Medical News Today: Do liver cleanses work? Evidence and risks

Liver cleanses promise to rid the body of toxins and impurities, but they are controversial because there is little science to support their use.

Products that claim to detox the liver might even be dangerous, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate them.

In this article, we look at how liver cleanses claim to work and what evidence exists to support them.

What is a liver cleanse?

Woman sitting at table in fitness sports clothes, with dumbbell weights on table, with cleansing juice and lemon water.
A liver cleanse may involve may involve choosing or avoiding specific foods, or going on a juice fast.

The liver is the body’s natural detoxifier, as it cleanses the body of toxins and produces bile to support healthy digestion. A healthy liver can detoxify almost everything that a person encounters. The liver is on the right side of the body, just under the rib cage,

When the liver is diseased, the body cannot filter out toxic substances as efficiently. This can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:

A variety of natural health practitioners, supplement companies, and medical websites argue that the liver accumulates toxins during the filtering process.

They insist that over time, these toxins can cause a range of nonspecific symptoms and may even cause serious diseases or increase the risk of cancer. There is little evidence to support this.

Over time, however, exposure to chemicals can damage the liver. For example, drinking alcohol is a well-known way to ruin liver function over time.

In most cases, a liver detox involves one or more of the following:

  • taking supplements designed to flush toxins out of the liver
  • eating a liver-friendly diet
  • avoiding certain foods
  • going on a juice fast
  • cleansing the colon and gut through the use of enemas

While liver failure is a serious health problem, there is no evidence that dangerous toxins accumulate in otherwise healthy livers without specific exposure to large amounts of these chemicals.

Mainstream medical practitioners argue that the liver does not need detoxing and that doing so might even be dangerous.

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Liver cleanse: Fact or fiction?

Doctor explaining liver disease to patient using anatomical model.
A liver cleanse will not cure a liver disease, and should not be used to replace normal treatment.

A healthy liver naturally cleanses itself. An unhealthy liver will not get better with a liver cleanse. A person with liver disease needs proper medical treatment and may require lifestyle or dietary changes.

Some evidence suggests that supplements, such as milk thistle, may improve liver health. However, there is no evidence that these supplements will detox the liver, or that they can cure any liver condition.

Liver cleanses also pose some health risks:

  • Liver cleansing diets may not offer balanced nutrition: A liver cleansing diet may not contain all nutrients that a person requires. Over time, this can lead to deficiencies or malnutrition, particularly in children, pregnant women, and people with diabetes and other medical conditions.
  • Enemas can be dangerous: Enemas can cause life-threatening damage to the intestines when not administered correctly.
  • Liver cleanses cannot replace medical treatment: When a person uses a liver cleanse in place of medical treatment, serious underlying medical issues can go untreated.

Can cleansing the liver help you lose weight?

Some liver cleanses promise to aid weight loss by improving a person’s metabolism. Supporters believe that flushing the liver of toxins can improve metabolism, but there is no evidence to support this claim.

In fact, very low-calorie diets can slow the body’s metabolism. This is because the body adjusts to the low nutrient intake by absorbing nutrients more slowly.

Some diets that claim to improve liver health require people to consume few calories for several days. This can result in temporary weight loss.

Much of the weight loss, however, is water weight, which will return once a person begins to eat normally again.

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Liver-friendly foods

Woman shopping in grocery store looking at fruit and vegetables in produce section.
Avoiding foods high in fat, such as meat, fish, or dairy, may help people with liver disease.

While it is not possible to cleanse the liver with any specific food or combination of foods, doctors may recommend dietary changes to people with liver disease.

For most people, avoiding very fatty foods and alcohol can reduce the risk of liver disease.

Doctors may offer dietary recommendations to people with specific liver diseases:

  • Bile duct disease: Use fat substitutes and kernel oil when cooking because the body needs less bile to break it down.
  • Cirrhosis: Limit salt intake. It may also be necessary to reduce protein intake, but only under the supervision of a doctor.
  • Fatty liver disease: Eat high-fiber foods and avoid foods that are very high in calories.
  • Hemochromatosis: Avoid iron-rich foods and iron supplements. Do not eat raw shellfish.
  • Hepatitis C: Avoid iron-rich foods and iron supplements. Reduce salt intake.
  • Wilson disease: Limit copper-rich foods, such as mushrooms, chocolate, and nuts.

People with healthy livers do not need to adopt specific diets. Simply eating a balanced, whole food, varied diet and limiting alcohol intake will help preserve liver health.

Other ways to improve liver health

Some simple strategies that can reduce the risk of liver disease and help the liver rid the body of toxins include:

  • Limiting alcohol intake: Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for liver disease. People with an addiction to alcohol should consider treatment.
  • Avoiding unnecessary over-the-counter medications: Never exceed the recommended dose, particularly of drugs such as acetaminophen that can harm the liver. Do not mix alcohol and over-the-counter drugs.
  • Choosing reputable tattoo and piercing salons: Choose a salon that sterilizes their equipment. Unsafe body modifications can transmit hepatitis C.
  • Getting vaccinated: A person should get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, and make sure they get appropriate vaccinations before traveling overseas.
  • Practicing safe sex: This can reduce the risk of transmitting conditions that affect the liver. People should also get tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Avoiding potentially dangerous chemicals: When painting or using pesticides, wear a mask and ensure the area is well ventilated.
  • Drinking plenty of water.
  • Rinsing fruit and vegetables: This can help ensure they are free of pesticides.

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Should you try a liver cleanse?

A healthy liver is crucial for maintaining a person’s overall health, but expensive cleanses or diets are just not necessary. In some cases, they may even be dangerous.

A healthy lifestyle, balanced diet, and regular consultations with a doctor are far more valuable to the health of the liver than any fad diet or cleanse.

Liver cleanses offer no proven benefits. To protect liver health, people can adopt a more comprehensive, long-term health strategy.

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