As well as the above functions, the liver helps to produce proteins in the body, and regulates levels of hormones in the blood. So it’s not surprising that if the liver isn't functioning at its best, things can quickly start to go wrong in the body.
There are over 100 types of liver disease that affect more than 2 million people currently in the UK. Unfortunately as liver disease often doesn’t cause any obvious signs or symptoms until it's fairly advanced it is not common to go undetected until the liver is damaged (cirrhosis).
What causes liver disease?
Drinking alcohol in excess is the most well-known cause of liver disease, yet two other causes, obesity and a hepatitis infection, can be equally as damaging.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
NAFLD is the term used for a range of conditions caused by a build up of fat in the cells of the liver. Whilst this is typically seen in overweight or obese individuals, it can also occur in healthy weight people who have an unhealthy diet.
Alcohol-related liver disease
As with other liver disease, this rarely causes any symptoms until the later stages. When it gets to this late stage, symptoms include feeling sick, weight loss, loss of appetite, yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), swelling in the ankles and tummy, confusion or drowsiness, vomiting blood or passing blood in your stools.
Although the liver is an extremely resilient organ, every time you drink alcohol, some of your liver cells die. Over time, drinking too much can seriously damage the liver and its ability to regenerate.
Hepatitis is the name given to inflammation of the liver. It can be caused by a viral infection or by misuse of substances such as alcohol. The most common form of Hepatitis in the UK is Hepatitis C which affects approximately 233,000 people. Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through sharing needles to inject drugs, yet it can also be passed by blood to blood contact, or through unsterile body piercing, tattooing or medical procedures.
Ways to protect your liver
Limit alcohol intake
It’s estimated that 1 in 4 moderate to heavy drinkers has some level of alcoholic hepatitis. The best way to reduce this risk is to limit alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks on any day and no more than 4 standard drinks on any occasion.
As being overweight is a risk factor for liver disease, it’s important to have a healthy balanced diet containing plenty of vegetables, whole grains, fruit and lean protein, while limiting sugar and fat intake. There’s nothing you can eat to prevent you feeling the effects of too much alcohol - yet as the liver is the most vital organ when it comes to handling alcohol in the body, it’s important to eat foods to support its function. Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts are one of the best food groups for helping the liver, as are foods high in sulfur like eggs, onions and garlic and glutathione-rich avocado and asparagus.
Reducing risk of viral hepatitis
Get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B when travelling abroad (there is no vaccine for hepatitis C or E)
Never share personal items like toothbrushes, razors, nail scissors or tweezers
Practise safe sex
Use only licensed tattoo and piercing parlours and make sure all equipment used has been sterilised
Always use clean needles, syringes and other equipment if using drugs
For more information on how to look after your liver visit www.loveyourliver.org
Written by Ruth Tongue