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Alcohol and Your Liver

The liver is the largest organ in the body and has an enormous amount of blood flowing through it on a daily basis. It is one of the most important organs in our bodies too, whose functions we simply cannot live without. Unlike some other organ functions there is currently no way to compensate for a loss of liver function. Our liver’s work around the clock performing a wide range of functions from detoxification to digestion and is also a huge storage depot for glucose, vitamins A, D, E and K, B vitamins and iron. It also plays an important role in the metabolism of protein and fats. A healthy diet helps support liver function, while bad lifestyle choices can out our livers under tremendous stress.

One of the most important functions of the liver is the cleanser and filter of the bloodstream. The liver is involved in breaking down or transforming substances like ammonia, metabolic wastes, alcohol, drug residues and other chemicals. When the liver isn’t functioning optimally or is given too much work, we fail to metabolise sufficiently, resulting in a more “toxic” system.

The liver has to work harder than ever before, given the toxic load that modern living puts on it. Liver cancer, fatty liver and alcoholic cirrhosis being amongst the most common liver disorders we see today. The underlying causes are vast and include infections (like hepatitis A, B and C), alcohol, drugs, metabolic disorders and immunological factors. Symptoms of liver disease at first can be very vague or mild and usually start with indigestion and nausea and progress towards jaundice, mental confusion and finally to partial or complete liver failure if left untreated. A certain portion of our liver is able to regenerate if function is lost, but advanced liver diseases, like cirrhosis and liver cancers become extremely difficult to treat.

Everyone should be concerned with keeping liver function vital, but the dietary principles apply especially to people who already have liver dysfunction, who are overweight or who abuse drugs or alcohol. If you feel you may be at risk, it is always a good idea to have your liver function checked regularly by means of a blood test.

Vital Diet Principles for a Healthy Liver

Mind your liquor. Moderate drinking shouldn’t put too much stress on the liver but have more than your 2-3 standard drinks per day and your liver could be under too much stress. Alcohol intake is a leading cause of an irreversible liver scarring called cirrhosis. Spirit alcohol is particularly damaging.

Reduce fatty food intake. Since fat is metabolised in the liver, high intakes of full cream dairy, fried foods, fatty meats, creamy sauces and processed vegetable oils (hydrogenated fats) puts strain on the liver. Rather eat small amounts of good fats, found in raw vegetable and seed oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

Eat a variety of lean protein foods. The liver copes much better when given a range of proteins and therefore a range of amino acids to metabolise. The less fatty the protein, the better too. Choose from a variety of lean proteins including lean beef, lamb and pork, skinless chicken, venison, fish, eggs, low fat dairy, beans, soya and other legumes.

Avoid “unnatural” substances. Anything that is not real whole food could tax the liver so avoid as much as possible artificial sweeteners, food colourings, flavourings and preservatives.

Reduce sugary foods. Too much sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet can raise triglyceride (a type of bad fat) levels, which can in turn cause fat to accumulate in the liver tissues. Sugar, honey, syrups, fruit juices, fizzy drinks, sweets, biscuits, pastries and chocolates can all push triglyceride levels. Rather opt for wholegrain and low glycemic index carbohydrates like wholegrain seed breads, brown rice, barley and legumes and use alternative non-caloric or low glycemic index sweeteners like stevia, agave nectar or xylitol.

Eat vegetables. Anything that has a bitter taste to it is generally good for the liver, which is why vegetables should be eaten in abundance for liver health. Aim for at least 4 servings of vegetables each day (1 serving is a cup raw or half a cup cooked), preferably raw or lightly cooked.

Keep hydrated. Drink large amounts of fluids such as water, raw juices and teas (green tea, herbal and rooibos are the best choices). Aim for 2 liters of fluid daily to help aid digestion and well as the elimination of toxins through the kidneys so as not to put extra stress on the liver.

Top Foods For Liver Health


Artichokes contain a special plant chemical or flavonoid called silymarin, which helps boost liver function by stimulating cell regeneration and scavenging for free radicals. Artichokes also contain cynarin, a caffeoylquinic acid found primarily in the leaves, which helps stimulate the liver's bile production, which helps break down fats for digestion. Artichokes in season are delicious lightly steamed or boiled with some lemon juice and olive oil. Out of season, go for the canned varieties. Artichoke leaf extract is also available in supplements form.


Beets and beet tops are a rich source of betaine (also known as trimethylglyceine or TMG), a natural liver detoxifier and bile thinner that improves fat metabolism and enzymatic activity in the liver. Juice whole beets or add beetroot to salads, stews and soups.

Green leafy vegetables

Bitter vegetables like broccoli, spinach, rocket and watercress help stimulate liver function and prevent toxicity. Dark greens should preferably be eaten daily and eaten raw or lightly cooked for best results.


Despite their acidic taste, lemons are actually very alkaline inside the body. Lemon water is a popular liver detoxifying drink. For best results try blending one whole lemon, skin and all and drink in the morning as a tonic for 1 week.

Eggs and tomatoes.

There is a lot of medical truth in the age-old remedy of a hearty breakfast of eggs and tomatoes for a hangover. Both these foods are rich in the amino acid cysteine, which helps prevent liver damage.


Ginger helps reduce any nausea associated with liver dysfunction. Make fresh ginger tea using a teaspoon of chopped ginger seeped in hot water or use it in cooking.

The festive season is upon us! It’s that time of year when almost everyday calls for some kind of celebration, and more times than not this inevitably involves alcohol. Moderate alcohol consumption may actually be good for us, but overindulgence could create a whole set of health problems. There are mixed messages when it comes to alcohol and health, and responsible drinking must involve weighing out the risks and the benefits. It is safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison- with antioxidant and heart protective benefits on the one side, raised triglycerides, increased cancer risk and liver problems on the other.

Alcohol consumed in moderation may help reduce the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular events. This link was first explained using what is known as the “French Paradox”. The French diet is considered to be very high in fat, especially saturated fat, yet the death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD) remains relatively low. Researchers think it may have something to do with the high intakes of alcohol, fruit and vegetables in the French diet. The main beverage of choice in France, wine, also seems to have its own special benefits. Red wine in particular contains a flavonoid antioxidant called resveretrol, which is thought to be responsible for much of red wines benefits. A review study published in Endocrine, Metabolic and Immune Disorders June 2008 shows that moderate red wine consumption helps prevent metabolic syndrome and its related compilations, which include hypertension and elevated cholesterol. The review explains examples the role of resveretrol in mimicking calorie restriction and preventing the deleteriouseffects of excess food intake on insulin resistance and metabolic derangements.

The benefits of moderate drinking are not just limited to red wine. Studies have shown that alcoholic drinks in general, when consumed in moderation, help to thin the blood and prevent clotting and also raise the HDL (or “good”) fraction of cholesterol, which helps protect the heart and blood vessels against damage. (Metabolism, September 2008; Annals of Epidemiology 2007).

Erika Ketterer, a registered dietician with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa cautions against using alcohol as a prescription for preventing or managing heart disease. According to Ketterer, exercise is a far more effective means of raising HDL levels than alcohol and clotting can be prevented using aspirin instead of indulging in a daily drink. Ketterer also warns that consuming alcohol in excess of what is considered moderate can also raise the levels of other heart harmful fats in the blood, called triglycerides. The Heart and Stroke Foundation warns against even moderate alcohol consumption in people with already raised triglycerides, as even small amounts of drink can cause big changes in the levels of these harmful fats. Heavy drinking can also lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and weight gain, which further impact on heart disease risk.

How alcohol or wine actually affects cardiovascular disease risk certainly warrants more research. For now, the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA does not advise that you start drinking wine or alcohol to obtain these potential benefits. To reduce your risk, the HSFSA recommends that you take steps to lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, control your weight, do enough physical exercise and follow a healthy diet.  If you do enjoy alcohol – drink it in moderation.

There is some evidence that alcohol impairs cognitive function and can lead to dementia when taken in excess. However, moderate drinking may actually be beneficial. One study published in Neurology in May 2007 found that in patients with already mildly impaired cognitive function who drank in moderation had a lower rate of progression to dementia than abstainers.

People who drink in excess need to be concerned about more than just their brains and their hearts. A report published by the World Cancer Research Fund on November 2007 found that alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colon (especially in men) and breast.Alcohol is metabolised primarily in the liver. In small amounts the liver does a good job of detoxifying alcohol and removing it from the blood, thus preventing the alcohol from accumulating in body tissues. In large amounts, however, alcohol can damage body tissues, particularly the brain, which has been linked to dementia and cognitive impairment. With high doses of alcohol, the liver suffers, which is why alcohol is a leading cause of an irreversible liver scarring called cirrhosis. Drinking in excess also increases such dangers as alcoholism, suicide and accidents.

What is moderation?

According to the HSFSA, moderate drinking means no more than:

·  2 drinks/day for men · 1 drink/day for women one drink is equivalent to: · 340ml beer · 120ml wine · 60ml sherry · 25ml spirits (whisky, brandy, vodka, gin etc.) · 25ml liqueur

Nutritional value of alcohol

Each gram of alcohol contains 7 calories (or 29.4 kilojoules). To put that in perspective a gram of fat contains 9 calories (37.8 kilojoules) and a gram of either carbohydrate or protein contains only 4 calories (16.8 kilojoules). So gram for gram, alcohol is more kilojoule dense than carbohydrates or proteins are. If you're watching your waistline, cutting down on alcohol will help to reduce kilojoule intake.

Alcohol is often referred to as a source of 'empty calories', meaning it has no nutritional value other than providing energy. The energy provided by an alcoholic drink depends on the percentage of alcohol it contains, but also on the type of drink it is. As a rough guide:

0. A 340ml can of beer is about 148 calories (622 kilojoules)0. A regular tot of spirit contains around 55 calories (231 kilojoules)0. A standard glass of dry white wine or red wine is about 115 calories (483 kilojoules), and sweet wine is about 165 calories (693 kilojoules)0. A creamy liqueur contains around 163 calories (685 kilojoules)per 50ml serving, while the same amount of sherry or port contains around 60 calories (252 kilojoules) a glass


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