This is one of Sandra Clair's top columns from 2018
While all of us are aware of the dangers of regular heavy drinking and its impact on our health, families and society, far fewer are aware of the dangers of moderate drinking regularly over years and decades.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates up to 25 per cent of all global cancers are attributable to alcohol alone. Alcohol has been classified by WHO as a class 1 carcinogen, meaning it is a cause of cancer in the company of asbestos, mustard gas and formaldehyde. Whilst the risk of many cancers increases at three or more alcoholic drinks daily (i.e. stomach, liver), the risk of others such as breast cancer increased after just one drink daily. This may come as a surprise to many.
As well as taking care with your alcohol consumption, nature has provided us with an abundance of effective ways to support liver health. I'm willing to bet you may already have a few of these available at home.
The humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one example. Despite being cursed by anyone who maintains a lawn, Dandelion is one of the oldest medicinal plants and often the herbalist's first choice for gentle and effective liver support. Dandelion is bitter to the taste, which helps to increase the flow of digestive juices, enhancing appetite and assisting with the proper breakdown of food. Its action on the liver supports the metabolism of toxins, wastes, pollutants, inflammatory byproducts and hormones. The entire plant is medicinal, including the roots. It can be consumed as a medicinal tea, oral liquid, as capsules or the fresh leaves can be picked and added to salads or smoothies for a bitter kick in a similar way to rocket. If you pick your own dandelion greens please only pick from a clean source that has not been sprayed or exposed to car fumes and other toxins.
The best plant to address a damaged liver is St Mary's thistle (Silybum marianum). The most researched of all the liver herbs, including in cancer, a recent clinical trial showed that when given in combination with vitamin E over a year, there was an improvement in liver enzymes and the health of liver cells. It was also found to boost glutathione by 271%, a potent antioxidant crucial for liver detoxification. Whilst St Mary's thistle is less likely to be found growing in your back garden, it is worth seeking out in a pharmacy or health store if your liver needs serious assistance.
Our next medicinal liver plant may already be in your pantry. Listed in herbal texts as far back as 600BC, turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used as a medicine, spice and colouring agent for thousands of years. Part of the ginger family, the root is used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Scientific research confirms what traditional medicine has long known - turmeric (and curcumin, the active constituent) has beneficial actions on many bodily systems. It protects the liver against hepatic disease, chronic heavy metal exposure and alcohol use. It can be taken as a concentrated extract or added to food. The Balinese add fresh turmeric to water with ginger and honey for a refreshing summer drink. It is added fresh or dried to curries and stir-fries, or mixed with milk and cinnamon for a warming winter beverage. Adding black pepper increases the absorption of the active constituent curcumin, as does the addition of fat, such as in coconut curry.
Finally, don't overlook the benefits of everyday vegetables for enhancing liver health.
Vegetables in the brassica family including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are particularly beneficial for the liver due to the presence of a substance called sulforaphane that enhances detoxification. Broccoli extracts are even getting scientific attention, with a recent study showing an improvement in liver abnormalities in Japanese males following supplementation with broccoli extract over two months. Further motivation to eat your vegetables!
I hope these ideas show you just how easy it is to care for your liver. If you have further health concerns, please consult your leading healthcare professional.