It might not be something that you think about very often, but your liver is actually one of the most vital organs in your body due to its many responsibilities (the liver has over 500 functions!) It works 24 hours a day, processing everything from the foods you eat to the beverages you drink, the air you breathe in, and even what you rub on your skin. In addition, the liver also provides your body with energy, can help you fight off infections, helps with digestion, regulates hormones (including the thyroid, adrenal and cortisone hormones), produces and excretes cholesterol, helps clot the blood, and neutralizes and destroys substances that are considered toxic/poisonous. In other words, the liver is vital to life – and when it breaks down, so will you. Below is a look at some of the most common conditions that can affect the liver, as well as some important steps that you can take to keep your liver as healthy as possible.
There are many myths when it comes to liver problems. For example, many people are under the impression that liver disease only happens as a result of drinking alcohol to excess or using illicit drugs – but that’s not entirely true. While excessive alcohol consumption can certainly put you at risk of developing liver disease, you can also develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This type of liver disease, affecting more than 7 million Canadians, can be present at birth, or it can also be contracted from a virus, from being exposed to certain toxins, or from certain foods and drinks. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is strongly linked to obesity, though it can also be caused as a result of malnutrition and starvation or rapid weight loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as certain medications (such as corticosteroids.)
Another common myth linked to liver disease is that people think it comes with a wide range of symptoms – however, the opposite is true. Liver disease often comes with no symptoms – or the symptoms that you do experience, if any, will be mild and often mistaken for other health conditions – for example, you can experience fatigue, nausea, dark urine, and yellowing of the skin or eyes (also known as jaundice.) Even without any symptoms, the liver can still have developed significant damage.
If you develop cirrhosis of the liver, this will usually require a liver transplant. While a transplant is a life-preserving method of treatment that will replace your diseased liver with one that is healthy, this does not necessarily mean that you are out of the words completely. Even with a replaced, healthier organ, it is still possible for liver disease to return. The same goes for individuals with hepatitis C, and in many causes the hepatitis C virus will re-affect the new liver within one year of the transplant. It’s also possible for certain auto-immune disease to re-occur following a liver transplant.
Another common condition associated with the liver is liver cancer, which is among the fastest rising cancers in Canada. There are many factors that come into play with the development of liver cancer, including alcohol consumption, obesity, as well as chronic hepatitis B and C. Just like liver disease, the early stages of liver cancer often come with no or very few symptoms – though once the cancer has progressed you may experience symptoms like abdominal pain, abdominal fluid, jaundice, loss of appetite, and weight loss. To diagnose liver cancer, there are many tests that can be done, including blood tests, as well as medical imaging tests such as CT scans, MRI and ultrasound. In some cases, a biopsy may also be performed. How liver cancer is treated depends on a variety of factors, including the stage of the cancer and the speed of the growth of the tumour, as well as your overall health. Treatment options include everything from chemotherapy to radiation therapy, surgery, embolization, and tumour ablation.
To keep your liver in good health, it is important to also be aware of the different risks that are out there that could potentially be dangerous to your liver. Acetaminophen, for example, is a widely used medication that is taken to relieve everything from headaches to joint pain. However, taking too much of it over a prolonged period of time could result in liver damage – as can other types of medications, including cough and cold products, as well as muscle relaxants. If you drink alcohol on a regular basis or drink in excess, this can also lead to the destruction of your liver cells and can lead to everything from cirrhosis of the liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and even liver cancer. Getting a tattoo or piercing can also lead to hepatitis B or C, which can affect the liver – particularly if the equipment used on you is not sterile. If you’re going to travel, learn about any potential health risks that may be common in the destination to which you are traveling to. You may need to be immunized against different diseases like hepatitis A and B, as well as other diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. However, keep in mind that many of these vaccines often take time before they will be effective and protect your body, so it’s always a good idea to get them a few months prior to your departure.