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When it comes to wellness, a couple areas reign supreme: boosting brain power, improving gut health, increasing muscle mass, etc. But what about the all-essential yet highly underrated liver?
This innocuous, football-sized organ is not often thought of, at least not until it’s too late. The largest gland in your body, it sits beneath your ribcage to the right of your abdomen. This essential organ is responsible for a host of integral bodily functions.
Major functions of the liver:
- Creating cholesterol, a waxy molecule found in the blood that’s necessary for the production of hormones and enzymes necessary for digestion
- Continually producing and secreting bile, a chemical used in digestion to help break down fat and turn it into usable energy
- Metabolizing carbs, ensuring blood glucose levels remain constant by both removing excess sugar when sugar levels are high and releasing sugar when levels are low
- Metabolizing proteins, breaking them down into amino acids
- Acting as the body’s primary filtering system, converting toxins like ammonia (a byproduct of protein breakdown) into less toxic waste products (like urea, eliminated via urine)
If liver function is damaged, the fallout can be life threatening. Liver disorders can sometimes be caused by genetic factors or viruses. But oftentimes, issues can be traced back to lifestyle factors like excessive alcohol and drug consumption and obesity.
The following are five of the worst things for your liver that you could put into your body. And no, the list does not include the most unsurprising culprits: excessive sugar and alcohol!
5 Ways You Might Be Damaging Your Liver
1. Too much salt
By now, most people are familiar with the idea that too much salt is linked to high blood pressure. But did you know that numerous studies have also connected excess sodium intake to liver damage?
In a study, scientists fed adult mice a high-sodium diet and exposed embryonic chicks to a salty environment. The effects on the liver? Misshapen cells, greater cell death rate and lower rates of cell division. These changes can lead to a condition called liver fibrosis. This is when the liver, in its attempt to repair damaged cells, develops abnormally large amounts of scar tissue. This scarring results in impaired liver function which, in its later stages, can be fatal.
One major way to reduce salt intake include opting for fresh, homemade meals made with liver-healthy ingredients. Choosing to eat at home gives you the greatest control over the ingredients that go into your body. A delicious restaurant meal may be loaded with veggies, but you have no idea how much excess salt it could contain. For home cooking, opt for fresh meats over those prepared with or preserved in a brine. Similarly, when choosing veggies, opt for fresh or frozen. If you’re a fan of canned veg, make sure to drain well under cold running water.
2. French fries
Surprised to hear that these grease-soaked bites, rife with empty calories, are bad for your health? Probably not. Fried foods famously contribute to obesity and inflammation, two conditions that exacerbate existing health issues. But why are fries, unlike chicken fingers and cheese balls, getting a special call-out all to themselves?
It’s because fries contain not one but three elements that contribute to poor liver health: Excessive unhealthy fats in the form of oil; excessive salt for flavor; and lastly, excessive sugar. Why sugar, you may ask? Because it results in that crispy, golden texture that is so emblematic of fast food restaurant fries. These three strikes earn french fries a spot of their own in our list of liver enemies.
If you just can’t keep your fingers off of fries, swap the fast food for an equally delicious homemade version. This way, you maintain full control over ingredients. To take it a step further, switch out potatoes for a jicama, parsnips or even a whole veggie medley. When it comes to liver health, we strongly recommend opting for the latter. This is because potatoes themselves rank higher than other produce in terms of their glycemic index. Not familiar with the glycemic index? Read on to #3.
3. White bread and rice
Ubiquitous in not only the Standard American Diet but diets around the world, white breads and rice are nearly unavoidable.
Unfortunately, simple carbs like these rank high in glycemic index (GI). This GI value is assigned to foods based on how rapidly they spike blood sugar after consumption. High GI foods like white bread and white rice rapidly increase blood sugar. This triggers the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin production instructs the body to store fat, much of it concentrating in the liver. Excessive fat in the liver can lead to scarring, and a buildup of scarring over time can lead to liver failure. Excess fat storage by liver cells is descriptive of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Affecting an approximate quarter of the American population, NAFLD is the most common chronic liver disease in America.
If you think you are susceptible to fatty liver disease, consider significantly reducing the amount of white bread and rice in your diet. Instead, fill up your plate with low GI carbs such as fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins and minimally processed grains. The more satiation and calories that come from these healthier options, the lower the amount of high GI foods you are likely to eat. Therefore, the better your liver fares.
4. Excessive red meat
Beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton… if it walks on four legs, it may pose a threat to your liver. This may come as a shock, seeing as red meat is one of the most nutritious foods in the world. It contains essential nutrients like iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins, all while being relatively low in sodium and fat.
However, recent research links high consumption of red meat to NAFLD, as well as insulin resistance. Published in the Journal of Hepatology, the study found that participants who consumed the highest amounts of red meat experienced nearly a 50% increased risk of NAFLD. The researchers also noted that cooking style made a difference. Cooking meat at high temperatures over a long time, e.g. grilling, frying or broiling, was associated with roughly double the risk of insulin resistance.
If you’re a fan of red meat but you’re worried about your liver health, there are three things you can do to reduce the risk posed by meat. Firstly, limit your weekly red meat intake to two servings. More frequently, opt for white meats, fish, plant-based proteins and filling, satiating grains and fibrous produce. Secondly, avoid processed forms of red meat, such as salami or hot dogs. These contain high levels of sodium which, as aforementioned, is no friend of the liver. Thirdly, when cooking meat, opt more frequently to steaming or boiling rather than grilling or frying at very high temperatures.
5. Acetaminophen or paracetamol
You may know it as Advil, Excedrin or Midol. Unlike the other items on this list, this one isn’t a food or ingredient. Rather, acetaminophen is a common over-the-counter medication used to treat mild to moderate pain. (It’s also used to treat fever, though the research behind its effectiveness in this regard remains disputed.)
Perhaps thanks to how commonplace this drug is, many underestimate the possibility and the dangers of an acetaminophen overdose. Acetaminophen toxicity is the leading cause of liver transplantation in the US. A whopping 52,000 Americans visit the emergency room due to acetaminophen toxicity annually, with 2,600 hospitalizations and 600 deaths.
You don’t have to swear off acetaminophen completely. After all, it is a highly common pain medication because it can be tolerated within safe doses. However, there are some best practices to keep in mind to minimize risk of toxicity:
- Know that over 600 products contain acetaminophen, and not always as a primary ingredient. This means that if you’re taking medication, there’s a chance you’re consuming acetaminophen. Over time, these doses can accumulate until you’ve exceeded your tolerable level of acetaminophen dosage. If you’re taking medication, check the ingredients list and look for acetaminophen. Confirm with your doctor that you’re within your dosage limit.
- Stick to your lowest possible effective dose. An adult’s maximum daily limit is 4,000 mg. Smaller-bodied people should not exceed 3,000 mg daily.
- Limit alcohol intake. We all know alcoholic bevvies are not your liver’s best friend. But when taken in conjunction with acetaminophen, the risks are heightened. Alcohol triggers the liver into converting more of the acetaminophen into toxic byproducts. When taking acetaminophen, women shouldn’t exceed more than one drink per day and men shouldn’t exceed two. But your best possible bet? Don’t mix alcohol and acetaminophen at all.