Imagine living in a war zone where you’re bombarded day after day with artillery shells and gun fire. If your defenses are solid, you might be able to withstand the onslaught. But at some point, the constant barrage is going to weaken even the most impenetrable stronghold.
That’s what life is like for your liver. Every day, your liver is under assault. If you live in the United States, it doesn’t matter how well you eat, your liver is working overtime to defend your body against the constant bombardment of toxins. We have prescription drug residue in our water, pesticides and herbicides on our food, and the ever-present threat of genetically modified organisms. And that doesn’t even include the terrible things most of us eat on a daily basis, including sugar, chemicals, and processed foods.
The good news is your liver can handle the onslaught if it gets regular reinforcements. And there are two nutrients in particular your liver needs to avoid sustaining too much damage.
Whether you’ve started having problems with your liver or not, you probably will at some point in your life. That’s because 30% of Americans already have trouble with their liver. That’s almost one out of every three people. And of the 70% who don’t have trouble now, most of them are under 40. Once you hit middle age, your risk for liver problems skyrockets. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there’s evidence that one single mineral deficiency could be the cause of liver problems. In fact, several studies say it’s possible you can stop the damage to your liver, actually reverse your lab values, and, in many severe cases, avoid the need for a liver transplant. And you can do all this simply by taking one mineral.
That Mineral Is Magnesium
Today, scientists know that magnesium deficiency is common with chronic liver problems. But prior to 2002, there weren’t any studies showing the effects of a deficiency. Then researchers performed magnesium loading tests in 10 patients with chronic liver problems so severe they were listed for liver transplantation. When they compared their results with six healthy control patients, they found that the patients with liver problems all had a significant deficiency in magnesium.
This was a small study. But what was impressive about it is what happened when they gave magnesium to all the patients (including the controls). The controls absorbed some of the magnesium. But the patients with liver problems absorbed three to four times as much magnesium as the controls.
In other words, the magnesium given to the healthy patients (without a magnesium deficiency) would have had almost no effect on their health. But the liver patients would have seen tremendous benefit. Magnesium is so important for the liver that surgeons now monitor magnesium levels before and after liver transplants.
Stopping Damage Caused by Alcohol
Another study found that high doses of magnesium greatly reduce the risk of developing a fatty liver. But that’s not all. Regular intake of high-dose magnesium can help prevent damage to the liver in heavy alcohol drinkers. This is important. A study from 2008 found that alcohol impairs magnesium transport and homeostasis in the brain, skeletal muscle, heart, and liver. So if you’re a heavy drinker, taking magnesium every day is absolutely vital. It’ll work even better if you cut your alcohol intake down to a moderate level.
And, finally, magnesium can help improve your liver enzyme levels. The improvement is significant enough that it can reduce the risk of death from damage caused by alcohol.
Magnesium is so effective, it can help prevent damage caused by excess drinking. Now that’s powerful!
Unfortunately, ordinary blood tests don't measure magnesium accurately. But you don’t really need a blood test to know if you’re deficient. If you’re over the age of 40, you’re likely deficient. So I suggest you eat more foods high in magnesium (whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, dark green leafy vegetables) and consider taking magnesium supplements – as much as you can without having loose stools (up to 1,000 mg per day). Magnesium glycinate and amino acid chelate are two well-tolerated forms.
How to Know if Your Liver Needs Reinforcements
If your liver is already starting to develop disease, and you don’t have symptoms, there’s only one way to find out. You need to have your doctor check your blood. You don’t want to wait for symptoms to develop. Most people with nonalcoholic fatty liver problems have no symptoms. Fortunately, that yearly blood test can help identify any problems. If your liver enzymes (ALT and AST) are elevated, you need to pay attention.
You’ll also want to pay close attention to elevated triglycerides as well. Here’s why:
A fatty liver means that fat has accumulated in liver cells. When your body becomes resistant to insulin, your body will begin to lose the ability to produce the right amount of insulin to lower high amounts of sugars in your bloodstream. When this happens, it allows fats to be stored in liver cells.
Triglycerides are fats made from dietary fats and sugars that get stored in your liver. So elevated triglycerides are a sign of these stored fats. Lab norms are under 150 mg/dL, but I like to see them lower than 105. If they're high, lower them immediately by reducing your sugar consumption. Eliminate all refined sugars, alcohol, and honey. They are quickly absorbed and raise triglycerides.
Next, lower your intake of other sweets including fruits and fruit juices. Limit yourself to one or two pieces of fresh fruit a day. Too much fruit juice can also raise your triglycerides.
When your liver becomes fatty, it also becomes inflamed because the stored fat oxidizes (becomes rancid). This leads us to the next nutrient to help keep your liver healthy.
The Second Nutrient Needed for Liver Protection
If your liver is diseased, inflammation only makes it worse. It’s a never-ending cycle. Disease causes inflammation and the inflammation makes the disease worse. So researchers from Texas A&M AgriLife Research wanted to find out if a natural compound found in many well-known and widely consumed vegetables can fight fatty liver problems.
The nutrient is called indole. This is a natural compound we find in gut bacteria. But it’s also in cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
I like this study because it examined the effect of indole concentrations on people, animal models, and in individual cells. This gives us a lot more detail on how it’s working to affect liver inflammation. The researchers investigated the extent to which indole alleviates non-alcoholic fatty liver problems. They did this by incorporating previous findings on gut bacteria, intestinal inflammation, and liver inflammation.
In the first phase of the study, the researchers investigated the effects of indole on individuals with fatty livers. They followed 137 subjects and found that people with a higher body mass index tended to have lower levels of indole in their blood. And those who were clinically obese had significantly lower levels of indole than those who were not obese. What’s more, they found that those with lower indole levels also had a higher amount of fat deposits in the liver. So they were able to draw some level of association between indole levels and liver problems.
Next, the research team gave animals a low-fat diet as a control or a high-fat diet to simulate the effects of a fatty liver. This allowed the researchers to evaluate the impact of indole on fatty liver, as they found that indole significantly decreased both fat accumulation and inflammation in the liver.
Finally, the team looked at how indole affected individual cells. They found that in addition to reducing the amount of fat in liver cells, indole also acts on cells in the intestine, which send out molecular signals that dampen inflammation. This shows just how closely tied the liver is to your digestive tract.
How to Increase Your Blood Levels of Indole
The best way to get indole is by eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Getting it by supplement isn’t as straightforward. You can find indole in various compounds, such as indole-3-carbinol (a precursor to DIM – diindolylmethane), indole-3-butyric acid, and indole-3-acetic acid.
But the best way to get indole in supplement form is to take the amino acid l-tryptophan (600 mg daily). Indole is a metabolite of tryptophan. So when you take this amino acid, it breaks down into indole as you digest it. And you can get l-tryptophan supplements at any health food store and online. You also can get tryptophan from oats, bananas, dried prunes, milk, tuna fish, cheese, bread, chicken, turkey, peanuts, and chocolate.
Taking magnesium and l-tryptophan can help your liver fight off all those toxins that are constantly bombarding it. Plus you’ll find that this combination can lift your mood, lower your blood pressure, and improve your digestion.
Marchesini, G., MD, et al. "Nonalcoholic fatty liver, steatohapatitis, and the metabolic syndrome," Hepatology, December 2003.
McCullough, A.J., MD. "Update on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease," Journ of Clin Gastroent, March 2002.
Ogawa, et al. "Tamoxifen-induced fatty liver in patients with breast cancer," The Lancet, March 1998.
Patrick, L., ND. "Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: relationship to insulin sensitivity and oxidative stress," Alt Med Rev, vol. 7, no. 4, 2002.
Linqiang Ma, Honggui Li, Jinbo Hu, Juan Zheng, Jing Zhou, Rachel Botchlett, Destiny Matthews, Tianshu Zeng, Lulu Chen, Xiaoqiu Xiao, Giri Athrey, David Threadgill, Qingsheng Li, Shannon Glaser, Heather Francis, Fanyin Meng, Qifu Li, Gianfranco Alpini, Chaodong Wu. Indole Alleviates Diet-induced Hepatic Steatosis and Inflammation in a Manner Involving Myeloid Cell PFKFB3. Hepatology, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/hep.31115