Your liver and you – why it’s vital to maintain a healthy relationship
As the second-largest organ in your body, holding approximately 13% of your total blood supply at any one time, your liver is a genuine workhorse and should always be respected. It is required to process more than 13,000 different chemicals and oversee more than 2,000 internal enzyme systems. It produces clotting and blood proteins, lipoproteins and four-fifths of our cholesterol; not to mention its filtration of blood, regulation of blood sugar levels and elimination of harmful toxins. In short, it’s your body’s very own 24/7 chemical processing plant.
Consequently, the importance of maintaining a healthy, well-functioning liver cannot be overstated. Check out our guide on '8 tips for keeping your liver healthy' for more information on the subject.
Importance of the liver in bodily functions
The liver performs more than 500 different functions and when it becomes diseased or functions at less than 100% your health can deteriorate as a result. Below are some of the most important bodily functions carried out by your liver:
• Breaking down digested food and drink, and converting it into energy – carbohydrates are converted into a store of glycogen in the liver as an emergency energy source.
• Waste removal (every day, not just on bin day!) – Waste products that your kidneys fail to eliminate are also removed from the bloodstream by your liver.
• Guards against infections – your liver contains more than 50% of your body’s supply of macrophages, which eliminate any harmful bacteria they encounter. Damaged livers are much less effective at fighting infections.
• Enzyme and protein production – your liver is responsible for a majority of your body’s chemical reactions e.g. blood clotting and the repair of damaged tissues.
Food and drink that is good for your liver
Your liver is your body’s filter for potentially damaging toxins, so it’s important that you eat and drink healthily to maintain the strength and performance of this vital organ. Here are some of the most effective foods to eat that keep your liver firing on all cylinders:
• Coffee – the British Liver Trust conducted a study on the potential health benefits of drinking coffee for the function of the liver. The report confirms that regularly consuming moderate amounts of coffee may prevent liver cancer and reduce the risk of other liver diseases such as fibrosis and cirrhosis
• Green Tea – this is jam-packed with catechins, which is a plant antioxidant that has been proven to reduce the accumulation of fat in the liver and promote healthy function
• Grapefruit – this zingy fruit contains naringenin and naringin, which are two key antioxidants that can naturally protect the liver by reducing inflammation and protecting cells
• Cranberries and blueberries – berries, in general, are high in antioxidants, with these two containing anthocyanins which give them their unique colour. Studies have shown that those who eat whole cranberries and blueberries – or drank their juices/extracts – are more likely to have healthier livers
• Cruciferous vegetables – basically those good old greens! Cruciferous vegetables span broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and mustard greens, all of which are high in plant compounds such as detoxification enzymes that guard your liver against long-term damage. Note, the more organic cruciferous vegetables you eat, the better!
• Nuts - featuring plenty of good fats and nutrients such as the antioxidant vitamin E, those who regularly eat a portion of nuts are more likely to experience higher levels of liver enzymes.
• Olive oil – this is not only considered to be good for your heart and metabolism but your liver, too. Studies have proven that daily consumption of just a teaspoon of olive oil can promote higher liver enzymes and fat levels.
Problems that can occur with your liver
Some of the tell-tale signs that your liver is diseased relate to the colour of your skin, which can appear yellow (or jaundice) when your liver is failing, your abdominal area may be swollen and painful; your skin is likely to feel itchy; you’ll experience a distinct loss of appetite and your skin is more likely to bruise.
There are many causes of liver disease which can lead to persistent life-changing symptoms, including:
• Hepatitis A, B, and C – these viruses can result in inflammation of the liver, leading to reduced functionality. Hepatitis can be spread through blood, semen, contaminated water or food and due to close contact with an already-infected person.
• Autoimmune liver diseases – autoimmune illnesses are those which cause the immune system to involuntarily attack specific areas of the body; in this case, it attacks the liver. Common autoimmune liver diseases include primary biliary cirrhosis and primary sclerosing cholangitis.
• Genetic liver diseases – in some instances an individual will inherit an abnormal gene from one or both of their parents, resulting in a build-up of substances in the liver, leading to long-term liver damage. Typical genetic liver diseases include Wilson’s disease, Hemochromatosis and Hyperoxaluria and Oxalosis.
• Liver cancer and additional growths – including bile duct cancer and liver adenoma.
• Alcohol-related liver disease – caused by persistent alcohol abuse.
What portion of the population suffers from liver problems?
The British Liver Trust claims that one-in-five of the UK population are at genuine risk of liver damage.
According to the Health Survey for England in 2014, more than three-fifths (60.8%) of adults in England are considered overweight or obese, increasing their risk of Obesity and Non-Alcohol Related Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is considered the most common liver condition in the western world with up to 30% of the entire population affected – many of whom are undiagnosed.
Available treatments for liver problems
Treatments for alcohol-related liver disease
• Cease your consumption of alcohol.
• Maintain a balanced diet to avoid malnutrition – avoid salty foods to develop fluid build-up.
• Use of corticosteroids may help to reduce inflammation of the liver but many medical experts have argued there is limited effectiveness.
• For the most serious cases, an individual may require a liver transplant if their existing liver fails completely.
Treatments for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
• No specific medication is currently available for NAFLD. However, individuals are always asked to adopt a healthy lifestyle and seek treatment for any associated conditions e.g. diabetes, high cholesterol or blood pressure.
Treatments for haemochromatosis
• Phlebotomy – a surgical procedure which removes a portion of your blood. This is a treatment which must be carried out initially on a weekly basis, before dropping down to every few months after iron levels fall to more typical levels.
• Chelation therapy – consumption of medication designed to minimise iron levels in your system. A process which is the last resort if it’s not easy to regularly carry out a phlebotomy.
Treatments for primary biliary cholangitis
• Ursodeoxycholic acid – consumed to prevent or delay liver damage; particularly effective for those who are diagnosed in the early stages of the condition.
• Obeticholic acid – a newer treatment that works to improve bile flow and minimise liver inflammation.
• Colestyramine – a medication commonly prescribed to PBC sufferers with severe itching side effects.
• Liver transplant – for the most extreme cases where liver damage may eventually put one’s life at risk.
The information in this article is intended as general advice only. If you or your family members require medical advice or have any medical concerns, please contact your GP.
Please note that not all conditions discussed above are covered by a CSH plan. For more information on what is covered please visit our FAQ page or speak to one of our friendly sales advisers on 0800 917 4325†