The liver is one of the hardest working organs of the body. It is a true workhorse, and is designed to be on the job twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Our bodies being the amazing creations that they are, the liver can continue to function well for many years even if we abuse it. But eventually, if we don’t take care of our body by a lifestyle that nurtures it instead of harming it, even a tough hombre like the liver will begin to break down. The result is liver disease. The good news is that the majority of liver disease can be avoided by living a life focused on wellness.
What is Liver Disease?
Liver Disease is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that affect the structure or operation of the liver. The liver is one of the most critical organs of the body, performing many crucial functions, and when it becomes inflamed, infected, or otherwise damaged, it is unable to keep up with all its important work. Unfortunately, liver disease is quite common in this country, mainly due to the toxins we continually ingest into our bodies. This is primarily because of a poor diet (Standard American Diet or SAD) that is so lacking in true, real food and nutrients and so overloaded with junky foods that are full of toxic substances. As the old computer saying goes, GIGO: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” The same is true with our bodies, and since the liver is one of the main filters of the body, it takes the brunt of many or our poor dietary choices as well as the many environmental toxins that we are exposed to. It is estimated that approximately 25% of the American population has some degree of liver disease, with it affecting about twice as many men as women. The most likely reason for this is that more men abuse alcohol, one of the most toxic substances the liver can deal with, and the number one cause of liver disease.
Just What Does the Liver Do?
Your liver has quite an impressive resume, or job description if you will. First let’s start with a common question: Where is my liver? Your liver is located in the upper right part of your abdominal region, underneath the diaphragm. It is “boomerang” shaped, and is technically a gland. The liver is the second largest organ of the body, second only to the skin. A brief rundown of the functions of the liver may help us to understand liver disease a bit better. Some of the liver’s main jobs include:
- Filtering the blood
- Recycling the blood (by breaking down red blood cells (RBCs)
- Manufacturing bile, a substance that is key to many body functions including digestion. and regulation of fats in the body.
- Storing sugars
- Managing energy reserves of the body, and helping transport and conserve energy when and where it is needed.
- Production of proteins that are important to blood clotting
- Regulating fluid transport in the blood and kidneys
- Metabolizing drugs, especially alcohol, sedatives, barbiturates, and amphetamines.
- Storage of key minerals and vitamins, including Vitamins A, D, some forms of B, as well as iron and copper.
One interesting fact about the liver is that it is one of the few internal organs that can regenerate itself. As little as 25% of your liver can restore itself to a complete liver, and only in a matter of weeks in some cases. Despite its workload and the abuse it often takes, the liver is a very tough and resilient organ.
What Are the Causes of Liver Disease?
The cause of most liver disease in this country is excessive use and abuse of alcohol. Alcoholism causes cirrhosis of the liver, which involves the replacement of damaged liver tissues with irreversible scar tissue. This causes the liver to progressively lose its ability to function properly.
Another common cause for liver disease, especially a type called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is poor diet, obesity, and debilitating diseases such as diabetes. An inactive lifestyle combined with a high fat, low nutrient diet is an all too common lifestyle in the United States that leads to many of our most common disease conditions, and liver disease is no exception.
There are many other causes for liver disease. Some of the most common include:
- Hepatitis, including chronic active hepatitis of any type (A, B, or C) in adults, or neonatal hepatitis.
- Birth defects
- Drug abuse
- Wilson’s disease: An inherited condition that results in excess levels of copper in the liver.
- Reye’s syndrome: A disease that causes fats to build up to toxic levels in the liver. Associated with the use of aspirin in children with a fever.
- Certain types of anemia (low RBC counts in the blood)
- Biliary atresia: a condition that results in dysfunction of the bile ducts.
- Alagille’s syndrome: Another bile duct disorder that typically affects infants under the age of one.
- Physical trauma that damages the liver.
- Porphyria: This affects how the body uses substances called porphyrins that are involved in enabling RBCs to make hemoglobin, and thus be able to transport oxygen throughout the body.
- Cholangitis: Inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts.
- Gallstones: Stones that form in the gall bladder, and can block the flow of bile.
- Hemochromatosis: A condition that damages the liver and other organs due to toxic levels of iron in the body.
Other risk factors that can increase one’s chances of getting liver disease include:
- Hyperlipidemia: This condition involves excessively high levels of certain fats in the blood, including triglycerides and cholesterol. The most common cause for hyperlipidemia is eating a poor diet that is high in fat, especially animal fat.
- Obesity: Even if you are not officially diagnosed with “obesity,” simply being overweight can also tax your liver and lead to potential liver disease. The more excess pounds you are carrying, the greater the risk. Some obesity is caused by disease conditions, but the vast majority of it is due to eating too much of the wrong kinds of food, in combination with insufficient physical exercise.
- Diabetes: When you have diabetes, either your body does not react properly to insulin, or it cannot produce enough insulin to control your blood sugar levels. Either way, diabetes can damage the liver and lead to liver disease.
- Medications: The use of certain medications can put your liver health at risk as well. These include synthetic estrogens, corticosteroids, tamoxifen (prescribed for treatment of breast cancer), certain heart medications, and any immune suppressing drug (such as those given to organ transplant recipients).
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Liver Disease?
Being as the liver is such a vital organ that is involved in so many important processes, the symptoms of liver disease are many. They also vary based on the type of liver disease that is causing them. Some typical ones include:
- Jaundice: Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
- Dark (cola-colored) urine
- Poor appetite
- Light-colored stools
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Itchy skin
- Abdominal pain, especially in the upper right quadrant (location of the liver)
- Low-grade chronic fever
- Muscle aches
- Lack of energy
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Lowered libido
- Internal bleeding, typically from the esophagus or intestinal tract
- Edema: Swelling in the extremities due to fluid retention
- Cognitive problems: memory loss, confusion, disorientation
- Ascites: Accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity.
How Is Liver Disease Diagnosed?
If you are having any symptoms that indicate possible liver disease, there are certain diagnostic procedures that can be used in order to determine how well your liver is functioning. These include:
- Liver function tests: These blood tests measure levels of certain enzymes that an unhealthy or damaged liver will produce. They are a good indicator of your liver health.
- CBC: This blood test stands for “Complete Blood Count,” and looks at the overall condition of all types of cells in your blood. It can indicate when there is infection due to increased white blood cell counts, for example.
- Imaging procedures: Various technologies may be used to scan your internal organs, specifically the liver in this case. I would try to go with ultrasound rather than x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs which expose you to higher levels of radiation. Images recorded from these tests can give your health care provider an inside peek into your liver, and provide a certain amount of data regarding liver health. Stay away from any tests involving the injection of a dye, as many people are allergic to these chemicals, and the long-term effects are not known for sure. If this is suggested to you, do your own research and determine if it is justified and the best choice for your particular situation.
How Can I Support My Liver?
Some liver disease is not preventable, such as that caused by inherited diseases or trauma to the liver. But the vast majority of liver disease can be prevented via healthful lifestyle choices:
- Limit or eliminate the use of alcohol.
- Be as careful as you can to avoid exposure to toxins such as industrial chemicals.
- Eat a sensible, natural diet composed of as many whole, raw, organic foods as possible.
- Limit your intake of fats, especially animal fats.
- Drink plenty of clean, purified water. This helps your liver to function better, and flushes out toxins from your system.
- Be careful what medications you take, and for how long. Many pain relievers, for example, are very toxic to the liver over time.
You really want to focus on prevention of liver disease, because many of the allopathic treatments such as drugs and surgery have undesirable side effects that can actually make you sicker in the long run. And liver transplants are very hard on your system (if you are able to find a donor), and also necessitate the use of harmful medications for the rest of your life. Another great reason to use preventative lifestyle measures is that these same steps will not only help your liver, but your entire system to be healthier and avoid many other potential disease conditions as well.