The liver: our bodies’ waste treatment plant

Specific Health Concern 3 May 2017

The urge to spring clean is not only limited to our home, but also to our body, making this season ideal for decluttering and detoxifying! It is the perfect time to discover the functioning mechanisms of our liver: the body’s waste treatment plant.

Emunctory organs

If you are familiar with alternative medicine (homeopathy, phytotherapy, acupuncture), you have most likely heard about our waste-eliminating emunctory organs, which require regular stimulation.

There are 5 emunctory organs:

  • liver
  • kidneys
  • lungs
  • intestines
  • skin

 Among these organs, the liver is certainly the most important as it not only works as a filter, but also chemically transforms waste.

What is the difference between toxicants and toxins?

  • toxicants are external molecules (pesticides, pollutants etc.)
  • toxins are produced by our body
  • alcohol
  • medicine
  • hormones – those we produce and those that come from outside of us e.g. oral contraceptives, menopausal hormone replacement therapy, hormones found in meat and milk
  • heavy metals (lead, mercury)
  • pesticides
  • xenobiotics, such as bisphenol A

What products does the liver eliminate?

As you can see, this process is rather significant, so it’s not surprising that are a few hitches here and there…

Hepatic detoxification, a plant with three tanks

Imagine a waste treatment plant :

Waste water is filtered, and then subject to various chemical treatments in different tanks before being returned to the water cycle for reuse. 

Our liver does exactly the same thing!

To eliminate potentially toxic molecules, it must transform them through detoxification, which takes place in three stages.

Stage 1: Detoxification

During this first stage, the liver uses a group of extremely complex enzymes called cytochromes P450. Each enzyme in this family has the capacity to transform one or more molecules.

Unfortunately, the more complex a system, the greater the risk of malfunctions: defective enzymes, lack of cofactors (vitamins, trace elements), competition between eliminated molecules, abnormal “induction” of a reaction, and more. There are endless opportunities for error, with more or less serious consequences.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Alcohol intolerance

Here, we are not speaking about individuals who become inebriated after one or two glasses, but rather those who are unable to function after a simple sip of alcohol.

The cause: a mutation in the enzyme responsible for eliminating alcohol.

Statin interaction/ grapefruit juice

If you take statins (anti-cholesterol medication), you may be wondering why you are not allowed to drink grapefruit juice (not orange juice or lemon juice, but only grapefruit juice). The reason is that grapefruit contains a molecule which interferes with the enzyme that eliminates statins. This mix could lead to a risk of overmedication.

Interaction between antiepileptic drugs and oral contraceptives

Here, the mechanism is inversed. Certain antiepileptic drugs speed up the process in which the liver destroys the hormones contained in oral contraception and considerably decreases its effectiveness.

Stage 2: Conjugation

This has nothing to do at all with verbs!

During this stage, toxic molecules bind to a carrier molecule, making them easy to eliminate.

Stage 3: Elimination

Once toxic products have been neutralised by the liver, they are eliminated in urine or bile through the intestines.

Symptoms of poor hepatic detoxification

Contrary to what one may think, a poorly functioning liver does not only cause nausea and digestion problems.

Symptoms may be much more serious, depending on the toxic molecules that our liver is unable to properly eliminate. They may include:

  • eczema
  • hair loss
  • infertility
  • tumor or breast cancer when estrogen is poorly eliminated (genetic forms of breast cancer, such as the case of Angelina Jolie, which stems from the mutation of enzymes responsible for detoxifying estrogen)
  • alcoholic coma
  • neurodegenerative diseases
  • cancers

How can we help our liver do its job?

Today, we are still unable to replace defective enzymes.

However, we can stimulate “lazy” enzymes using plant extracts and dietary supplements like:

  • artichoke
  • black radish
  • broccoli
  • sulphur amino acids: cysteine and methionine

You can also avoid overloading your liver with toxic products: fried foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, processed foods, excess medication, etc.