The little-discussed factor in gut health.
The Liver and Digestive Health
When it comes to looking after your gut, I’m sure you’ve heard about probiotics and fibre, right? But did you know that looking after your liver can be key to ensuring your gut is working the way that its meant to?
Your liver, the one responsible for detoxifying the body’s metabolites and the toxins you ingest, creates a digestive secretion called bile. Bile is the medium through which these detoxified products are released via the bowel, shifting them out of your system. It is created from bile salts that are transported from the liver to the gall bladder. Concentrated, stored and excreted by the gall bladder in response to the presence of a meal, bile enables us to absorb fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and some minerals. It also helps to maintain the optimum pH in the gut for our gut flora to grow and contains immunoglobulins that support the integrity and structure of the gut wall.
When should you start to worry about your liver and its effect on the gut?
First of all, consider what your body is exposed to on a day-to-day basis or even in your health history; have you been known to drink heavily or experiment with recreational drugs? Do you pay attention to the chemicals you eat, breath or absorb each day? And would you say you have a healthy diet filled with lots of vegetables?
We only have one liver (and one gallbladder). While it is created to detoxify 24 hours a day, the other chemicals we consume and absorb can put a lot of extra pressure on our livers, creating a bit of a backlog in the detoxification queue, often causing a reduced capacity to produce and release bile into the gut, known as bile insufficiency.
Bile insufficiency can be responsible for several common symptoms in the gut;
- Bloating (especially after fatty or deep fried meals)
- Floating bowel motions (known as steatorrhea)
- Light coloured or clay-like bowel motions
If you experience any of these symptoms, its highly likely that you aren’t creating enough bile from your liver, which could also mean that your ability to detoxify has been somehow disrupted.
There are several reasons why this may have occurred;
- Exposure to toxins (pollution, alcohol, drugs (both recreational and pharmaceutical), smoking, cleaning products, food chemicals, pesticides and plastics)
- An increase of sex hormones circulating in your blood (from things like the pill/pharmaceutical contraceptives, phthalates and bisphenols (including BPA) from plastics – especially when heated (lunch containers in the microwave), extremely high doses of phytoestrogens from soy-based products), excess fat tissue (which produces oestrogen)
- Systemic inflammation (from illness, stress, high sugar, high trans fat, high processed foods and low vegetable intake, as well as high body fat percentage)
- Not enough consumption of the nutrients required for detoxification (such as B vitamins, proteins, minerals) or foods that stimulate bile production – especially our favourite, green leafy vegetables
- Genetic mutations that effect your ability to detoxify (the most famous is known as MTHFR, and testing is available for this through our clinic. It is very common – it is estimated that up to 50% of people carry genes that disrupt detoxification)
How can I support my liver to improve my gut health?
Supporting the liver is something I recommend everyone does – after all, we only have one, and it is responsible for so many functions that affect our entire body. Looking after it properly comes back to the diet and lifestyle choices you make; no herb or supplement can help you if you’re not willing to put in the work. But these choices aren’t as difficult as you might think. Pick one of these solutions to start with and work your way through them all.
- Increase your vegetable intake (especially green leafy vegetables). Raw or cooked, vegetables contain the vitamins and minerals required for detoxification, plus the fibre to bind to bile in the gut for excretion of toxins
- Cook with fresh herbs and spices. Many herbs and spices not only improve the flavour of food, they contain medicinal properties and nutrients that can aid detoxification. Turmeric, ginger and garlic for example are basic herbs you can add to salads, stir frys, soups, herbal teas, curries, casseroles and roast dinners for a liver boosting and flavour kick!
- Eat bitter foods, regularly. Bitter foods contain nutrients that benefit the detoxification process and the action of tasting their bitter flavour stimulates the nerve that signals the liver to release bile too. Bitter foods include grapefruit, dandelion, rocket, artichoke, sesame seeds and tahini, turmeric, mustard greens and other raw cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, kale, cabbage). Make sure you can taste their bitter flavour for a stronger impact.
- Remove sources of toxins from your life (well, as much as humanly possible). While some toxins you don’t have control over, there are plenty that we can control, and I encourage you to do your research. So many of our skincare, makeup, cleaning products, soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, sunscreens, perfumes and the chemicals in foods and drinks (alcohol, sugar, trans fats, additives, colours, flavours) as well as those from plastics (did you know that there is plastic in the lining of a tea bag?!) are all sources of chemicals that our liver has to process on top of all the normal by-products of us living each day. Don’t forget that heating food in plastics enables toxins to leach into our food and that there are a lot of chemicals legal for use in products in Australia that are banned in other countries due to their toxic properties. Understanding labels is important and incredibly empowering, because it gives you an understanding into marketing and the big corporations that control everying (for example, did you know that the majority of washing powders are manufactured by the one company (Unilever) even though their branding all looks different? Food for thought.)
- Take advantage of liver supportive herbal teas and drink them throughout the day, or even before meals. Herbs like St Mary’s Thistle seed (milk thistle), St John’s Wort, turmeric, chicory and dandelion root (a great alternative to coffee) are a good place to start to really stimulate the liver in a gentle, yet powerful way. Why not try a dandelion latte instead of a coffee for a caffeine-free liver cleansing boost? Personally, I love to drink it black in a blend with chicory root, but I can understand if that is a bit much for you.
I’ve had my gall bladder removed, could this be affecting my gut?
Certainly. And while there will be some limitations to you due to your constant dripping release of bile, there is still heaps that we can do for you.
Looking after your liver in the ways I’ve already discussed will be crucial for you, but it may also be beneficial to:
- Stay away from high fat meals – they will be harder for you to digest.
- Eat fat in small amounts throughout the day. Good fat and fat soluble vitamin absorption will be more difficult for you, but not impossible, so don’t avoid fatty foods completely. You still create bile, so work with your liver to allow the best absorption you can. Small amounts are better than none.
- Consider the use of digestive enzymes. As your digestive capacity is dampened by the removal of your gall bladder, you may find it helpful to utilise digestive enzyme supplements and enzymatic foods to help you digest and absorb your food, as well as improve the function of your own pancreatic enzyme function. For advise on which digestive enzyme is best for you, contact me here.