Liver Cleansing: Beneficial or Harmful?

By Beth Anne Piehl, Special Sections Writer


The Liver!


This might sound gross, but sometimes, bodies do some funky things.
Michael, 40, of Petoskey, actually counts the hundreds of small gallstones that are deposited in his commode after his yearly round of “liver cleansing.”
It’s a method of detoxing that seems to be growing in popularity, with a proliferation of Web sites, products and recipes promising to clear out the liver and body of toxins for a cleaner, happier, healthier existence.
There are differences of opinion on whether it works and whether it’s safe, but Mike says it makes him feel better, cleansed and healthier overall. (As with all medical-related diets, checking with a doctor first is a good idea.)
The process Mike follows begins with 10 days of ingesting no meat or sugars, only raw foods and whole grains, very little fat, no alcohol, no diet soda. The 10 days are followed with a parasite cleaning product (he uses Integris) which he says is integral to getting good results, meaning many stones released.
The next step is where the weak-of-stomach might stop. Mike drinks an Epsom salt solution three times in one day and at the end of the night, before turning in around 10 p.m., he drinks a large container of olive oil and lemon juice.
“Then you lay still in bed, try not to move all night long, and the next morning,” he says, “it’s game on.”
By 6 a.m., he said his body is ejecting gallstones that have an emerald-like appearance caused by cholesterol. “I have done it three years in a row and I get out between 500 and 1,000 stones,” he said. “And usually during those first 10 days, I lose 10 pounds.”
With the feeling that his gallbladder is swollen at the moment, he’s gearing up for his 2008 liver cleansing.
His wife, by the way, says he’s grumpy during the process.
“It works for me, but a lot of people would not want to do it,” Mike said. “A lot of people can’t sit there and chug eight ounces of olive oil, either.”

‘Remember your liver’

This reporter’s mother used to remind me during college to “Remember your liver!” as I was leaving from a weekend home to go back to Ann Arbor; not that I was leaving my liver behind, but to be conscious of what I was doing to it as a young college student.
She knew what health professionals know: The role of the liver cannot be understated. It’s a body’s clearinghouse, absorbing all the lemons and trying to make lemonade, so to speak.
Everything you eat, drink, breathe and absorb through your skin eventually reaches the liver. It controls metabolism, during which the liver breaks down nutrients into usable byproducts and toxins into byproducts that can be eliminated. The liver also produces bile, a fluid that carries away waste and helps digest fat in the small intestine, and cholesterol, a substance needed by every cell.

Dr. Frank Koziara IIDr. Frank Koziara II, M.D., with Great Lakes Digestive Health Associates in Petoskey, explained the key functions of the liver and how to keep it healthy in a Q&A with the News-Review.

PNR: What is the role of the liver in the human body?
Dr. Koziara: The liver is the second largest organ in the body. It plays a key role in metabolic functions and in the production of proteins and other important substances. It also is critical in the modification and detoxification of many potentially harmful compounds.
PNR: What are the main behaviors and substances that damage the liver?
Dr. Koziara: Alcohol, when used excessively, leads initially to excess deposition of fat in the liver. Continued excess causes inflammation and later fibrosis (scarring) may lead to cirrhosis. Patients with cirrhosis may later develop liver failure, which is frequently fatal.
Obesity (or just being overweight) can also cause excess fat to accumulate in the liver. This can also promote inflammatory changes and later, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Fatty liver is actually the most common cause of abnormal liver enzymes in liver disease clinics.
Some herbal supplements can be toxic to the liver. One should consult his/her physician before taking herbal supplements.
PNR: Alcoholism is a significant problem in our society. Please describe the process of cirrhosis, how it impairs the liver’s ability to function and is this a reparable or reversible condition?

Dr. Koziara: Cirrhosis (severe liver scarring) can be caused by excess alcohol, environmental toxins, viruses (hepatitis B and C), autoimmune conditions and some hereditary diseases. Some prescription medications can be harmful.
Cirrhosis from alcohol occurs only after initial development of fatty changes, followed by alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation).
It may take 20 years or more for cirrhosis to develop in persons who drink alcohol excessively. Fatty changes develop first. If one ceases to drink, the fatty liver changes frequently resolve. Continued excess alcohol will often result in alcoholic hepatitis. Unfortunately, this stage is not typically reversible, and often leads to cirrhosis (also not reversible).
The liver typically functions normally in the early stages of cirrhosis. Eventually the liver function deteriorates in many, leading to liver failure and death, unless one receives a liver transplant.
A person should avoid use of acetaminophen during or right after moderate or excess alcohol consumption, as this combination can be fatal.
PNR: What are the signs of liver damage?
Dr. Koziara: One of the earliest signs is abnormal levels of liver enzymes on blood testing. Fatty liver and some other liver diseases may be apparent on X-ray studies (ultrasound, CT scan). Symptoms may include fatigue, and in more advanced liver disease, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). 
cirrhosis is gross.PNR: Are there other diseases or conditions that cause liver damage?
Dr. Koziara: Many viruses can cause inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). But only a few cause chronic (long-lasting) hepatitis. Hepatitis C and B can cause chronic hepatitis, and later, cirrhosis. These two viruses can be transmitted by blood transfusions, intravenous drug abuse, snorting drugs with contaminated devices, or sexually. Infants can be infected at time of delivery if the mother is infected.
Hepatitis A and mononucleosis and several other viruses can cause acute hepatitis (this can be severe in some), not chronic hepatitis.
Other causes of hepatitis and cirrhosis include autoimmune hepatitis, and several inherited disorders: hemachromatosis (excess iron in liver, and other organs), alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency (can cause liver or lung disease), and Wilson's disease is another genetic disorder that can cause liver disease.
PNR: Does the liver regenerate itself?
Dr. Koziara: The liver has a remarkable ability to regenerate. This explains how a patient can donate more than half his/her liver and survive. Similarly, one can have half his liver removed and do well.
PNR: Are there certain foods or nutritional supplements that can help improve liver function?
Dr. Koziara: Milk thistle has been touted as helpful for the liver. Actually, it is probably neither helpful nor harmful.  
Caution should be exercised with alcohol use. More than 2-3 alcoholic beverages in a 24-hour period is excessive, and if repeated regularly, can be quite harmful to the liver. Women should limit their alcohol even more, as they don’t have enzymes in the stomach to detoxify it (men do have these enzymes in the stomach, hence their ability to drink slightly more than women). As noted above, acetaminophen should be avoided when drinking.
PNR: What is your opinion of the need for the “liver cleansing” formulas and products that claim to detoxify the liver?
Dr. Koziara: I don’t advocate liver cleansing. The “liver cleansing” formulation that I have researched involves drinking olive oil. Actually, this does nothing for the liver itself. If it does anything at all, it may cause excessive gallbladder contractions. This could actually be harmful in someone with gallstones, leading to inflammation in the gallbladder.
PNR: What else would you recommend regarding liver health?
Dr. Koziara: I recommend that people try to maintain their weight close to what would be ideal for their height. I advise minimal alcohol consumption; I’m not a fan of theory that 1-2 glasses of red wine is heart-healthy. Aerobic exercise and sensible eating habits are likely healthier.

Ways to love your liver

1. Lick the liquor habit - It typically takes a half quart of whiskey daily for 10 years to abuse the liver to the point of cirrhosis.
2. Add “C” to your diet - University of Michigan Medical School studies show that vitamin C protects the liver. Doses as low as 500 milligrams daily helps prevent fatty buildup and cirrhosis. 5,000 mg of vitamin C per day appears to actually flush fats from the liver.
3. Take vitamin B - Especially vitamin B-12, which significantly reduces jaundice, anorexia, serum bilirubin, and recovery time.
4. Eat veggies and greens
5. Eat your food raw - Or at least as much of it as you can. Some studies show it is one effective way to stave off liver cancer.
6. Get off drugs - Illegal drugs of all sorts (and a few prescription drugs as well) are rough on the liver. This includes anabolic steroids.
7. Eat less fat - Twenty-five percent of people have fatty liver condition, according to the Merck Manual. Fatty liver is the most common response of the liver to injury. It typifies the alcoholic's liver upon admission to the hospital.
8. Practice safe sex - If you are not in a monogamous relationship, you are at increased risk for hepatitis.
9. Wash your hands.
10. Prevent stones - Animal foods contain cholesterol, and cholesterol forms gallstones. Some people manufacture excessive cholesterol, and this can be controlled through intelligent use of therapeutic vegetable juice fasting and large doses of vitamin C, both of which significantly reduce cholesterol production.
Source: Compiled from “15 ways to love your liver,” by Andrew Saul, the author of the books “FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy” and Doctor Yourself: Natural Healing that Works.”