While the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day might be tossing back a green beer or two to mark this famous Irish holiday, those dyed brews might not be the healthiest option – at least not when it comes to our liver. And since St. Patrick’s Day also shares the month of March with Liver Awareness Month, it’s the perfect opportunity to pay more attention to one of our busiest but most neglected organs.
Your liver: 101
The second largest organ in your body, the liver is essentially your own personal filtration system. It works on two levels - first by processing what we eat and drink while turning those foods into energy and nutrients our bodies can use, and then by removing toxins from the blood, including alcohol.
Our liver is especially busy when we take a drink or two of alcohol. The three-pound organ is immediately called into action, going to work filtering out the toxins of alcohol and dispersing it as waste.
And while a healthy liver is quite capable of breaking down the poisons in an alcoholic drink or two and remove them from the body, if we drink more than the liver is able to process – say a few too many green beers on St. Paddy’s Day - cells can be damaged or destroyed, leading to a higher risk of fatty liver disease, alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
In addition to converting nutrients from food and the active ingredients in medications into components our bodies can more easily use, our liver also maintains hormonal balances in the body and works to help our immune system fight off infections. It also works closely with the gall bladder to help carry away waste products after the liver breaks them down.
According Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, the liver is associated with more than 500 vital functions for optimum health, including:
- The production of certain blood plasma proteins...
- The production of cholesterol to transport fats through the body...
- The conversion of excess glucose into glycogen, so it can be stored rather than flushed out of the body. Glycogen can later be converted back into glucose when needed, such as during a marathon run...
- The regulation of blood levels of amino acids, which form the building blocks of proteins...
- The processing of hemoglobin to access its iron content for storage...
- The regulation of blood clotting...
- The removal of bacteria from the bloodstream...
According to the Hepatitis Foundation, so important is liver function to our overall health that we are only able to survive a day or two when the organ fails.
“If the liver fails, your body will fail, too,” the group says on its website.
Liver damage - signs and symptoms
The liver protects our immune system from damaging chemicals, so it works in tandem with the rest of body’s systemic functions. It is, experts say, essentially the body’s engine, and keeps all the other parts operating smoothly.
When the liver is out of balance, it can manifest itself in a variety of different ways.
Liver damage can show itself through physical symptoms such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, headaches, digestive ailments, allergies and more.
To protect our livers, we should avoid tobacco, white sugar, coffee and alcohol, while drinking plenty of water to flush out toxins and ensuring that we get enough exercise to keep our body functioning at its peak.
According to experts, those of us who drink more than the recommended daily allowance of alcohol are at a 25 percent higher risk of developing – and dying from - alcoholic liver disease.
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service says that drinkers who are at risk of developing liver disease include:
- Men who drink more than 35 units of alcohol a week for 10 years or more
- Women who drink more than 28 units of alcohol a week for 10 years or more
Fortunately, though, the liver is pretty tough, and it can function even if up to 75 percent of it is damaged or removed. In addition to this, the liver is also the only organ able to regenerate itself by creating new tissue, so with healthy actions to support liver health, the signs of early liver damage can ultimately be erased.
One of the best ways to help boost liver health is to eat a healthy diet.
Boosting liver health
That means ditching fried foods, smoked or cured meats and other fat-laden fare – these food options tend to be particularly hard on the liver, which is already working overtime – while focusing on a diet rich in fruits, veggies and fiber.
Essentially, trading that green beer for some nutrient-packed green fruits and veggies will be a liver-friendly way to ring in St. Patrick’s Day.
Some good green options include:
- Avocados. Packed with healthy fats, avocados can help lower cholesterol while boosting the body’s production of glutathione, which helps the liver filter out toxins. The green fruit also is packed with lutein for eye health, as well as vitamin E, which may help lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. While they are the main ingredient in guacamole, avocados can be used mashed to replace the mayo on sandwiches, diced in tacos, salads and nachos or mixed with tomatoes, onions and peppers for a healthy salsa.
- Napoles. Also popular in Mexican cuisine, napoles, or prickly pear cactus, offers a wealth of health benefits. Often found in Mexican supermarkets or on Mexican menus, the cactus offers fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants. Studies have also shown that the cactus leaves can help lower blood sugar levels in those with diabetes.
- Kale and other leafy greens. Kale has more vitamin C than an orange and more calcium than milk, making it a must for any grocery list. It offers vitamin K, compounds that help alleviate inflammation and fight off cancer as well as immune-boosting vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, kale and cousins like spinach and lettuce can help neutralize chemicals and pesticides in our foods, protecting the liver by ensuring that it doesn’t have to work as hard. Kale can be eaten cooked or raw, though if you choose to eat it raw, make sure to tear it into smaller bites to make it more palatable.
- Brussels sprouts. While the crunchy little cruciferous veggie has the dubious position of being the least favorite vegetable according to the website chacha.com, they can help reduce blood pressure, while offering immune boosting levels of vitamins A and C. They also help boost the body’s glucosinolate, which helps in digestion. They are particularly tasty drizzled with olive oil and roasted at a high heat to caramelize the outer leaves.
- Broccoli. Also packed with vitamin C, broccoli can help boost liver function by aiding in the body’s detox process, taking some of the load off the liver. The photonutrients found in broccoli all help cleanse the body of toxins, while the flavonoid kaempferol may help alleviate the impact of allergens. Steamed, broccoli can also help lower cholesterol.
- Kiwi Fruit. Like kale, a kiwi has more vitamin C than an orange, as well as more potassium and healthy hits of vitamin E and folate as well as fiber.
- Edamame. A staple in Japanese cooking, the soybean offers plant-based protein that makes it a great option for vegetarians and vegans. The beans can help may support lower cholesterol – improving liver health – by lowering the intake of saturated fat.
- Green tea. Numerous studies have shown that the antioxidants found in green tea can lower the risk of heart disease as well as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and certain cancers. The tea is especially rich in the antioxidants known as catechins, which help the liver work better.
- Herbs. Herbs like basil, cilantro and mint are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, making them smart options for better health. You’ll get the most benefits using the herbs raw to top salads, pasta dishes, sandwiches and sides.
- Green beans. Rich in fiber, beans can help lower cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels regulated, making them a smart choice to help ward off diabetes.
- Green peppers. Green peppers offer vitamin C, beta carotene, folate and vitamin K, making them a perfect accompaniment to good health. They’re versatile, too. Slice or dice them in a salad, add them to stir fry, eat them as a snack or try some Mexican recipes such as fajitas.
- Asparagus. Loaded with vitamins including K, C, A and folate, asparagus can also help reduce inflammation, protecting the body from illness. It also offers the amino acid asparagine, which teams up with the liver to help rid the body of waste. It also offers fiber and protein, as well as prebiotics to help promote digestive health.
Other liver-friendly foods include garlic, which boosts the liver’s ability to flush out toxins, citrus fruits like grapefruits and lemons, which are packed with antioxidants and help flush out toxins, the Indian spice turmeric, which helps detox the liver and boosts its ability to produce bile, onions, which are packed with flavonoids, and walnuts, which also offer detox qualities along with healthy Omega 3s.
However, remember to enjoy the day…
If you do decide to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with family and friends, enjoy! Just be sure to limit your intake of alcohol on the day and give your liver the support it deserves.