How spending time in nature and changing the way I dealt with stress reversed my liver disease.
Stress can do a lot of damage not only to your body but also to your mental health. Hiking helps relieve that stress and helps to recenter you. Hiking improves cardiovascular health and helps build muscles, balance, and endurance.
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LIVER HEALTH AND STRESS
A few years ago, I received a horrible diagnosis of cirrhosis secondary to nonalcoholic liver disease (NASH). I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I developed this by relying on poor eating habits while under a lot of stress. Even though I hiked for part of my living and regularly went for hikes – it wasn’t enough time in the woods to combat the damage I was causing via sugar for comfort.
“Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition in which fat builds up in your liver. Nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) are types of NAFLD. If you have NASH, you have inflammation and liver damage, along with fat in your liver.” NIH website.
SUGAR FOR COMFORT IS A KILLER
Like a lot of people, food is my go-to comfort. Anxiety spike – eat an Oreo or 12. Freaking out about a relationship – eat a slice or four of cake. Have an important deadline – eat a bag of Peanut M&Ms. I didn’t have control of my stresses and therefore couldn’t figure out how to gain control of my response to them as the reaction was preprogrammed. If A, then B.
After the diagnosis, I started seeing a therapist (highly recommend) and was able to start putting systems in place to replace the pattern of stress followed by comfort in the form of sweets. I started exercising more. That included daily walks of three miles and at least two long weekly hikes.
CRAFTING FOR COMFORT
I also started replacing food for comfort with crafting for comfort. If I felt an anxiety spike, I reached for the crochet hook and ball of yarn in my purse instead of going for a donut. I started making amigurumi which is a crocheted or knitted stuffed toy.
Crocheting benefited me, as I carry enough materials (yarn, scissors, crochet hooks, stuffing, doll safety eyes, embroidery thread, and needles) in a relatively small bag to make several small amigurumi. I found this Vera Bradley at a local thrift shop, and it is a perfect size to haul all my crocheting gear as well as work directly out of the bag.
LIVER FRIENDLY CHANGES
I eliminated all sugar from my diet, diet soda pop, fried foods, processed meats like pepperoni, salami, and lunch meats. I changed sweeteners to natural ones like stevia and monk fruit. I also read a lot of NIH papers and took notes.
I stopped using medications (I checked with my doctor first) and any OTC medications that are primarily processed by the liver. One of the common OTC meds is acetaminophen which is in a lot of OTC combinations, including cold and migraine meds.
Side Note: I used to get migraines that would knock me out of functioning. I would be in bed with the covers over my head as the world was too loud, too bright, too smelly, and too everything. I was pretty sure my head was going to implode. Since changing my diet, if I get a headache or one that feels like it could develop into a migraine, I manage it with a tall glass of water, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon to rehydrate and balance electrolytes.
LIVER FRIENDLY FOODS
As recommended by doctors, I started drinking lots and lots of dark coffee and green tea and taking 400 units of Vitamin E twice a day. (Check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications.)
I started taking turmeric, ginger, and black pepper mixture as it is supposed to be helpful for liver function. I ate a truckload of cruciferous veggies – so much cabbage and cauliflower. (I could have powered a small jet with all the farting. I know — TMI) The only reason I didn’t include broccoli and Brussels sprouts is that I can’t stand them.
Microgreens were another veggie I started growing and eating. It is super easy and relatively inexpensive to do. Microgreens also are packed with more nutrients than the adult plant. Yay! Microgreens!
I made the TikTok Goddess Salad and ate a lot of riced cauliflower. Ccruciferous veggies provide the base compounds your liver uses to function. I also increased my consumption of healthy nuts and citrus fruits. I figured the more straight from the source unprocessed food base with the components my liver needed the most would be loads better than any supplements.
LIVER CLEANSE BULLSHIRT
What I didn’t do was a liver cleanse with anything processed. No, quick fix supplements that promise the world but only deliver you a lighter wallet. It is an unregulated market, with virtually no testing for efficacy or harmful materials like heavy metals or pesticides.
Quick-fix schemes are preying on your fears. Your liver is the cleansing mechanism for your body. The best you can do to cleanse your liver is to stop doing things that damage your liver.
GIVE YOUR LIVER A BREAK
Your liver will need time to repair itself. It won’t have the time if you are constantly eating. The easiest way I found to stop eating was to have a stopping time of 8 p.m. I usually am not hungry first thing in the morning so I don’t eat breakfast until around 10 a.m. That’s 14 hours of easy fasting and gives my systems time to repair.
Give your body at least 12 hours of not digesting food. It takes a lot of energy to digest food and your liver needs to do a lot of the heavy lifting. By giving your liver a break from digesting food, it can start working on detoxing your body – one of the jobs it is designed to do.
In that same vane, get a least eight hours of sleep. Sleep is the time when your body functions switch to repair mode. I know this sounds hard to do especially if you have young kids or are one of those people who have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. Do your best to get the rest. (I’m a poet and don’t know it.)
START BY STOPPING THE DAMAGE TO YOUR LIVER
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
– Chinese Proverb
You can do several easy and inexpensive things to improve your health. You might need to spend time meal prepping (it takes me about 20 minutes to make enough Goddess salad for my lunches for a week). A standard trip through a drive-thru usually averages around 5-10 minutes for a meal full of processed foods, which has too much sodium because it has too little flavor and too much sugar. The time trade-off is well worth the health benefits and will save you money.
The following changes might not be easy but they should improve your health, save you money, and give you time to enjoy life:
- No alcohol
- No diet drinks
- No candies sweetened with sugar alcohols
- No fast food (the only exception would be a salad, but even those can be loaded with processed foods and sugar in the toppings and dressings)
- Switch from grilled and fried foods to baked
- Eliminate processed sugar which means eliminating 99.9% of the foods that come in a box or bag.
- Stop smoking
- Stop taking OTC medications processed by the liver (check with your doctor to ensure it is safe for you).
- Eat healthy foods veggies, fruits, meats, and dairy that loaded with compounds that help your body function and reduce your environmental stressors.
- Seek the help of a professional licensed therapist to help you understand how to manage your stressors.
- Hike or walk for at least 10,000 steps per day. If you can’t do that, build up to it. Slow and steady is better than sitting on the couch.
- Spend more time in nature. Go hug a tree and then sit down and just be present.
- Stop eating after 8 pm to give your body at least 12 hours of fasting.
- Get a least eight hours of sleep.
CHANGING THE PROGRAMMING
While making all these changes, I started talking to myself on even more hikes. I counseled myself, examined what I was doing that was hurting my body and had a good long talk with my inner child about changing our ways and treating ourselves better.
I also ruthlessly examined my troubled feelings and dealt with them by talking myself through them as if I were speaking with my therapist. I asked myself a lot of why questions. Why did what so and so did hurt me? How can I better handle stressful situations? How can I avoid the people who cause me stress?
I might have cried a lot and angry-screamed, but I felt better each time I emerged from the woods.
THE UNIVERSE IS SMALLER AND BIGGER THAN YOU KNOW
This brings us back to spending more time in nature and hiking. I believe that the universe is one and that trees can feel us and speak to us in ways that most people miss because they think it is a bunch of hooey.
There was one white oak that I saw off the trail. Realize I don’t go off trail as it is against my stewardship principle for trail management. But this tree was like a magnet, and I traipsed across the forest floor, hugged the tree, and then sat at the base of the tree, leaning against it. It was one of the most peaceful times I have had. As I sat in the present, not thinking of the past or worrying about the future – the noise in my head stopped, and I could just be.
After (maybe falling asleep), I got up and thanked the tree for being and for giving me a safe place to rest. Then I finished my hike. It is up to your whether you believe in the power of nature or not. However, what could it hurt to open your heart, mind, and soul to the possibility that the universe is a little more varied than what you can see and measure?
Oh, and how is my liver now? I have the diagnosis of a slightly fatty liver which is a freaking extraordinary accomplishment. Recently, I started a new medication (Ozempic) which clinically is showing indications of not only improving heart health (silent killer of women) but also in scouring the last bits of fat from my liver.