You can’t live without a healthy liver

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The liver is an organ seldom discussed in conventional medicine. That’s because liver function is difficult to measure unless it is severely (more than 90 percent) compromised. In other words, don’t expect your doctor to tell you if your liver is healthy or how to keep it healthy.

Your liver is actually your primary organ of detoxification. Once you understand your environmental toxic exposure, you’ll get how critical this organ is for disease prevention and longevity. In this and subsequent articles I’ll examine liver function, toxic exposure, how to monitor your liver health without blood tests and what you can do to keep your liver resilient.

Inside Your Liver

Your liver performs numerous critical functions that are crucial for detoxification, preventing illness and preserving health.

Among a variety of tasks, your liver:

  • Stores sugar as glycogen and regulates blood sugar levels.
  • Breaks down fat and produces cholesterol.
  • Manufactures clotting factors, blood proteins (i.e., hemoglobin) and precursor molecules required to make new red blood cells.
  • Recycles red blood cells.
  • Regulates many molecules and enzymes involved in protein metabolism.
  • Produces bile. (For information about the importance of bile, click here.)
  • Regulates a wide range of hormones.
  • Neutralizes free radicals (the highly reactive oxygen molecules that damage tissues) with antioxidants such as glutathione, ubiquinone and catalases.
  • Stores iron, copper and vitamins A, D, E, K and B12.

What Does Your Liver Detoxify?

Central to discussions of wellness and longevity, it is most important to understand that your liver is the detoxification organ of your body. The complex and critical liver detoxification procedures entail processes known as phase I and phase II.

You see, your liver must convert a long list of chemicals into safe compounds that can be excreted in the urine (if they are water soluble) or via the bile (if they are fat soluble). The compounds the liver processes include food additives, household chemicals, environmental pollutants, medications, alcohol, by-products of water chlorination, hormones, xenobiotics and myriad other substances that enter the body via your lungs, skin or mouth.

If liver detoxification can’t keep up with your chemical exposure, these foreign molecules get stored in your fat cells. Remember, these chemicals promote inflammation, a process that creates extra fat as a response to the increase in inflammatory conditions.

If your liver finally goes into failure mode, it loses the ability to filter your blood. Consequently, blood pressure increases in the arteries that supply your liver because of clogging. Just as heart failure can result from long-standing hypertension, your liver eventually fails from these conditions. This contributes to edema (swelling and weight gain from fluid retention).

Common causes for liver failure include alcoholic liver disease, viral hepatitis and hemochromatosis. However, there is a lot to talk about concerning liver health long before obvious liver failure can be detected.

Detoxifying A Harsh World

Your liver detoxifies your blood from some pretty harsh compounds for which the human body is not prepared and that we encounter because of our modern, industrialized world. Basic examples are pesticides and herbicides.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 83,000 individual industrial chemicals registered for commercial use. [1] We also know that bio-monitoring of such chemicals in human tissues and fluids shows that every one of us has a “body burden” of synthetic chemicals. These toxins are not merely a danger to those who work or live near major pollution sources. Researchers have measured these poisons in blood, fat, mother’s milk, semen and urine. They have even found them in people’s breath [2].

These dangerous chemicals persist in the environment for many years, [3] [4] [5] and bio-accumulate up the food chain — ending up concentrating in human fatty tissues. [6] Not only are these chemicals known to travel along global air and water currents for long distances from their sources, [7] but they have been linked to serious health effects even when people experience only low exposure to them. [8] [9]

These toxins include:

  • Heavy metals (i.e., mercury).
  • Organochlorine pesticides.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are found in flame retardants, building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, airplanes, plastics, polyurethane foam and textiles.
  • Industrial chemicals from manufacturing and waste incineration such as PCBs, dioxins and furans. [10] [11]

Plastic People

Another threatening category of chemicals to which we are universally exposed includes plasticizers such as phthalates and bisphenol-A. We encounter these from various plastics, adhesives and detergents, as well as from personal-care products such as soap, shampoo and nail polish. These are the problematic substances we call “xenoestrogens” because they modulate hormone activity — and do so in a dose-dependent manner. [12] Other bad actors that don’t last long include the organophosphate insecticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

A study of 2,540 individuals in the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that more than 75 percent of the people in the research had detectable urinary levels of four phthalate metabolites. [13] This obviously suggests pretty widespread exposure in the general population. In Germany, phthalate metabolites were found in 100 percent of urinary specimens of 87 study participants not occupationally exposed to phthalates. [14] Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected bisphenol-A in 95 percent of nearly 400 U.S. adults studied. [15]
Consider that there are 90 million Americans [16] who currently suffer with one or more chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, obesity and arthritis, and you may ask: “How do we know if these pollutants are actually causing these chronic diseases?”

That’s what I asked the first time I heard about environmental toxins as a medical doctor. It is difficult to know the exact body burden any given individual has and how that affects health. However, we can find trends; and studies have given us a pretty good idea of what is occurring. Since 2003, there have been ongoing studies [17] showing that our typical phthalate exposure damages human DNA.

Phthalates are the most common (nearly ubiquitous) environmental chemicals that mimic or block hormones. A study [18] reported in 2011 showed that phthalate and bisphenol-A do indeed adversely alter thyroid hormones. Researchers analyzed urinary biomarkers for phthalates and BPA in 1,346 adults and correlated this with their serum thyroid measurements. The higher the urinary metabolite levels, the more the measurable thyroid deficiency (not to mention the adverse effect on thyroid hormone function in cells, which could not be measured).

A recent study lends further proof of the causal relationship between toxic chemicals and chronic disease in the masses. In this study, [19] researchers pulled data from the 2001-2002 NHANES in which more than 150 chemicals were monitored in blood or urine samples. They looked only at the 42 most important chemicals from these main categories: pesticides/insecticides, phthalates, PCBs, dioxins, furans, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and some metals. In order to look at the overall health of the subjects, they were able to quantify the relative risk for various medical conditions such as cardiac heart disease (CHD), congestive heart failure (CHF), diabetes, failing kidney condition, a liver condition, myocardial infarction (MI), stroke and thyroid health. They showed that the more a person was exposed to one or more of these 42 environmental chemicals, the greater the adverse impact on his health.

There’s no doubt in my mind that if you want to prevent chronic illness, you must maintain your ability to keep protected from our toxic world or move away from our modern world somehow. This means liver health is vital. In my next article I’ll discuss how to monitor your liver and what you can do to for optimal liver health.

To feeling good for life,

Michael Cutler, M.D.
Easy Health Options


[1] EPA. Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act. 2011 Retrieved March 24, 2011, from http://www.epa.gov/regulations/laws/tsca.html.

[2] Thornton JW, McCally M, Houlihan J. Biomonitoring of industrial pollutants: health and policy implications of the chemical body burden. Public Health Rep. 2002;117(4):315–23.

[3] McGinn AP. POPs culture. World Watch; 2000. pp. 26–36.

[4] Weber R, Gaus C, et al. Dioxin- and POP-contaminated sites–contemporary and future relevance and challenges: overview on background, aims and scope of the series. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2008;15(5):363–93.

[5] Zietz BP, Hoopmann M, Funcke M, Huppmann R, Suchenwirth R, Gierden E. Long-term biomonitoring of polychlorinated biphenyls and organochlorine pesticides in human milk from mothers living in northern Germany. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2008;211(5–6):624–38.

[6] Czub G, Wania F, McLachlan MS. Combining long-range transport and bioaccumulation considerations to identify potential Arctic contaminants. Environ Sci Technol. 2008;42(10):3704–9.

[7] Jaga K, Dharmani C. Global surveillance of DDT and DDE levels in human tissues. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2003;16(1):7–20.

[8] Fattore E, Fanelli RR, LaVecchia C. Persistent organic pollutants in food: public health implications. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002;56(11):831–2.

[9] Schafer KS, Kegley SE. Persistent toxic chemicals in the US food supply. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002;56(11):813–7.

[10] Schafer KS, Kegley SE. Persistent toxic chemicals in the US food supply. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002;56(11):813–7.

[11] Hermanussen S, Matthews V, Papke O, Limpus CJ, Gaus C. Flame retardants (PBDEs) in marine turtles, dugongs and seafood from Queensland, Australia. Mar Pollut Bull. 2008;57(6–12):409–18.

[12] Howdeshell KL, Wilson VS, et al. A mixture of five phthalate esters inhibits fetal testicular testosterone production in the sprague-dawley rat in a cumulative, dose-additive manner. Toxicol Sci. 2008;105(1):153–65.

[13] Silva MJ, Barr DB, et al. Urinary levels of seven phthalate metabolites in the U.S. population from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2000. Environ Health Perspect. 2004 March; 112(3): 331–338.

[14] Koch HM, Rossbach B, Drexler H, Angerer J. Internal exposure of the general population to DEHP and other phthalates–determination of secondary and primary phthalate monoester metabolites in urine. Environ Res. 2003 Oct;93(2):177-85.

[16] Christensen CM, Grossman JH, Hwang J. The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care. The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2009.

[17] Duty SM, Singh NP, et al.The relationship between environmental exposures to phthalates and DNA damage in human sperm using the neutral comet assay. Environ Health Perspect. 2003 July; 111(9): 1164–1169.

[18] Meeker JD, Ferguson KK. Relationship between urinary phthalate and bisphenol A concentrations and serum thyroid measures in U.S. adults and adolescents from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007-2008. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Oct;119(10):1396-402.

[19] Gennings C, Ellis R, Ritter J. Linking Empirical Estimates of Body Burden of Environmental Chemicals and Wellness using NHANES Data. Environ Int. 2012 Feb; 39(1):56-65.

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Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.