Liver Health and Disease
The liver has more important functions than most people realize. Keeping it in good condition is essential to overall health. The liver is a football-sized organ. It is located on the right side of the abdomen under the ribcage.
Jobs of the Liver
People often only think about the liver in relation to its role in processing toxins, including alcohol. While that is one of the liver’s roles, this organ has many important jobs in helping the body function properly.1
The liver produces several important substances. One is bile, a substance that is an important part of the digestive process. Bile helps the body to process and turn food into energy. Another is a blood protein called albumin, which carries hormones, fatty acids, and drugs throughout the body.1
The liver is essential in managing the body’s blood sugar levels. When our blood doesn’t have enough glucose, the liver supplies it with more. When there is too much glucose, the liver helps remove it from the blood.1
Additionally, the liver plays a role in immune responses. It contains specialized cells that are able to hunt down and destroy bacteria and viruses when they enter the body.3
And finally, the liver has the crucial role of removing waste products from the body. It processes substances that could be toxic, such as medication or alcohol, and moves them out of the body. The liver also manages the removal of excess bilirubin. This substance is produced when red blood cells break down. When there is too much bilirubin in the body, jaundice occurs. The liver takes the bilirubin and helps to process it out of the body.1
Keeping the Liver Healthy
With all of its important functions, it’s essential to keep the liver healthy. Fortunately, many of the steps to a healthy liver are the same lifestyle choices that lead to overall good health. They include:2,1
- eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
- exercise regularly
- maintain a healthy weight
- limit alcohol consumption, meaning up to two drinks per day for adult men and one drink per day for adult women
We should also pay attention to the medications we take, including over-the-counter ones. Some medications, like acetaminophen, can hurt the liver if too much is taken or alcohol is consumed with it. Certain herbal compounds can also damage the liver. Make sure to consult with a medical professional about any medications or herbal compounds being taken, as well as the safest way to use them.2,1
There are several different conditions under the umbrella of liver disease. Liver disease can be genetic or caused by excessive alcohol use, obesity, or viruses.2
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Alcoholic liver disease is caused by excessive alcohol use. There are three stages of alcoholic liver disease:4
- Fatty liver is when fat accumulates in the liver, and it may cause the organ to become enlarged. This condition is reversible when a patient stops drinking alcohol. Fatty liver does not usually cause any symptoms.
- In alcoholic hepatitis, the liver is inflamed, which destroys its cells. People with alcoholic hepatitis often have jaundice and abdominal pain.
- Cirrhosis is the term for scar formation. This happens when the liver tissue gets destroyed by excessive alcohol consumption. It is then replaced by scar tissue. When cirrhosis occurs, it is difficult for blood to flow through the liver. Fluid may also build up in the abdomen. Cirrhosis could lead to liver complications and failure.
Anyone who consumes more than two alcoholic drinks of any type per day is at risk for liver disease.1
Hepatitis And The Liver
Hepatitis is a blanket term for conditions that cause inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis can be caused by excessive alcohol use, drugs, or other toxins. This condition can lead to liver complications and failure, as well as other potentially fatal ailments.1
The following actions can help prevent hepatitis:2,1
- Stay up-to-date on vaccinations.
- Don’t come into contact with others’ bodily fluids. Make sure that blood and other bodily fluids are safely and completely cleaned up after an accident.
- Practice safe sex.
- Be aware of cleanliness and safety when getting tattoos or piercings, and make sure that a new needle is used.
- Do not share razors, toothbrushes, needles, or other personal products that come into contact with bodily fluids.
- Stay protected when using aerosols, insecticides, and other toxic chemicals. Wear a mask and protect skin to avoid introducing toxins to the body.
Cirrhosis Of The Liver
In cirrhosis, scar tissue causes a hardening of the liver. In addition to excessive alcohol use, cirrhosis can be caused by diabetes, immune issues, viruses like hepatitis, and genetic diseases.1
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is characterized by fat deposits in the livers of people who drink little or no alcohol. The fatty deposits keep the liver from working correctly so that it is unable to remove toxins from the body. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can be caused by obesity, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and high levels of fats in the blood.4
Cholestasis occurs when bile is unable to flow from the liver in adequate amounts or when it is blocked altogether. Some causes of cholestasis include genetic factors, pregnancy, and the use of certain drugs. A blockage of the flow of bile could also be caused by a tumor or gallstone.1
There are several screenings that doctors can use to determine whether or not a patient has liver disease. Regular screenings are usually only recommended for patients who have an increased risk for liver disease because of genetic factors or other.2,1
People with liver disease do not always show symptoms. However, when they do show signs of the disease, they include:2
- jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and eyes
- itchy skin
- swelling and pain in the abdomen
- swelling in the legs and ankles
- chronic fatigue
- nausea or vomiting
- lost appetite
- bruising easily
- pale stools
- dark urine
People who have persistent symptoms should make an appointment with their doctor. After assessing a patient’s symptoms, a doctor may request one or more of the following tests to see how well the liver is functioning:1
- liver scan
- liver biopsy
- CT scan
- other liver function tests
People who experience such intense abdominal pain that they can’t sit still should seek emergency medical care right away.2
The liver works hard to keep you in good health. Caring for your liver with healthy habits, and avoiding exposure to toxins as much as possible, can help this critical organ perform its numerous functions for optimal long-term wellness.
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- Liver Health. Liver Health | Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/liver-health. Accessed October 7, 2020.
- Liver disease. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/liver-problems/symptoms-causes/syc-20374502. Published February 21, 2020. Accessed October 7, 2020.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20354567. Published August 22, 2019. Accessed October 7, 2020.