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I’ve had a lot of questions over the years about how to do a liver cleanse. In today’s toxin-filled world, our liver & gallbladder can certainly take a beating. Here’s how to naturally support your liver and do a cleanse (although it’s probably not what you think!).
What Is a Liver Cleanse?
There are several natural remedies touted to help with gallbladder stones and liver cleansing. One of the more popular ones is a high fat drink with olive oil, lemon juice or grapefruit juice, and Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate).
The person doing the liver detox starts by eating apples or drinking apple juice for several days. They then move on to drinking Epsom salts in water, followed by large amounts of olive oil and citrus. The person then lies on their right side (some sources say left) and lets the laxatives do their work.
The idea behind this is to build up bile in the gallbladder and then quickly increase bile flow. This gallbladder flush is thought to release gallstones that cause gallbladder problems. But does it really work?
First, we have to look at how our liver and gallbladders function.
Liver and Gallbladder Anatomy 101
Our liver is responsible for helping our body with detoxification. To name a few things, the liver:
- Regulates chemicals in the blood
- Converts glucose into the storable form (glycogen)
- Regulates amino acids in the blood, which are the building blocks of protein
- Makes cholesterol
- Is responsible for bile production
- Stores iron
- Oversees blood clotting
- Processes hormones
- Helps clear bilirubin from red blood cells
In all, the liver performs over 500 everyday functions we need to survive. It creates the bile that’s then transported and stored in the gallbladder. When we eat fats, the gallbladder releases some bile salts into our small intestine. This helps us digest fats and certain vitamins and eliminates waste products.
Most of us don’t think about our gallbladder until it starts to cause problems. Certain people are at risk of getting gallstones, which can cause pain (including abdominal pain), nausea, and vomiting. Especially after eating. Women are 2 times as likely as men to get gallstones.
The good news is, over two-thirds of people with gallstones don’t have any negative symptoms. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women, diabetics, and people with rapid weight loss. The problem is when the gallstones migrate into and block the common bile duct. This tiny tube connects the liver, gallbladder, and small intestine. If gallstones block the duct to the pancreas, it can be deadly.
Conventional medicine’s only solution to these attacks is gallbladder removal surgery. It’s an important part of the digestive system, so I’d like to keep mine if possible!
Show Your Liver Some Love
With such important jobs to do, we want to support our liver and gallbladder. When it comes to liver cleanses though, opinions are divided. Some say our livers are meant to detox and they don’t need any interference from us. Other wellness experts promote harsh or drastic cleansing protocols to help things along.
The question is: do liver cleanses work and what’s the best way to do it?
Do Liver Cleanses Work?
Earlier in the article, I gave one common example of a liver cleanse. Other popular options include liver detoxing supplements and pills.
There’s some anecdotal evidence a gallbladder flush may reduce the number of gallstones. And because you’re fasting and taking high doses of laxatives, it does help clear out the digestive system. This can help relieve bloating, and constipation, and stimulate bowel movements.
Many people have seen other improvements in their gallbladder function or pain. Others didn’t see any difference and instead had side effects like nausea, vomitting, and diarrhea. In severe cases there are reports of serious gallbladder issues requiring surgery after such cleanses. Some people swear by them, but there isn’t much solid research behind them.
The idea likely originated from a 1999 opinion letter published in The Lancet medical journal. A chemical engineer details how his wife drank apple juice and olive oil. She later passed soft, brown “stones” in her stool the next day.
People who do this cleanse end up passing lots of green chunks in their stool. However, those green chunks probably aren’t gallstones.
A Different Way to Make Soap
Other researchers have done detailed examinations of the “gallstones” passed during a gallbladder cleanse. Real gallstones are made up of various materials. These include undissolved cholesterol, bilirubin, and cholesterol.
In studies, the “stones” passed during a liver cleanse didn’t have any of these materials. What they did have were fatty acids and potassium carboxylates. In other words, the olive oil and citrus juice combined in the body to make soap. While it makes for an impressive bowel movement, it may not do much for the liver.
The Best Way to Do a Liver Cleanse
While it isn’t flashy, the best way to support our liver and gallbladder is with consistent, healthy habits. Unfortunately, we do live in a toxin-filled world and our bodies can get bogged down with it all. That’s why I do things like detox baths and armpit detoxes.
Minimizing toxin exposure where possible and supporting our natural detox processes can go a long way. There are several ways to give our livers (and gallbladders) some extra love.
Feed Your Liver
Like most health issues, it all starts with the food we put in our bodies. Livers are one of the only organs that can regenerate themselves. If we give our body better building materials, we’ll have healthier organs.
Coffee is one surprising way to support liver health. It can help lower liver enzymes and improve inflammation. While I do enjoy sipping on a little coffee several times a week, it can be easy to overdo it. Green tea has less caffeine and also shows liver-boosting benefits.
Our livers also need amino acids so we can make proteins. Grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chicken, and grass-fed dairy (if tolerated) are all healthy protein sources. Sometimes we need a little extra amino acid boost, which is why I take this amino acid supplement.
Here are some more foods to help your liver:
- Dark leafy greens and vitamin K-rich foods to help the liver with blood clotting
- Glutathione production foods for detox. Cruciferous veggies, kale, watercress, and onions are all good examples.
- Antioxidant-rich foods, like berries (cranberries, blueberries, etc.) to reduce inflammation
- Fruits, vegetables, and the occasional healthy grains for fiber to stay regular.
- Eat healthy fats that signal the body to release bile, preventing buildup in the gallbladder. If you have (or suspect) pancreatitis or a gallbladder blockage then fats can cause more problems during this period.
I mentioned earlier how drinking coffee may have some liver benefits. It turns out that’s not the only way coffee can boost liver function! Coffee enemas trigger the liver to release bile and flush toxins. They then soften the stool so those toxins are easily pushed out. It can also help prevent toxins from accumulating and recirculating in the body.
Here’s more about coffee enemas and how to do them.
Herbs for Liver Cleansing
While there may not be a magic pill, there are plenty of herbs that help support the liver and gallbladder. These are often divided into a few different categories
- Cholagogues – Helps the gallbladder contract to increase bile flow into the intestines
- Cholerectic herbs – Stimulates the liver to increase bile production
- Nutritive herbs – These are used in larger amounts in cooking and tea like food. They’re a nutrient-dense way to support bodily functions. Examples include nettle, dandelion, and red raspberry leaf.
A Word of Caution
Most medical advice is in agreement that if you have gallstones blocking ducts, herbal remedies may cause more harm than good. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms you could have pancreatitis or a bile duct blockage:
- Sudden abdominal pain
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Pain that travels up to the shoulder or chest
- Pain in your right shoulder or between the shoulder blades
These aren’t all of the possible symptoms. If you suspect there’s a gallstone blockage check in with your doctor or local hospital. Gallstone pancreatitis is deadly if left untreated. Other complications can arise from serious gallstone problems.
With that said, if you have some gallbladder sludge or are at risk for stones and want to help move things along, here are some natural remedies. Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so check with your healthcare practitioner before starting any new regimen.
Milk thistle has been used to help the liver for thousands of years. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it’s used to reduce liver inflammation, strengthen, and tone the organ. It’s used to help digest fats and flush toxins. It helps support bile flow to the gallbladder which helps with digestion, blood sugar regulation, and constipation.
This herb can also help protect the liver from damage caused by toxins. It’s traditionally paired with dandelion root, turmeric, and artichoke leaf for liver detox.
You can find milk thistle tincture or herb to use in tea. Many people use standardized capsules. These have a concentrated form of the active ingredient, silymarin. It should be used with caution by those on insulin and similar medications.
I use dandelion leaf in recipes like Bieler’s broth and iced lime and dandelion tea. While it’s often the bane of lawnmowers, this unassuming herb has some impressive benefits. As a bitter herb, it helps stimulate digestion, bile, and enzymes. Dandelion root is also a choleretic. It helps us better digest fats, and improve liver and gallbladder inflammation and congestion.
Drinking dandelion root tea is a great way to give the liver a boost. According to Germany’s Commission E, there are a few precautions. Dandelion shouldn’t be used for blocked bile ducts, a pus-filled gallbladder (rare), or when gallstones are stuck in the small bowel.
It’s a nutritive herb that herbalists consider generally safe for most people. You can read more about dandelion root and how to use it here.
Yes, the same leaves that are attached to those delicious artichoke hearts. Artichoke leaf has a long history of use for liver and gallbladder support. A 1994 study showed it increased bile flow. Animal and human studies demonstrate its ability to protect against liver damage. Because it stimulates bile, it also helps with digestion and constipation.
In rare cases, it can cause an allergic reaction, but it’s generally very safe. Artichoke leaf is not recommended for those with blocked bile ducts or liver disease. You can use it as a tincture, tea, or in capsules.
Oregon Grape Root
Yet another bitter herb. Oregon grape root helps stimulate liver function and increase bile flow. There’s also evidence it can help normalize liver enzymes and inflammation. Herbalist Michael Tierra recommends using it with dandelion and fennel for gallstones. However, it’s not recommended for a blocked gallbladder or hyperthyroid.
You can take Oregon grape root as a tea, tincture, or capsule. Since it’s at risk of becoming endangered, it’s best to use cultivated sources.
There are many other herbs that can help with the liver and gallstones. Some of these include yellow dock, barberry, helichrysum, and turmeric. Be sure to do your research and see which herbs are a good fit for your own situation.
Liver Detox Tea Recipe
- In a small saucepan with the lid on bring the water to a boil.
- Add the herbs, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes.
- Strain well and sweeten to taste with honey if desired.
- You can also use stevia if preferred. Try adding a splash of milk for a creamy version!
- Drink up to 1-2 cups a day or as desired for liver, gallbladder, and digestive support.
Who Can Drink Liver Detox Tea?
In general, this tea is considered safe for most people. Experts have mixed opinions, but I avoid internal detox during pregnancy. Breastfeeding moms may also want to exercise caution. If you have a gallbladder blockage or are on insulin, consult your doctor before use.
It won’t clear out gallstones in one fell swoop. This liver detox tea is designed for the longer game. Supporting the liver’s job and encouraging bile flow, it’s a gentle way to help the gallbladder and liver function their best!
Have you ever done a liver flush before? What do you use to support your liver? Leave a comment and let me know!