I have more than a professional interest in liver health because for more than 30 years, I’ve had hepatitis C. I’ve never had a symptom, never missed a day of work and never had fatigue, flagging energy or jaundice typical of this disease (which can sometimes end very badly, with sclerosis, liver cancer or even death). Some of my good fortune may be due to luck, but I credit most of it to rigorously following some very innovative liver-health protocols designed by Burt Berkson, MD, PhD, who I talked about in my book, The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth (Fair Winds Press, 2008).
Thanks to my personal experience and Dr. Berkson, I know firsthand how important the liver is to health, metabolism and the ability to lose weight, create cellular energy, burn fat and detoxify the body. So when a doctor I know and respect, Alan Christianson, NMD, came out with a new book about the importance of the liver in metabolism, The Metabolism Reset Diet (Harmony, January 2019), I paid particular attention.
To understand why the liver is the focus of a diet that promises to “reset” your metabolism, it’s important to understand a few basic facts about what it does. The liver is involved in virtually every metabolic process in the body, including turning nutrients from food into substances your body can use, breaking down fats, storing sugar as triglycerides, creating energy and, perhaps most important of all, getting rid of toxic substances. The liver is so important, there’s even a direct route from the digestive organs to the liver called the portal vein. An adult liver weighs just over three pounds and is one of the largest organs in the human body.
“When your liver is unhealthy,” Christianson told me in a recent interview, “you tend to store fat, especially around your midsection, plus you have a much harder time tapping into the nutrients you need to burn that fat.” That means that no matter what diet you choose and no matter how much willpower you muster, weight loss is pretty much impossible. Christianson says that the very definition of a slow metabolism is “a liver too overloaded to be able to store fuel temporarily.”
In Christianson’s clinic in Arizona, where he holds the rare and prestigious NMD degree (a naturopathic physician who can prescribe medications and has hospital privileges), he was seeing an alarming number of patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), also known generally as fatty liver syndrome. It turns out that fatty liver syndrome affects between 30 and 40% of adults in the US.
“When the liver is overburdened by excess sugar, the liver stores it as fat,” writes Christianson. “This can trigger a potentially devastating inflammatory response, which has been linked to heart disease and some forms of cancer.” And new research suggests that fatty liver isn’t just a consequence of gaining weight, but it’s also a cause. “Addressing fatty liver syndrome is crucial in the fight to both regain health and lose inches,” says Christianson.
The condition of your liver is also linked to flagging energy, another symptom frequently seen in today’s patient population. “Your energy and your weight are related,” Christianson told me. “When your liver can’t access or extract energy from stored fuel, you feel tired. You have even less motivation to exercise and the downward cycle continues.”
According to Christianson, when your liver gets healthy again, your energy returns. My personal experience tells me that’s true. I’m pretty sure that everything I did to keep my liver healthy during those 30 years – which included but was not limited to totally eliminating alcohol since 1982, avoiding Tylenol for the same time period and following a strict nutritional regimen (left) — is the reason why my energy never flagged and I never experienced the crushing fatigue typical of hep C.
Then there’s detoxification, for which the liver is ground zero. Detoxification is actually an elegant operation the liver performs in two stages – cleverly named stage 1 and stage 2 — and it’s accomplished by a symphony of complex liver enzymes known as the cytochrome P450 enzyme system. All of this is nutrient dependent – without the right amino acids and other nutrients, the system just doesn’t function. So if the liver isn’t working properly, or isn’t getting the right nutrients from the diet, detoxification will be compromised. That means toxins will have more of a chance to compromise cellular operations, and the metabolic machinery will slow to a crawl. And that also means fat burning and energy production are seriously compromised.
In Christianson’s book, he suggests a program that is simplicity itself – two low-glycemic shakes and one “reasonable” meal per day – a program that he’s seen produce remarkable results when it comes to reversing metabolic damage. That’s because the shakes and meal are loaded with healthy fat, moderate protein and a relatively low amount of carbohydrates. This is the combo that Christianson (and he’s hardly alone on this one) believes is best to keep hormones balanced and metabolism running smoothly. (For the record, I am 100% on board with that combo!) And, because he is first and foremost a practitioner of functional medicine, his program involves a lot more than just food. It includes removing toxic liver stressors like alcohol, supplementing with nutrients that we don’t consume enough of (such as omega-3s, magnesium and vitamin D), paying back sleep debt and doing what he calls “micro workouts,” concentrated workouts that you can complete in less than five minutes.
Cleaning up your liver may be one of the most important steps you can take to unclogging your metabolic machinery. And the good news is that your liver is one of the few organs in the body that is regenerative, so it’s never too late to start getting it healthy.
Based on the original Burt Berkson protocol as well as my own personal and clinical experience, this is the program I recommend to clients for liver health, and one which I have been (mostly) following myself for almost 30 years:
- Alpha lipoic acid (600 mg a day): Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant that has the unique property of recycling your vitamin C and vitamin E. (Dr. Berkson once wrote a book called The Alpha Lipoic Acid Breakthrough.)
- Selenium (400 mcg a day): Dr. Berkson calls selenium “birth control for viruses.” Indeed, studies have shown that AIDS patients with the highest selenium levels have much better T-cell counts.
- Saw palmetto (320 mg a day): Saw palmetto has long been used in herbal medicine as medicine for the prostate, but it is also a powerful antioxidant.
- Curcumin (approx. 1,000 mg): This powerful extract of turmeric, the Indian spice, has been studied for a host of health effects but is best known for being a powerful anti-inflammatory and liver- supportive nutrient.
- N-acetyl cysteine (600 mg a day): N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a vitamin-like compound that is a good antioxidant on its own, but even more importantly, it prompts the body to make more glutathione, possibly the most important endogenous (made in the body) antioxidant in the human body. This is key to fighting oxidative stress as well as maintaining immune health.
- Fresh vegetables (and fruits): Juice heavy on beets, greens and cruciferous vegetables is high in natural anti-inflammatories and antioxidants.
- Dandelion root tea: Dandelion has a long history of use in herbal and Eastern medicine as a liver tonic.