Your liver is the largest internal organ and gland in the body, weighing about three pounds. It receives 1½ quarts of blood every minute and performs about 500 functions.
It has important roles in the immune system and is the body’s main line of defence when it comes to filtering harmful chemicals out of your blood.
So it’s especially vital to keep your liver in good health if you want to protect yourself from cancer.
Read on to see the steps you need to take. . .
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Deficiency of detox enzymes increases cancer risk
Toxins enter our bodies through the skin, the air we breathe, and the food we eat.
Even normal metabolism, the process of turning food into energy or building blocks for our bones and tissues, produces toxic byproducts.
The liver is the body’s main organ for eliminating these toxins, although the kidneys, lungs, brain and intestines also play important roles.
If your liver’s ability to remove toxins is compromised either because of an overload of poisons or through an imbalance in the systems that do the work of detoxification, you will be more vulnerable to carcinogens.
Diet and nutrition are of crucial importance if the liver is to function fully as an organ of detoxification. Different nutrients are required at each stage of the process.
Phase 1 liver detoxification – transformation
The structure of the liver resembles a sieve. It has rows of liver cells separated by blood vessels called sinusoids.
When blood passes through the liver, unwanted items such as microorganisms, as well as larger metabolic waste products, are removed. They are passed into Kupffer (immune system) cells within the sinusoids. These engulf and absorb unwanted junk.
After this physical separation takes place, chemical detoxifiction in the liver can begin.
There are three phases to liver detoxification. In phase 1 toxins are transformed from lipid (i.e. fat) soluble compounds to ones that are more water soluble. To achieve this they are acted on and removed from the tissues by a group of enzymes called cytochrome P450s.
To support phase 1, the body requires a number of nutrients, with the emphasis on antioxidants and those other nutrients that support antioxidant systems. These are:
- Glutathione or its precursor N-acetyl-cysteine
- Coenzyme Q10
- Beta-carotene, vitamins C and E spurs
- Selenium, manganese and copper
Phytonutrients and herbs are also valuable in phase 1. These include:
Di-indolylmethane (DIM) – Found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, DIM helps to detoxify excessive amounts of estrogens and any hormone-disrupting chemicals found in pesticides and herbicides as well as PCBs and dioxins.
Flavonoids – This wide group of plant chemicals includes polyphenols, quercetin, resveratrol, and anthocyanins found respectively in green tea, red onions, red grapes and blueberries, as well as silymarin found in the herb milk thistle. Silymarin protects the liver from toxins and has powerful detoxification properties. (Our sister company, Green Valley Natural Solutions, offers a supplement that contains a clinical dose of silymarin, one of the most popular liver supplements.)
There are also other nutrients less directly involved but needed as coenzymes in related reactions. These include zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, molybdenum, vitamins A, folic acid, B2, B3 and B6. Relatively few people need an iron supplement, and calcium supplements likewise should be approached with caution (see Issue #509).
It’s also vital to eat sufficient protein. The metabolism of cytochrome P450s will be hampered in low-protein, high-carbohydrate diets and improved by eating habits higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate.
Cytochrome P450 enzymes are also inhibited by naringenin from grapefruit, which has the effect of making some drugs more toxic.
A gland that has a direct effect on P450 enzymes is the thyroid. A deficiency of hormone T3 can lower levels of some of these enzymes, so it’s important that the thyroid is functioning well.
Phase 2 liver detoxification – conjugation
Even after phase 1, toxins are not suitable for elimination just yet. They need to be made even more water soluble. Also, phase 1 produces unwanted by-products – so-called reactive intermediates – creating free radicals and additional toxicity.
In phase 2 the liver is involved in a number of reactions that conjugate (combine) toxins with enzymes to finally allow excretion from the cells. These enzymes have both anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic properties.
Much of the activity of antioxidants and phase 2 enzymes is controlled by a protein called Nrf2 (nuclear factor erythroid-derived 2 protein). Evidence suggests it may be directly activated by xanthohumol from hops and sulforaphane from broccoli. A very wide range of other phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables have also been shown to activate Nrf2.
There are three principle ways the liver detoxifes at this stage:
1. Glucoronidation – Toxins are attached to calcium-d-glucarate to make them more water soluble and less reactive.
Environmental toxins, up to 70% of prescription drugs, bisphenols from plastics and benzopyrenes from cooking meat are acted upon here.
Calcium-D-glucarate inhibits the enzyme beta-glucuronidase. Elevated levels of this enzyme are associated with an increased risk for many cancers, especially hormone-related ones.
Calcium-d-glucarate is found in many fruits and vegetables, particularly apples, oranges and cruciferous vegetables.
2. Glutathione conjugation – Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and plays a major role in detoxifying by-products of the body’s own metabolism. Some authorities call it the most important antioxidant on earth, where human health is concerned.
Glutathione is made from three non-essential amino acids, glycine, cysteine and glutamic acid. A modified version of cysteine, n-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) helps the body synthesize glutathione. A “non-essential” amino acid is one your body is able to produce for itself, so you needn’t get it in your food.
NAC is well known in conventional medical circles because it regularly saves the lives of people poisoned by paracetamol overdose. Too much of this painkiller overwhelms glutathione reserves which would, if not corrected, lead to irreversible liver damage. NAC comes to the rescue to restore glutathione.
Adequate production of glutathione will improve body levels of enzymes called glutathione transferases which protect against carcinogens. For instance, mice who have these enzymes artificially lowered rapidly develop lung cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke.
Glutathione works best in combination with selenium. Alpha-lipoic acid, a popular supplement, also helps produce glutathione.
3. Sulfation – This pathway plays a major role in detoxifying foreign chemicals and drugs. It depends on the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine found in eggs, garlic and onions. These are so-called essential amino acids. You have to get them from your diet.
The above pathways form the bulk of the body’s detoxification efforts but there are other important phase 2 reactions.
4. Methylation – A huge number of the body’s chemical reactions are facilitated by methyl groups. Good methylation is vital to protect against cancer and many other diseases. This detoxifiying process requires folic acid, B2, B6, B12 and zinc. See Issue #528 for more complete explanation of methylation.
5. Glycine and glutamine conjugation – Acts on various foreign chemicals such as the food preservative benzoic acid. Glycine and glutamine are non-essential amino acids found in protein-rich foods.
6. Arylamine N-acetyltransferases – These enzymes detoxify chemicals from plastics and other products of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The B vitamins are important in this enzymatic process.
Phase 3 liver detoxification – transport
Transformed and conjugated toxins can now be transported out of cells and into the bile for elimination. The activity of proteins in this phase can be stimulated by polyphenols found in apples and the sulforaphanes in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables.
Although it is valuable to have an efficient phase 3 system to transport toxins out of cells, if this system is overactive, it can eliminate and thereby decrease the effectiveness of some drugs, such as those used in chemotherapy.
Elimination and liver cleansing
Although the liver has now done its job, a good flow of bile is needed from the liver to the gallbladder and from there to the small intestine.
If bile flow is impaired because of a blockage in the bile duct, or liver dysfunction, then toxins will build up and may result in injury to the liver.
Calcium-d-glucarate comes into play here as do a number of foods which have increased bile flow in animal studies. These include artichoke and dandelion, the herbs yarrow and fennel, and spices curry, ginger, garlic and cumin.
If you haven’t paid much attention to liver function, then it might be advisable to cleanse it before adopting the above measures. This is best carried out under the direction of a naturopath, as several cleanses may be required over a period of months.
Before attending to the liver, a health professional may advise cleansing the colon, and incorporating coffee enemas during the liver protocol.