With the New Year upon us, the challenges we face and the goals we set for ourselves are many. For some, at this time comes the goal of eating healthier and losing weight after the holiday feasting. For others, getting through the unknowns of a Wisconsin winter is a considerable challenge itself. Finding a good book, joining a health club, or establishing more regular gatherings with friends are important as well. Whatever our goals in this new year are, we should all resolve to take care of an organ in our body which is often neglected but is going non-stop — this would be your liver!
Liver and gallbladder function: Your liver, located under your lower right ribs, plays an important part in almost all metabolic functions. But unlike your heart or lungs, we often neglect to consider what a critical part the liver plays in the function of our bodies. The liver processes, packages and ships lipids (otherwise known as cholesterol); helps to regulate blood sugar through the production of glycogen and glucose; and produces proteins that are critical to the function of our body. But this list is not inclusive, as the liver also stores iron reserves as ferritin; produces proteins needed for blood-clotting and bile for the digestive process; and metabolizes almost all the foods and substances that we take into our body! The gallbladder, right down the street anatomy-wise, serves for the storage of bile, ejecting it when needed with the consumption of food.
Liver and gallbladder disease: Significant liver dysfunction can occur under conditions such as iron or copper overload, infectious hepatitis, cirrhosis and cancer. Fortunately, many of us will not experience these disease conditions. However, the liver also can experience inflammation and fatty degeneration associated with the excess weight we carry on our bodies; the overuse and abuse of alcohol; and gastrointestinal dysfunction due to Celiac disease or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Collectively, these are far more common conditions and are also often associated with abnormal liver-function tests. The most common gallbladder dysfunction, which unfortunately many are familiar with, is the production of gallstones. Gallstones are usually a cholesterol-type of stone, and thicker, more sludge-like bile often leads to this.
Adiposity and liver/gallbladder disease: Adipose tissue is the fat-storing connective tissue of our body. Our adipose tissue functions not just as an energy reserve, but also as an endocrine organ and storage receptacle for toxins known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Where better to put these dangerous compounds than a place where they can be “safely” stored away from our essential organs? However, with weight loss, these toxins are released, and require the liver to increase its activities to metabolize and eliminate them from our bodies. As if there weren’t already enough work for the liver to do! The release of organochlorine compounds (a type of POP) also further complicates weight-loss by affecting the levels of your active thyroid hormone in the body, leading to a reduction in resting metabolic rate. Obesity and rapid weight loss are also risk factors for the formation of gallstones. Higher levels of hormones associated with oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy further increase these risks.
Protecting the liver and gallbladder: Foods that are high in antioxidants such as fruits and vegetables are a good place to start in supporting liver and gallbladder function. Beets are one such food, as the betalains and polyphenols in beets act as antioxidants, and have been shown specifically to improve liver function. Turmeric, often found in warming winter curries, is a great spice to use, as this spice has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and also improves the liver elimination of toxic substances. Beets and turmeric both contain vitamin C, an antioxidant with liver-protective effects, which also helps prevent gallstone formation. Increasing exercise and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle reduces the risk of gallstone formation, and helps your body to eliminate toxins via sweating. So whether or not weight-loss was a New Year’s resolution, the importance of supporting the liver (and gallbladder) should be a part of your ongoing new year’s health plan!