Because the liver is such a complex organ there are over 100 diseases that can affect its health.
We tend to associate liver damage with conditions resulting from drinking to much, such as alcoholic hepatitis or the viral infections, Hepatitis A and the more dangerous serum Hepatitis B. Hep A is transmitted from contaminated food and water, and Hep B from sexual contact, infected needles or contaminated blood products. Some diseases of the liver are hereditary and are usually diagnosed in a baby or young toddler. These include Alagille syndrome, Alpha 1-Antitrypsin deficiency, autoimmune hepatitis, the result of an abnormal immune system at birth, Galactosemia, Wilson’s disease – the abnormal storage of copper – and Haemochromatosis – the abnormal storage of iron.
There are also the dangers of long term medication. As with everything else we ingest, the medication also needs to go through the liver to be processed. This also applies to extensive exposure to chemicals in a home or work environment. Both are likely to overwork the liver and cause damage.
It is obvious that hereditary conditions and viral infections require treatment by medical experts. What we are concerned with is the general health of the liver to prevent damage and to improve function by making some adjustments to our lifestyles.
What is cirrhosis of the liver?
Cirrhosis occurs when scar tissue replaces dead or injured liver cells. It is caused by disease, or more commonly alcoholism and increasingly the ingestion of processed foods and drinks containing high levels of refined sugars. The scarring distorts the normal structure and re-growth of liver cells and the flow of blood through the liver, from the intestines, is blocked. This restricts the functions carried out by the liver, such as processing proteins or toxins.
This in turn can lead to other medical problems such as gallstones, toxicity and fluid retention in the legs and abdomen. Because the liver produces proteins that help clot the blood, damage can lead to excessive or prolonged bleeding – both internally and from cuts and injuries.
There is no cure for cirrhosis but the spread of the scarring can be stopped, and improvement in the health of the liver achieved in most cases, if the original cause of the damage is removed: – For example, by stopping drinking alcohol, reducing drastically the consumption of processed drinks and foods and eating a natural unprocessed diet of healthy fats, vegetables and fruits.
We also associate severe liver problems with older people who have spent a lifetime indulging across the board. However, more and more teenagers and young adults are presenting with liver damage. The cause is not excessive alcohol but excessive consumption of soft drinks containing sugars, acid and artificial sweeteners and a reliance on the ‘white diet’. White carbohydrates, unhealthy manufactured fats and refined sugars such as high fructose corn syrup.
How do we help the liver cope with everyday pressures?
So whilst alcohol certainly plays a role in the development of cirrhosis you do not have to be a chronic alcoholic to get the disease. The good news is that alcoholic hepatitis does not necessarily lead to cirrhosis of the liver, and certainly not to the extent where a transplant is required. It can take many years of dedicated drinking to reach that stage, but that will depend on the person.
No one person is the same and I often quote the saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. We are all unique and this applies to our internal operating systems as well. I am sure that we have been to parties and watched one person have two glasses of wine and be as drunk as a lord and someone else down drink after drink without any apparent affect. That is to say that from the outside they look okay but of course their liver may be telling a different story.
As we get older we understand that the aftermath of a drinking session is unpleasant in the extreme and the effects can last a couple of days – unfortunately some of the remedies add to the strain on the liver- especially frequent use of over the counter pain medication. Hopefully most of us adapt to a more moderate approach.
Unfortunately that is not at times with the young. Like the latest online drinking craze –Neknomination – which has already resulted in the death of at least five young people in the UK. Alcohol poisoning is not a game. Commonly, patients requiring treatment for liver disease were in their 50’s and 60’s. There are now people in their 20’s and 30’s being diagnosed with chronic liver damage and some are on the transplant list!
How can we help ourselves?
Like many internal organs, the liver has a primary purpose in life and that is for the host body to survive. It will struggle daily to cope with excessive stress and harmful contaminants and it is often only when it is in the final stages of disease that we see the external evidence for ourselves. The early symptoms can be hard to spot but generally there will be consistent nausea, intestinal upsets, fatigue and loss of appetite. If these symptoms are ignored then more dangerous symptoms will develop including signs of jaundice which results in yellowing of the whites of the eyes and a yellow tint to the skin.
Also bloated abdomen, confusion leading to coma and possible death. If you are experiencing any of the early signs then do go and get checked out by your doctor.
Generally speaking, drinking more than two or three drinks per day is going to affect your liver to some degree. Binge drinking at the weekend is something we are all guilty of from time to time. We do not have a drink all week and then on the weekend we go out for a meal or have friends around enjoying pre-dinner drinks and a few glasses of wine followed by a couple or more liqueurs. This is a binge as far as your liver is concerned, particularly if it is accompanied by a rich meal full of fats and proteins that require processing.
As I have already stated, soft drinks have their dangers – and certainly there has been a worrying increase in the number of teenagers from as early at 11 years old exhibiting signs of liver damage. In America where you have been able to buy 24oz fizzy drinks – or receive them free as part of a fast food meal – this trend is more than worrying. The main culprit is high fructose corn syrup the main component of soft drinks.
I am not going to go into detail as there is an interesting and thought provoking article that every parent should read and if not a parent then those of you who are consuming even moderate amounts of certain soft drinks and eating processed foods.
The liver, like the rest of the body, needs antioxidants to prevent oxidative damage. A diet high in processed foods is not only going to give the liver even more work to do, processing additives and excess chemicals such as phosphorus, but is also not going to give it the raw materials it requires for its own health.
I am afraid that we women are more likely to suffer liver damage, as we tend to have a higher concentration of alcohol in our blood. We have more body fat and less water than a man does so we handle booze differently. Even if we do not drink we can still cause damage to our liver by having a very high-fat diet. The liver again is overworked and whilst a moderate intake of fats is necessary for the nutrients it contains, it needs to be part of a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains that all work with the fat in harmony.
I often caution against deleting a food group from our diet as we are programmed to take the essential nutrients from across the board. Carbohydrates have their role in this but white, high fat and sugary processed foods are not carbohydrates they are cardboard. Eat whole grains every day – if you have a gluten intolerance or find wheat hard to digest then brown rice, corn and organic oats may suit you.
So whilst many of us focus on our heart health – that organ is affected by the health of the liver which removes toxins from our body to prevent the storage of these poisons in every cell including those in the heart.
Other posts in the Top to Toe series can be found here: