Heavy drinking – defined as more than 14 alcoholic drinks a week for men and more than 7 for women – contributes to a wide range of health problems and is the cause of nearly 16,000 deaths relating to liver disease in the United States each year. While easier said than done, acknowledging a problem with alcohol is the first step for someone with a dependency on this to turn their life around. Stopping drinking is the best thing that someone can do to prevent further damage to their liver and other organs, though this should be attempted in conjunction with the specialist help of an alcohol treatment service, as not only is doing it alone difficult, but it can also be dangerous owing to withdrawal symptoms. Once on the road to recovery, what someone eats has never been more important, as there is evidence that a number of nutrients in the diet are crucial to promote healing of the liver.
While someone with alcoholic liver disease does not necessarily have to start a new diet from scratch – though a balanced diet is essential to restore previous deficiencies – emphasis should be placed on the inclusion of some foods and the exclusion of others, as we look at here.
Include antioxidant rich foods
Antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and E are known to help the liver in two ways. Firstly, they help to protect the cells of the liver from damage by free radicals, which are both produced through normal processes within the body as well as through chemicals introduced from the environment; this includes cigarette smoke and alcohol. Secondly, antioxidants help the liver to complete its detoxifying role, by neutralizing some of the harmful substances processed by the liver.
The main source of antioxidants within the diet is fruit and vegetables, especially those which are brightly colored or have particularly dark skins or leaves; aim for at least 5 servings daily. Try to include red, yellow, orange, green and purple fruit and vegetables in your diet each day to maximize your antioxidant intake; it is often these nutrients that are responsible for their color.
If you are able to eat wholegrains such as oats, rye and barley, these are another group of foods rich in antioxidants. Tea – especially the green and white varieties – and coffee – both standard and decaffeinated – are a further source of antioxidants; though caffeine itself can be an addictive substance to some people and it is wise to include a range of drinks in the diet each day instead of relying on tea and coffee alone. While salt is best limited for the purposes of general health, seasonings such as garlic, chilli, turmeric and thyme, are just a few of those with high antioxidant contents.
Increase foods rich in B vitamins and carbohydrates
A deficiency of B vitamins – in particular thiamine – is common in those with alcohol related liver disease. These are needed by the body to process the food we eat and especially carbohydrates, which the liver already struggles to handle in its damaged state. Ensuring a good dietary intake of both can help to ease the problem.
Thiamine and other B vitamins are found in a wide variety of foods including dairy produce, eggs, meat, nuts and seeds, pulses, wholegrains, fruit and vegetables; this is just one reason why eating a balanced diet is so important, but even if you have to exclude some foods due to an allergy, you should still be able to obtain plenty of B vitamins. Sugary foods provide a source of carbohydrates, but on the whole these are lacking in other nutrients and don’t sustain energy levels – which are often low in liver disease – so are best limited. Carbohydrates should instead predominantly come from the likes of cereals, potatoes and other root vegetables, fruit and milk; again, picking from those you are able to tolerate. Include these foods with every meal, ideally with snacks during the day and even if you choose not to eat between meals, definitely include a carbohydrate rich snack before bed to maintain your energy reserves during the night for vital processes.
Limit processed foods and eat organic if possible
Manufactured foods are full of potential allergens, but preservatives are also not good news for your liver, as it is required to process these, providing it with extra work when its function is already compromised. To promote healing of the liver, instead opt for fresh foods and cook from scratch whenever possible; frozen fruit and vegetables, and those canned in just water, are the exception. If you can afford to buy organic produce – or alternatively grow your own at home – do so, as the pesticide and artificial fertilizer residues remain on items even after washing, and again these must be broken down by the liver.
While avoidance of alcohol related liver problems is preferable, at least if it does occur, following the steps above in conjunction with a balanced diet, will give you the best chance possible of healing your liver.