What are the liver's main functions?
While the liver has many different functions, here are some of the major ones:
- It is the main site for detoxification of harmful substances in the body. This can range from alcohol and drugs to hormones, bilirubin, and ammonia.
- It is the regulator of fat metabolism. That’s right—the liver is a major fat burning organ in the body and carries fat out of the body via bile.
- It is the site of carbohydrate metabolism. If blood sugar is too low, the liver can release glucose from stored glycogen to restore normal serum glucose. The liver can also convert glycerol from fat and amino acids into glucose via gluconeogenesis.
- The liver is a site of protein metabolism. It produces albumin, a major transport protein and necessity for oncotic pressure in the vascular system. It produces many anticoagulant factors as well for proper blood clotting.
- The liver regulates cholesterol metabolism by being the site of lipoprotein production. The liver produces “the good” HDL that help remove cholesterol from arteries.
- It is a storage site for fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), B12, folate, iron, and copper.
- It is where growth hormone is converted to IGF-1.
Several of these functions are diminished if the liver gets damaged. When the liver has to process a bunch of toxins getting thrown at it, it has a harder time doing the other parts of its job. For example, this could mean less fat burning, poorer cholesterol levels, and decreased levels of IGF-1. Although many people will never have issues because the liver is very resilient, as bodybuilders we want to optimize our health for peak performance and for longevity in the game.
The following are some general tips to keep your liver healthy, functioning well, and protected from harm:
This should be obvious. If you can minimize toxin exposure, you will limit the amount of damage to the liver. The liver works through a Phase I and Phase II system to detoxify and eliminate harmful products. Phase I is carried out by the cytochrome P450 enzymes to oxidize, reduce, and hydrolyze the toxic substance. Phase II then uses conjugation reactions to make the toxins water soluble to excrete in the urine or feces. During processing, toxins can produce free radicals that cause liver injury, which can lead to liver disease over time.
Types of drugs/toxins:
- Illicit drugs
- Large doses of iron and vitamin A
- Over the counter drugs (aspirin) and some dietary supplements
Eat More Fiber
Soluble and insoluble fiber both play roles in liver heath. The liver produces bile that is transported to the digestive tract for excretion. Inadequate fiber can cause the bile acids and toxins to be reabsorbed and further concentrated by the gallbladder. Ideally, we want fiber to bind with the bile acids and toxins, then be excreted from the body. This also allows the liver to make new bile and carry out cholesterol and more toxins. This is part of fiber’s cholesterol lowering effects. Get fiber through whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Keep a Lean State
High body fat levels have several consequences. A large quantity of fat cells causes greater release of adipokines, bioactive substances from fat cells. These adipokines may cause insulin resistance in the liver and other tissues, which in turn causes less uptake of glucose by the liver and a need for more triglyceride. This compounding effect can lead to excess visceral fat accumulation and Non-Alcohol Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). If you stay lean, your liver can stay lean too. Fat building up in the liver decreases its functional ability. Monitor your off season progress carefully with pictures to make sure you aren’t accruing too much body fat.
Foods and Beverages for Liver Health
Some of the metabolic processes mentioned above can be supported by nutrients we consume in our foods.
Bodybuilders are always looking to keep their body in optimal shape. Aesthetics are important, but don’t overlook internal processes either. Just one dysfunctional organ can impact other internal organs, leaving you with below par performance and physique. The liver is one of the more important organs for athletes.
- Whole eggs and fish: these are some of the foods highest in methionine and cysteine, sulfur-containing amino acids. Methionine is needed to produce S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), which is used for glutathione production. Cysteine is a precursor for glutathione. Glutathione is a potent antioxidant that can eliminate toxins.
- Brazil nuts: these nuts are one of the best sources of selenium. Selenium is the cofactor for the enzyme glutathione peroxidase which is responsible for glutathione’s interaction with free radicals.
- Cruciferous vegetables: kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage all contain sulforaphane. Sulforaphane induces the Phase II enzymes involved in liver detoxification.
- Coffee: emerging research has shown coffee to have liver protective effect and can reduce the severity of NAFLD. This is possible due to several components in coffee that have an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antifibrotic effect.
Supplements for Liver Health
To further support liver function, some supplements can have a protective effect.
- N-acetyl Cysteine (NAC): NAC is used in hospitals for acute liver failure induced by acetaminophen overdose. It can be taken orally to increase glutathione levels for managing free radical damage.
- Tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUDCA): TUDCA has been shown to decrease liver enzymes in chronic liver disease patients and patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. The most common liver issue in anabolic steroid use is cholestasis (slowing or blockage of bile from liver). Build up of bile in the liver can lead to cell death. TUDCA antagonistically works against this. Also, TUDCA has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity in muscle and liver cells, but not fat cells. This is great for keeping nutrients partitioning to the right areas.
- Resveratrol: resveratrol is a compound found in red wine that has a positive effect on lipid metabolism. It has shown improvements in insulin resistance and fat deposition in the liver for patients with NAFLD. Resveratrol may also have protective effects against liver cancer.
Building massive muscle—and trying everything to do so—is great, but we shouldn’t do this at the expense of our organ health. Keeping all organ systems running their best will give you longevity in the pursuit of muscle. Just remember, stay lean in the off season, avoid toxic substances, and keep eating fresh foods and meats high in quality nutrients. You will end up being as healthy on the inside as you look on the outside.
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