Your liver performs many vital jobs. Among other things, it removes toxins from your blood and stores vitamins, minerals, and fuel necessary to survive. Unfortunately, the liver is vulnerable to damage. What should you know to keep your liver healthy and prevent disease?
Your liver is a large and complex organ. It is responsible for breaking down and eliminating naturally occurring toxins as well as many types of medications. It also acts as a chemical factory, producing bile (necessary for digestion), clotting factors, other proteins in the blood, as well as cholesterol and various forms of fats. The other major function of the liver is to store and release carbohydrates.
Just performing its duties makes your liver vulnerable to injury. For instance, deactivating potentially harmful drugs and medications is a hazardous job. Drug breakdown can damage liver cells and result in acute or chronic liver disease. Preventable factors that may damage your liver include alcohol and drug abuse, medications, infections, and certain health conditions. The most common causes of liver disease are:
Sometimes liver damage is acute and potentially reversible. Other times it’s chronic and irreversible. Common signs of acute liver disease include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and abdominal pain plus abnormal liver blood tests.
When damage becomes progressive and irreversible, it may lead to chronic liver disease. Permanent loss of liver function can result from a complication called cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. In severe cases, a liver transplant may be required to sustain life.
Other problems that are associated with chronic liver disease include fluid build-up in the abdomen (ascites), trouble thinking clearly ( encephalopathy ), gastrointestinal bleeding, bleeding disorders, and a greatly increased risk of liver cancer.
Since chronic liver disease cannot be cured, prevention is key. Here are some tips to help you reduce your risk of developing liver disease for each of the most common causes.
Several contagious viruses can cause of inflammation of the liver (hepatitis):
Heavy alcohol consumption can result in damage to the liver cells and eventually cirrhosis. Preventive measures include:
Excess weight can cause a potentially harmful buildup of fat in the liver. Fatty liver disease usually does not cause symptoms. It may appear as abnormal liver blood tests that can eventually progress to cirrhosis. If you are overweight, work to gradually lose excess weight through diet and exercise.
Hemochromatosis is a relatively common hereditary disorder that causes excessive iron storage in the liver. This can eventually lead to impaired liver function and cirrhosis. Blood tests (for iron and iron-carrying protein) to detect the disease and phlebotomy (bloodletting) to treat the disease can prevent these complications, especially when diagnosed and treated early.
Many drugs can act as toxins to your liver, including acetaminophen (when taken in excess), anesthetics, seizure medications, antibiotics used for tuberculosis , and some cholesterol reducers. Certain herbs and supplements can be toxic to the liver as well, including very high doses of vitamin A or niacin, comfrey, germander, coltsfoot, and sassafras.
Always talk to your doctor about potential side effects before taking any supplements or medications. Ask if you should have liver tests due to the medications or supplements you are taking.
If liver disease does occur, the best time to detect it is early. Inform your doctor of any factors you have that may increase your risk for liver disease. Your doctor can monitor your liver function with blood tests and order further testing if necessary. If abnormalities persist, make sure your doctor follows up on them and adequately explains the cause or refers you to a gastroenterologist.
American Liver Foundation
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
The Canadian Association of Gastroenterology (CAG)
Canadian Liver Foundation
Resnick RH, Chopra S. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: a common hepatic disorder. Family Practice Recertification. 2002;24:43-50.
Riley TR, Bhatti AM. Preventive strategies in chronic liver disease: Part I. Alcohol, vaccines, toxic medications and supplements, diet and exercise. American Family Physician. 2001;64:1555-1560.
Riley TR, Bhatti AM. Preventive strategies in chronic liver disease: Part II. Cirrhosis. American Family Physician. 2001;64:1735-1740.
Symptoms of liver disease. US Department of Veterans Affairs website. Available at: http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/basics/liver-disease-symptoms.asp. Accessed February 4, 2014.
Why you need to protect your liver. Consumer Reports on Health. April 2001;6-9.
Yoshida EM. Abnormal liver function tests: What to do for the patient. Consultant. April 1, 2003;505-517.
Last reviewed February 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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