I tend to focus a lot on nutrition; putting the right type and amount of food into the body to get the right physical ‘look’ on stage and high level of performance in the gym. I pay a lot of attention to which supplements will help improve recovery, burn fat, increase strength etc, but I’ve never really taken much notice of preventative medicine, herbs or ways of enhancing nutrition by improving the function of the liver or other major bodily organs, until now that is! After talking to a few of the Pro’s about their diets and nutrition ideas, there seemed to be a common theory that kept popping up: Liver Cleansing.
So what is Liver Cleansing and why is it important, particularly to a bodybuilder? I’d heard of the liver cleansing diet but never really looked into it. I also knew the liver has many important functions and it’s ‘health’ is critical to our overall health, but I realized I really needed to do a little more research into the subject. Hopefully what I’ve learned (and put into practice) about supplements to help cleanse your liver will help you get that extra 10% from all the good work you’re already doing in the nutrition department, and lead to even greater and more noticeable results in your performance and appearance.
What the liver does (and why it’s important to keep it clean!)
The liver is our second largest organ. It produces bile, necessary for fat breakdown, and detoxifies pollutants that enter our bloodstream. The liver is the cleanser and filter of the blood stream. The liver filter is designed to remove toxic matter such as dead cells, microorganisms, chemicals (including supplements), drugs and particulate debris from the blood stream.
As we are exposed to more and more pollutants, via the air, the food we eat (pesticides, damaged fats, artificial sweeteners, chemically altered supplements), “medicines” we take (pain relievers, birth control pills, etc), the liver must work harder and harder, so we need to have healthy livers to break down these chemicals. Every artificial chemical, pesticide and hormone, is broken down (metabolized) by enzyme pathways inside the liver cells so the more chemicals it is exposed to, the more easily its detoxification systems are overloaded.
Many of the toxic chemicals that enter the body are fat-soluble hence they tend to be stored in fat tissue where they may stay for years, being released during times of exercise, stress or fasting. You may be doing fine until you decide to get in shape again or diet down for a competition and all of a sudden you start to tap into your highly toxic fat stores!
The liver filter, like any filter, needs to be cleansed regularly, and it is much easier and safer to do it everyday rather than by using a radical temporary method such as fasting.
Symptoms your liver needs a clean
- Digestive Disorders: Poor digestion, abdominal bloating, nausea especially after eating fatty foods, weight gain around the abdomen and constipation. If you wake up in the morning with bad breath and/or a coated tongue, your liver definitely needs cleansing!
- Mood and Attitude: Unpleasant and erratic mood changes, a general feeling of depression, `foggy brain’ and an impaired ability to concentrate or remember things. If the liver is sluggish, excessive amounts of toxic metabolites find their way into the blood stream and can affect the function of the brain.
- High blood pressure and/or fluid retention
- Unstable blood sugar levels: An unhealthy liver can cause large and wild fluctuations of blood sugar levels, with very low glucose levels causing fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness and cravings for sugar.
- Fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome
Ingredients found in the most popular liver tonics
To learn more about what is available for people wanting to give their liver a “grease and oil change” I went to Evelyn Faye Nutrition store in Melbourne (cnr Elizabeth & Bourke St) and asked what their top 5 best selling local (ie Australian or New Zealand made) Liver Tonic products were. For your quick reference, I have listed the amount of each ingredient in each product, the cost and size of the product as well as the recommended dosage (see table). You can see there is a large variation in the amount and types of herbal and other ingredients in the 5 products. After researching these ingredients it became apparent that certain ones have strong evidence supporting their action as liver tonics, while others have only a weak reported function in assisting the liver. I have tried to list the herbs/compounds in order of usefulness to help you decide on the best product for your needs. I have only included information relating to liver function (due to space restrictions). Some of the herbs in this list have other reported uses, such as aiding skin problems, diuretic action or improving the absorption of nutrients.
St Mary’s Thistle or Milk Thistle
St Mary’s Thistle or Milk Thistle as it is commonly called is a very well known liver herb, having been recommended in herbal texts since the late 1600′s. It is best known for its use in treating liver disorders including hepatitis and cirrhosis. The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin, which is extracted from the seeds of the plant. Silymarin is made up of three different bioflavonoids: silybin, silydianin, and silychristin.
The action of silymarin on liver cells is reported to be three-fold:
- It allegedly alters the outer membrane of liver cells, preventing toxic substances from entering the liver;
- Stimulates the regenerative capacity of the liver by increasing ribosome synthesis (renews liver cells);
- Has a powerful antioxidant effect, clearing free radicals from the liver.
By exerting these actions, Milk Thistle can help the liver recover from the damage caused by toxins, infection, alcohol, inadequate nutrition and drug abuse. Silymarin can increase the quantity of the powerful liver protector glutathione, and improve protein synthesis in the liver. Its antioxidant capacity is important in the liver detoxification process.
There is debate over whether silymarin only exerts a protective effect against liver destruction, or if it also has some ability to heal damage already done to the liver. Typical effective doses of silymarin range from 500 to 2000 mg daily.
Dandelion root has been used for liver and bile complaints for centuries. The therapeutic properties of dandelion are due in part to its bitter substances taraxacin and inulin (a bitter glycoside). The bitters stimulate the digestive glands and the liver and activate the flow of bile.
Two independent studies have shown the liver healing properties of dandelion. It was found that dandelion successfully treats hepatitis, liver swelling, jaundice and indigestion in those with inadequate bile secretion. One of these studies dates back to 1938.
Taurine plays a major role in the liver via the formation of bile acids and detoxification. Many people with chemical sensitivities and allergies have abnormally low levels of taurine. It is the major amino acid required for the removal of toxic chemicals and metabolites from the body and is an essential component of cell membranes, where it plays a role in stabilising transport across cell membranes. A deficiency of taurine can lead to electrolyte imbalance due to impaired mineral transport across cell membranes and this reduces the ability of the liver to remove pollutants via the excretory routes of the bowel and kidneys. The inclusion of taurine in a liver tonic is beneficial for the above reasons as well as for the antioxidant protection it provides. Recommended doses vary from 50 to 2000 mg daily.
Globe artichoke also known as Cynara scolymus is another bitter tonic, like Dandelion, with liver-protective and liver-restorative actions. During the 1930′s clinical studies established its value in lowering blood cholesterol, urea and nitrogen waste products of metabolism. Very useful for people following high protein diets! The bitters from Globe artichoke are used as a liver restorative and to treat people with liver insufficiency, damage or liver diseases. It is one of the more beneficial herbs for inclusion in liver tonic and cleanser preparations.
Shizandra Berry (Schisandra chinensis)
Used worldwide as an astringent tonic to strengthen the cell tissues and retain body energy, Schizandra is currently very popular. As an adaptogen (compounds that regulate bodily functions) this herb increases the energy supply of cells in the brain, liver, nerves, muscles, glands and kidneys.
Shizandra is included in liver tonic preparations as it is believed it can improve the bodies digestion of fatty foods through its ability to cleanse the liver and increase the production of bile, which then functions as a digestive for cleaving the fat into fatty acids and glycerine.
The root-bark contains berberine, a bitter alkaloid that aids in the secretion of bile making it good for liver problems. It also contains high amounts of Vitamin C, the most powerful antioxidant vitamin for the liver. Vitamin C reduces toxic damage to the liver cells from chemical overload and neutralizes free radicals generated during the phase 1 detoxification pathway in the liver.
The most active component in Tumeric is curcumin and it is useful for treating liver and gallbladder problems, relieving liver damage, and for stimulating the production of bile. Curcumin has good antioxidant activity, comparing well with vitamin C. It is interesting to note that curcumin has good anti-inflammatory activity that is comparable to steroidal and non-steroidal drugs, so could be helpful in assisting the recovery of training injuries.
Although not officially recognized, the effectiveness of Yellow Dock has been documented for liver and gallbladder problems. Rumicin is the active principle of the Yellow Dock. It promotes the flow of bile and is useful for relieving a congested liver. Combines well with Dandelion in herbal medicine.
Gentiana is used by Chinese herbalists as a treatment for hepatitis and other liver disorders. Also reported to be an excellent digestive aid, gentian helps the body absorb essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Psyllium is not directly involved in the liver cleansing process, but people with sluggish liver function often have difficulty metabolising fats and may have high cholesterol levels. The cholesterol lowering effect of Psyllium can help in such cases, making it a useful addition to a liver tonic.
Slippery Elm Bark
Irritable bowel syndrome can often be associated with poor liver function due to the liver’s inability to break down fats and toxins. The fine powder made from the bark of the slippery elm tree has a soothing effect upon the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract and may assist in relieving the effects of the syndrome. Slippery Elm bark could be of some use in liver tonics to help relieve immediate symptoms associated with poor liver function.
Astragalus is often combined with other remedies to enhance their action hence it’s inclusion in some liver tonics. Astragalus may also boost the immune system.
Chelidonium majus (Greater Celadine)
This herb/flower is a member of the poppy family and was traditionally used as a wart remover! I could not find any information on why this would be included in a liver cleansing preparation!
From the information I could find, the Health Direction “Liva Tone” product offers the best formulation for effective liver cleansing, with the next best being the Nutra-Life product. At the recommended dosage the “Liva Tone” contains significant amounts of all three of most useful liver protective/cleansing herbs plus taurine. The Nutra-Life product also contains these ingredients but at much lower levels. If taken at 3 times the on-pack recommended dose, the Nutra-Life product would be comparable to the “Liva Tone”.
This is not to say the other products won’t also be beneficial as the other herbs in their formulations have a broader range of action than just the liver and may be of assistance in helping to relieve some of the symptoms, such as poor digestion and nutrient absorption, resulting from a over-stressed liver. The product you choose will depend on whether you seem to be suffering from an already overworked liver or if you are merely going onto a cleansing routine as a preventative measure. The Herbs of Gold “Liverim Plus 12000″ Liver Tonic tablets may be more useful if you are suffering the symptoms of a sluggish liver. In any case, seek advice from knowledgeable staff when purchasing a liver tonic, and don’t forget to read the label carefully and compare products.
TABLE 1: Popular Liver Tonic Products
|HERBAL COMPOUND||Herbs of Gold
Per 5ml (1tsp) dose
Herbal Greenrge Liverplex
Per 6ml dose
Herbs of Gold Liverim Plus 12000 Liver Tonic
Milk Thistle 10000 Complex
Health Direction LivaTone
Per 3.3g (1tsp) dose
|Pack size||200ml||200ml||30 tablets||60 tablets||200g powder|
St Mary’s Thistle (Milk Thistle)
Active component: Silymarin
Active component: Taraxacin
Active Component: Curcuminade
|Note: it is unclear if the above amounts relate to the active component or not||2g
|Slippery Elm Bark||82.5mg|
|RECOMMENDED DAILY DOSE||2.3 5mL, 2-3 times daily||4-6mL, twice daily||1 tablet, twice daily||1 tablet daily||3.3g, twice daily|