March 07, 2018
Feeling ‘liverish’ is such an old-fashioned term, but it sums up the sluggish, slightly nauseous, I’m shattered, my digestive system doesn’t feel great feeling so many patients of mine feel. It can be particularly common if you’re undergoing cancer treatments or having to take a lot of medication to treat a medical condition. Our liver, after all, is our main digestive organ. Among other functions, it breaks down fats and metabolises unwanted substances from our blood. Heavy-hitting chemotherapy drugs, painkillers and even strong anti-inflammatories for relieving joint inflammation can all produce a strain on the liver. And if you suffer with liver disease, the impact on your body and how you feel can be even greater.
Alcohol & toxicity
Many patients ask what they can do to help their liver. Unsurprisingly, avoiding alcohol is a first step, as it is toxic to the liver and can increase damage further. Oncologists will often tell their patients that there isn’t anything wrong with having a little alcohol as it won’t negatively impact their cancer treatment. That may be true in terms of outcome, but my experience of helping people to manage and minimise the side effects of their treatment tells me that avoiding alcohol can be wise at this time. Going alcohol free tends to lessen the feelings of toxicity from the treatment; it can improve sleep quality, which can be hard enough to get when you’re worried and not feeling well; and will help to maintain energy levels. Knowing that you are doing everything possible to help your body cope with treatments, fight the disease and recover, can also provide important peace of mind during a challenging time.
Fats & liver health
What you eat can also have a significant impact on the health of your liver. If you have raised liver enzyme levels, which is usually the tell-tale sign that your liver isn’t in the best shape, you may find that fatty foods are the hardest to digest. And while plant fats are often considered healthier than animal fats (so we tend to consider olive oil, coconut oil, etc, better for us than, say, butter), when it comes to the liver, both types of fat tend to cause equal grief. I’m not a fan of low-fat products, as they can be highly processed, don’t taste great and can be very high in sugar. Instead, use a small amount of the type of fat you like and avoid high-fat foods such as pastries, pies, fatty meats, cheese and cream. Oily fish such as mackerel and sardines are wonderful for heart health. As they’re strongly flavoured, you could add a few flakes to a wonderful salad, so you get some of their goodness without taking in too much fat.
Red meat & iron
If you have liver disease such as cirrhosis (your blood tests will tell you this), eating too much red meat can be a problem as you may have an issue releasing iron from your liver. One solution is to eat a small amount of easier to digest red meat, say, minced meat in a rich broth. Or slow-cook lamb shank until tender, leave it to cool overnight, then take off the layer of fat that forms before reheating. Serve it with lots of fresh vegetables, seasoned with herbs, lemon or lime juice, as salt too isn’t good if your liver isn’t happy.
Alternatives to salt
Salt can aggravate ascites, which is where fluid builds up inside your abdomen, making it very uncomfortable. Your taste buds get used to less salt over time, so gradually reduce the amount you add to food and instead use other flavour enhancers, as it’s important not to leave your food bland and boring. Ginger can add real zing and it’s particularly great in fresh vegetable juices. I love to blend fresh beetroot, kale, apple, ginger and carrot, as carrots and beetroots are traditional liver-loving vegetables and a juice can make you feel amazingly vibrant.