“The liver is one of the hardest working organs in the body,” says holistic nutritionist and lifestyle cleanse expert Elissa Goodman. Indeed, its job description is a long one: It helps us break down and digest food, it stores essential vitamins and minerals, and it removes toxins from the system, among other things. So it’s no wonder that “liver cleanses” have become so popular in holistic wellness circles—they’re believed to improve this vitally important organ’s function and, in turn, our overall health and wellbeing.
Before we dive any further, though, let’s first clarify what exactly a liver cleanse is and what it isn’t. “When we talk about liver cleansing, we need to talk about body cleansing,” says The Detox Diet author Elson Haas, MD. “You don’t individually detoxify or cleanse any particular organ.” So the phrase “liver cleanse” is kind of a misnomer—it’s not just about the liver.
But does cleansing in general actually work? Not everyone’s in agreement about this, but Goodman believes it absolutely can be beneficial when done the right way. She recommends staying away from over-the-counter liver cleanse supplements, as they are not regulated by the FDA and many haven’t been clinically tested for effectiveness.
Instead, she believes the best and healthiest way to give your liver some love is the good old-fashioned way: living a healthy lifestyle. It’s not about doing a super intense, one-time cleanse. The goal is to make small tweaks to your diet and lifestyle that support liver health.
She suggests incorporating more liver-friendly ingredients into your diet, such as cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), which aid in eliminating chemicals and other toxins from the body. Step two involves removing all the bad stuff—we’re talking processed foods, hydrogenated oils, refined sugar, alcohol, and excess caffeine.
If you think your liver’s in need of some extra TLC, Goodman says you can also consume high-quality supplements. (After you check with your doctor, of course.) Milk thistle is a biggie known for its detoxifying powers. “It helps to eliminate the buildup of heavy metals, prescription medications, environmental pollutants, and alcohol in the liver,” Goodman says. There’s also turmeric, which may protect against liver damage, and burdock root, which is believed to help cleanse the blood.
When done right, the benefits of having an optimally functioning liver include weight loss, a boosted immune system, increased energy and vitality, and brighter skin. But the process of getting there isn’t always easy for everyone, as our experts are about to explain.
Ready to give your liver—and the rest of your bod—a tune-up? Read on to find out what to expect.
How will I feel on a liver-focused cleanse?
Short answer: You might not feel so great, but it shouldn’t be anything you can’t handle. If you follow Goodman’s words of advice and and focus on living a healthy, liver-friendly lifestyle instead of taking store-bought liver cleanse supplements, the overall experience should be gentle, she says, with very minimal side effects.
Dr. Haas echos the idea that most people don’t experience severe side effects. However, the degree to which you experience them does depend on how many unhealthy habits you’re trying to ditch. So if you’re in the habit of eating lots of junk food and drinking a bottle of wine every night, you might have a tougher time cleansing. (If you’ve tried any kind of cleanse before, you’re probably familiar with the struggle.)
There are a few reasons you may feel side effects. One, he says, is because your body goes through withdrawal from all the stuff it’s dependent on (i.e. caffeine and sugar). Another reason, many experts believe, is because you’re releasing stored toxins, which circulate through your body before the exit your system through your urine, bowel movements, skin, and sweat. In other words, you might feel worse before you feel better.
But don’t worry. Usually, Dr. Haas says, you might feel a little funky for one or two days at most. All in all, the benefits far outweigh the side effects if you’re cleaning up your diet and making healthy lifestyle changes.
Okay, but what are the side effects of “liver cleansing”?
1. Headaches and irritability
Headaches and mood changes are common when you change your eating habits. “The best way to reduce these symptoms is to ease into the cleanse,” Goodman says. “Slowly cut back on sugar, coffee, and processed food so it’s not a dramatic change for your body.” Also, drink lots of fluids—about half your body weight in ounces daily is a good rule of thumb—to stay hydrated.
Cleanse fatigue is also pretty common. “This has to a lot to do with the change in your eating habits and it will pass in time,” Goodman says. Changes in your metabolism can also contribute to feeling über tired during a cleanse, as can calorie deficiency—so if you notice your fatigue lasts longer than a few days, take a look at your diet and make sure you’re eating enough.
3. Nausea and upset stomach
Experiencing nausea or an upset stomach is more common if you’re doing a supplement-based liver cleanse, Goodman says, because you’re consuming things that your body isn’t used to. The remedy? Drink more water to help move along waste and relieve stomach pain. (Drinking lots of H2O is the OG cleanse protocol, after all.)
Why stop with your liver? Here’s what happened when one writer went on an armpit cleanse. Plus, read up on the detoxifying facial that celebs are obsessed with.
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