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Are you loving your liver?

Liver disease often has no symptoms until the very late stages

Spotlight on: liver disease

The Spotlight series is a series of articles looking at common, and preventable, diseases. I explain the science behind the condition, how to spot early signs and what you can do to prevent it. 

The Science 

There are several different types of liver disease, and the majority are preventable. The liver is a complex organ that has multiple functions.

  • It filters toxins from the blood
  • Helps to digest food
  • Regulates blood sugar and cholesterol
  • Helps to fight infection and disease. 

Alcohol-related liver disease is the most common, and is due to drinking too much alcohol. There are three stages:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis.

Fatty liver disease is reversible, but if it progresses to severe hepatitis and cirrhosis, the liver has become scarred and is therefore not reversible. 

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is another form, and is due to being overweight, where there is a build up of fat in the liver. Initially this doesn’t cause any harm, but can lead to cirrhosis (scarring).

Having high levels of fat in the liver also means you are at a higher risk of other health problems, such as diabetes, kidney and heart disease. 

Hepatitis is a form of liver disease in itself. It means inflammation of the liver. This can be due to a viral infection (hepatitis A, B, C) or because of drinking too much alcohol. It can be sudden in its onset, or a gradual process that occurs over years. 

Liver disease eventually leads to cirrhosis, which is irreversible scarring of the liver. This prevents the liver from functioning, and can cause liver failure. Liver disease also increases your risk of developing liver cancer. 

Signs and Symptoms 

Liver disease often has no symptoms until the very late stages. If symptoms do develop, they are often vague. They can include:

  • Feeling tired or weak all the time 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Feeling nauseous 
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice) 
  • Loss of sex drive 
  • Itchy skin 

As the symptoms are so vague, and often not present early on, it is important to recognise if you have any of the risk factors for liver disease. If you do, its worth discussing with your family doctor, as they may recommend blood tests to monitor your liver function.

The risk factors for developing liver disease are:

  • Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol*
  • Being overweight 
  • Having a diet high in fat 
  • Injecting drugs 

How to Prevent Liver Disease

Preventing liver disease is largely about maintaining a healthy weight, and sticking to the guidelines for how much to drink. 

Guidelines suggest 10 standard drinks a week for women, and 15 drinks a week for men. One standard drink is a 12 ounce bottle of five per cent beer or cider, a five ounce  glass of 12% wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of 40% hard liquor. 

Maintaining a healthy weight is also important; eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, low in saturated fats and high in fibre, is the best way to keep your weight in a healthy range.

If you know that your cholesterol levels are high, its important to follow doctor’s advice to try and reduce these levels. 

Injecting recreational drugs, whether now or in years past, increases your risk of hepatitis, a type a viral infection that predominantly affects the liver.

Hepatitis is now easily treatable, so if you have ever used intravenous drugs, it’s definitely worth checking your hepatitis B and C status with a simple blood test. 

Take Home Message

Liver disease is hard to catch early, so reducing your risk is incredibly important. Drinking to excess and being overweight are the primary risk factors, and luckily both are easily managed with changes to your lifestyle.

If you do experience any symptoms or are worried about your risk, get in touch with your family doctor. 

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