Cleansing the liver with so-called “detox” products is becoming more and more popular these days. Such products are theoretically designed to help the liver more efficiently perform its many functions that are crucial to your daily health. For example, the liver makes bile, a substance stored in the gallbladder and used in digestion and elimination. But the liver also synthesizes nutrients, including hormones and proteins, and plays an important role in the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. In addition, the liver breaks down potentially dangerous compounds, including most medications, turning them into particles that the body can excrete via urine or stool.

But anyone who considers using one of these detox products should remember “buyer beware” and proceed only with the advice of a doctor. I see many patients each year who experience ill effects from over-the-counter “liver detox” pills. They typically suffer liver or gallbladder pain, diarrhea, constipation and/or gastrointestinal cramping. Instead of liver detox pills, I recommend trying the time-tested foods and liver “tonic” described below to promote optimal functioning of this vital organ…

Root vegetables — especially carrots and beets — have a long tradition as liver “medicine.” They are rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals that help the liver remove toxins from the body.

My advice: Eat two raw carrots daily… or add one-quarter cup each of shredded carrots and beets to a salad. As an alternative, eat a baked beet salad (bake fresh beets 25 to 45 minutes at 400°, slice and add olive oil, vinegar and any seasoning you like) and include steamed carrots in your diet several times a week.

“Bitter” leafy greens, such as dandelion, mustard, kale and beet tops, also promote good liver health. Leafy greens assist with fat metabolism and bile production and are high in folate, a nutrient that is essential for healthy cell development.

My advice: Include at least one portion (one-half cup cooked or one cup raw) of these bitter greens (steamed or added to soup or stew or finely chopped raw in a salad) in your daily diet.

Caution: People who take a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin), should not add more greens to their diet — the vitamin K in greens can interfere with the drug.

Milk thistle. Research has shown that this herb can help reduce elevated liver enzymes in people recovering from such conditions as viral hepatitis, alcoholism and medication-induced liver damage.

For a short-term liver tonic: Add one teaspoon of ground or powdered milk thistle seeds to your food each day for one month. You can buy the whole seeds in natural-food grocery stores and grind or powder them at home in a coffee mill. If you find it to be more convenient, you also can buy ground or powdered milk thistle at most natural-food stores. Ground and powdered milk thistle are equally effective. Use this tonic daily for two weeks — it will do its job by then — and repeat once every six months.