Your liver is one of the most important organs in your body, with hundreds of jobs to do. It breaks down fats, removes toxins and other harmful chemicals from your blood, and helps fight infections. Your liver can repair damage to itself and even regrow, but there is a point at which it becomes beyond repair.
Unfortunately, you can have liver disease without knowing it because there are usually no symptoms until the late stages. So it’s important to take steps to keep your liver healthy.
Causes of Liver Disease
Three of the major causes of liver disease are obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and viral hepatitis. In many cases, you can prevent liver disease by adopting a healthier lifestyle and avoiding these causes.
Here are eight ways to look after your liver and help avoid the onset of disease.
- Manage Your Weight
Obesity can cause liver disease, as well as other health problems such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in 2010, showed that 65% of obese people with BMIs over 30 had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and that figure rose to 85% in those with a BMI over 40.
If you are concerned about your weight and have any health problems, talk to your doctor about the best strategies for you to lose weight safely before you adopt a new diet or exercise routine.
Opinions vary about the best diet to adopt, with some (like MarksDailyApple.Com) recommending low carbohydrate/low fiber/no grain/ high-fat diets, and others (such as THH.NHS.UK) recommending high carbohydrate/high fiber/whole grain/ low-fat diets. The conflicting information can make it difficult to decide which approach to adopt. Most experts do agree that doing some exercise every day, and aiming for a slow weight reduction (1 lb or 0.5 kg a week) will help keep the weight off for the long term.
Reducing the calories, avoiding sugar, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, and replacing processed foods with a wide variety of more natural, basic foods will all help you look after your liver, improve your general health, and lose weight. Adopting healthy diet and exercise also helps your liver manage cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.
- Limit Alcohol
Your liver treats alcohol like any other toxic chemical. Too much alcohol can overwhelm your liver’s capacity to break it down, and this can damage the cells and lead to fatty liver, fibrosis, and the deadly disease, cirrhosis. Abusing alcohol by drinking excessively can also cause alcohol-related injuries and accidents, and worsen other diseases, such as heart disease and forms of dementia.
Recommendations for alcohol consumption vary from one country to another, and the size of a “unit” of alcohol also varies. In the US, for example, the most recent Health.org recommendations are to drink no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women, with a “drink” being equivalent to 5 fl oz wine (12% alcohol), 12 fl oz beer (5% alcohol), or 1.5 fl oz of spirits (40% alcohol, 80 proof). In the UK the latest recommendations are no more than 14 standard drinks per week for both women and men and to have several alcohol-free days each week.
The benefits of a longer break were demonstrated in a 2015 study partly funded by London’s Royal Free Hospital, which asked over 100 people who regularly drank more than the recommended levels to stop drinking for a month. The study found their blood sugar and cholesterol levels improved and fat in their liver dropped by 15 percent on average. Liver stiffness improved, their insulin resistance dropped by 28 percent, and they lost weight.
It is useful to remember that nobody can force you to drink if you don’t want to, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation of why you choose not to drink or to drink less. If you think you are drinking too much, there are many agencies that can help, including Smart Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, and online communities such as my.hellosundaymorning.org (or their Daybreak app), Soberistas, and the Reddit.com groups /r/cutdowndrinking/ and /r/stopdrinking.
- Increase Exercise
Exercise is good for your liver and for your body in general, and you don’t have to go to a gym and wear special clothes to do it (although you can if you want to). Another way is to simply make exercise a regular part of your life, by walking, cycling, gardening, dancing, swimming or playing sports.
Simple changes you can make include taking the stairs instead of elevators or escalators, parking as far away from shopping mall doors as possible, taking a bus and getting off a couple of stops early and walking the rest of the way, or going for a walk after dinner instead of sitting watching TV.
- Drink Coffee
A number of recent studies have shown that coffee is good for your liver. One of these studies, “Coffee and Liver Health,” published in 2014 by the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, showed that drinking coffee regularly reduces the amount of fat in the liver, improves fibrosis and cirrhosis, and reduces the risk of cancer. Coffee drinking was also shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Other studies have shown that decaffeinated coffee also improves liver health, and so the beneficial effects probably come from components other than caffeine, such as polyphenols. The mechanisms are not certain yet, but meanwhile, if you want to help your liver, drinking a few cups of coffee a day (preferably black and unsweetened) is a good idea.
- Watch Your Medications
Some medications cause problems, especially if you take too much. Over-the-counter medicines that can damage the liver if they are used excessively or for long periods include acetaminophen (in Tylenol and an ingredient in some prescription painkillers and cold and flu tablets), aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Even large doses of vitamins can cause damage. Many prescription medicines can also harm the liver, including all the statins, niacin, valproic acid, halothane, isoniazid, phenytoin, and azathioprine among others. The website livertox.nih.gov lists all the medications that have been associated with liver damage.
It may not be possible to avoid medications if you have health issues, but you can help yourself by only taking the medications you really need and avoid combining drugs and drinking alcohol, as this can increase damage to your organ.
- Avoid Hepatitis
Hepatitis A, B, and C are all serious diseases that can damage the liver. The Hepatitis A virus can be caught from drinking dirty or infected water, while hepatitis B and C are transmitted via bodily fluids. There are vaccines for type A and B, but no vaccine exists yet for Hepatitis C.
To avoid these diseases and help your liver, make sure your drinking water and food are clean, avoid sharing needles, toothbrushes and other personal items with others, and always practice safe sex.
Viral hepatitis can be present for many years without producing symptoms, so if you think you may have it ask your doctor if a blood test is advisable for you.
- Use Non-Toxic Products and Organic Foods
Your liver is the main weapon of the body in the fight against toxins in the environment and in food, and you can help your liver by reducing the toxic load.
Homes, schools, and workplaces can become toxic environments if non-natural cleaning products, insecticides, and other aerosol products are used. Toxins such as pesticide and herbicide residues can also enter our bodies via non-organic foods and foods that are not washed properly. There is growing evidence that glyphosate, which is widely used on food crops and thought to be safe around the home, can cause liver damage.
Use natural alternatives whenever possible to help your liver. Good non-toxic cleaning products include sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and ordinary white vinegar. Wash fruits and vegetables carefully, and choose organics if you can.
- Use Caution With Herbs
Scientific research on herbal medicines and their effects on the liver is limited, but some recent studies strongly suggest that herbal remedies widely used in Asia and increasingly in the rest of the world may injure the liver and even cause cancer. One study, published in 2017 in the Science Translational Medicine Journal, focused on aristolochic acids (AA), which occur in a number of plants used in herbal remedies, especially the Aristolochia and Asarum plants used in medicines for losing weight. AA has been implicated in liver cancers, as well as kidney failure and urinary tract cancers.
Other herbs, such as comfrey, kava kava, aloe vera, cascara, black cohosh, chaparral, and ephedra have been associated with liver damage. Even those herbs not listed on the National Institutes of Health LiverTox website may be contaminated with chemicals such as herbicides that may cause liver damage.
Keeping your liver healthy helps your entire body, and not just the organ itself, and so it is important to take steps to look after this vital organ to help ensure it can carry out its many functions. Adopting a sensible varied diet, maintaining an ideal weight, regular exercise, and avoiding toxins, drugs, smoking, and some medications and herbs, are all strategies that can help keep your liver strong and healthy for the rest of your life.