Ignoring this vital organ could have life-threatening consequences.

When it comes to vital organs in the body, it often seems like the heart and brain get all the attention.

But the liver also plays a crucial role in maintaining good health. Liver disease, which affects one person in 10, is among the top 12 causes of death in the US (primarily from cirrhosis).

Fortunately, there are plenty of steps you can take to help safeguard the health of your liver. What you need to know…


All tissues of the body are subject to damage by highly reactive molecules known as oxygen free radicals, which are produced by natural metabolic processes. In the liver, free radicals can trigger an inflammatory response that may result in scarring and culminate in the tissue destruction that characterizes cirrhosis.

The body has built-in defenses against free radicals—enzyme systems that neutralize these dangerous chemicals. But they can be overwhelmed without the help of additional antioxidant compounds provided by the diet. To help protect your liver, make sure that your daily diet includes at least some of the foods with the highest antioxidant levels—especially if you have liver disease or are at risk for it (due to such factors as obesity or alcohol abuse)… *

  • Cinnamon.
  • Berries (especially wild blueberries, which are particularly high in antioxidants), cranberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries (frozen berries also are a good choice).
  • Red, kidney or pinto beans.
  • Pecans.
  • Artichoke hearts.
  • Russet potatoes (with the skin).
  • Apples.
  • Plums.

Also: For a concentrated source of liver-shielding antioxidants, drink fresh raw juices made from beetroot, dandelion leaf, wheatgrass and/or barley grass. Antioxidant-rich green tea also promotes liver health.


The liver plays a central role in ridding the body of toxins produced by bacteria and derived from external sources such as air pollution, heavy metals, pesticides, hormones in foods and natural wastes such as metabolic by-products.

The liver’s detoxification process is complex. Enzymes first alter the toxic chemicals into more reactive compounds that can ultimately dissolve in bile for excretion through the digestive tract.

Certain foods stimulate the enzymes that catalyze detoxification. These include cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.

A key ingredient of cruciferous vegetables, sulforaphane, also protects the liver as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Sulfur-containing foods that have a similar effect include eggs, garlic, onions, leeks and shallots.

The amino acid L-arginine also stimulates the liver’s detoxification mechanism. Kidney beans and peanuts are good sources of L-arginine.

Bile flushes toxins out of the liver into the intestine en route to excretion. Choloretic foods—artichokes and ginger, for example—help stimulate the production and flow of bile.


Regularly taking medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Motrin), can create inflammation that may allow bacterial toxins to leak through the intestinal wall, triggering oxidative stress that can progress to scarring and even tissue destruction of the liver. Excessive alcohol consumption aggravates this disruption of the intestinal lining.

Beneficial bacteria found in the large intestine help keep harmful germs and their toxins from seeping through the intestinal wall. Probiotics (foods and supplements containing “good” bacteria) and prebiotics (foods that feed these bacteria) protect the liver indirectly by promoting the overall growth of healthful bacteria. Prebiotics include bananas, artichokes and fermented foods such as miso.

You can also use probiotic supplements, such as lactobacillus gg, or eat yogurt containing live cultures.


Excessive alcohol disrupts the liver’s metabolism and causes inflammation that leads to fatty deposits, scarring and the irreversible tissue destruction of cirrhosis.

While moderate alcohol intake (up to two drinks daily for men and no more than one drink daily for women) offers general health benefits for most people without endangering the liver, excessive amounts must be avoided.

Also: Exercise and watch your weight. Obesity and diabetes increase the risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects up to 23% of the population. Although it usually causes no symptoms, this buildup of fat deposits in the liver can, over time, lead to inflammation, a condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) that may ultimately cause the same kind of lasting liver damage as alcohol.

Exercise goal: Two and a half hours of moderately strenuous exercise per week—spread over four or more days—will protect your liver while also improving your overall health.


There is no definitive research to support vitamin or herbal supplements to preserve liver health, but some studies suggest that they may help in treating liver disease. If you are being treated for liver disease, ask your doctor about…

Vitamin E. Previous research is mixed, but a major two-year clinical trial recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine found significant improvement in NASH symptoms among patients who took 800 international units of vitamin E daily, compared with those who were given placebos or received a diabetes drug used to treat NASH.

Betaine. A pilot study involving seven patients with NASH suggested that a year of treatment with this nutritional supplement could reduce fatty deposits, inflammation and fibrosis in the liver.


The liver, which weighs about three pounds, is the second-largest organ in the body (only the skin is larger). A metabolic and biochemical powerhouse, the liver…

  • Converts food into energy and building-block nutrients.
  • Stores excess carbohydrates for endurance.
  • Filters out toxins.
  • Breaks down medications for absorption.

*There are no current guidelines on the amounts of these foods to consume for liver protection—add them to your diet in liberal amounts whenever possible.