From skin detoxes to colon cleanses, it seems as though there's a never-ending list of organs that wellness advocates aim to "cleanse" through intense diets or various health regimens. Such is the case with the crop of people who believe it's important to "detox" your liver, in order to lose weight, boost your immune system, or just recover from drinking a lot of alcohol. There are even milk thistle and dandelion supplements you can buy that allegedly help with liver function, and plenty of how-to guides on the internet for this process.
But here's the thing: the liver is already a natural detoxifier, explains Elizabeth Goacher, PA-C, MHS, physician assistant at Duke University and the chair-elect of the Hepatology Associates special interest group. Technically, the liver is responsible for converting what we put in our mouths (such as food, drinks, and medications) into fuel that our body can absorb, she says. Additionally, the liver also filters out any "bad stuff" or toxins that your body needs to get rid of. You can think of the liver as both a translator and a power plant, she says.
The liver does its job just fine on its own, and trying to give it a boost with a cleanse can actually interfere with your health in a pretty big way, Goacher says. "You don't ever need to detoxify your liver, you need to leave your liver alone so it can do its job," she says. As for the liver detox supplements and cleanse products online or at the vitamin store? Those are bad news and potentially very dangerous.
"The rule is, if it goes in your mouth, your liver is going to see it," Goacher says. "That means — because liver cleanses aren’t regulated by any safety organization in standards or purity — it's entirely possible [to ingest] something that's damaging." Taking a supplement essentially gives the liver too much to do, and so it can get overworked. In fact, many bodybuilding and weight loss supplements, including herbal medicines, are associated with liver disease or injury, for this reason.
So, liver cleanses should probably be out of the picture. But that doesn't mean young women should totally ignore their liver health altogether. "We're seeing an increase in alcohol-related liver damage, and it's disproportionately affecting women compared to men," Goacher says. For women, drinking more than two standard drinks (a glass of wine, one shot of liquor, or a 12-ounce beer) puts you at risk of significant liver injury over time, she says. And people who binge-drink and consume excessive amounts of alcohol are at greater risk of liver disease.
The best way to take care of your liver is to not bombard it or over-stress the system with things that make it work too hard, like excessive alcohol consumption or supplements, Goacher says. Drinking lots of water, staying active, and eating a healthy diet are all good for your liver. Next time you feel yourself tempted to try yet another cleanse, keep in mind this advice: "The best cleanse for your liver is to not hurt it in the first place," she says.