults should get at least 55 micrograms of selenium a day through diet and supplementation, but can safely take a more concentrated amount, up to 400 micrograms, to support the body's detox efforts.*
Schedule a daily sweat session.
Sweating helps take some of the detoxification burden off of your liver. According to Wendie Trubow, M.D., functional medicine gynecologist, detoxification is dependent on two critical factors: avoiding additional exposure to toxins and removing toxins that are present in the body.
Ridding the body of the toxins is done through three major pathways. Ferira explains, "While urine (via the kidneys) and poop (via the gut) might immediately come to mind as excretion pathways, the less obvious but no less important route of toxin removal is via sweating (the skin)."
Not only a critical barrier, "the skin is our major detoxification organ, and sweating is the best way to get the toxins out of our body," Trubow says. Additionally, exercise boosts your body's glutathione production, which aids in detoxification.*
If you don't exercise already, then embrace whatever movement brings you joy and works with your schedule. Start with something like walking and build up to 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day.
Too much stress in your life can negatively affect all facets of your well-being (including your liver) and contribute to internal oxidative stress.
To optimize your mental and physical well-being, it's in your best interest to address unchecked stress and adopt healthy habits that promote calm in your life.
Something as simple as an aromatherapy bath once or twice a week can do the trick. Try this detox bath recipe featuring ginger, Epsom salts, baking soda, and a few drops of your favorite essential oil—it will soothe your senses, relieve achy joints, and help you sweat out some toxins.
No time for a soak session? Dry brushing or hot towel scrubbing are two more soothing and detoxifying bathroom rituals that promote calm, as well as lymphatic circulation, which helps flush toxins from the body.
"Calming botanicals that nourish our extensive endocannabinoid system like full-spectrum hemp oil, and adaptogens like ashwagandha that improve our stress resilience are also incredibly useful "levers" to pull in order to stress less,"* explains Ferira.
Quite simply, anything that brings you joy is a form of self-care. Whether that's yoga, deep breathing, walking your dog, watching a show on Netflix, or even getting rid of a bunch of old junk in your closet (think Marie Kondo's KonMari method), it's crucial that you make the time.
Here are five more daily detoxifying rituals to add to your self-care routine.
Ultimately, a liver cleanse or detox is a lifestyle change. There's no magic bullet when it comes to a liver cleanse or detox—and anything marketed as such (ahem, a liver flush) is rightfully questioned.
However, there are a number of small, research-backed actions you can take to reduce your liver's workload and promote overall health. Incorporate some of the suggestions above (preferably under the guidance of your health care provider), and over time, your body and liver will thank you.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.