The ‘Love Your Liver’ campaign began on the first of January and aims to encourage awareness of keeping your liver healthy. Dr Annan discusses liver health.
Your liver is found on the right hand side of your body, and is the largest organ. It can weigh up to 1.8 kgs in men and 1.3 kgs in women. The liver absorbs nutrients and removes toxic substances from the blood. One of the liver’s key functions is to produce quick energy, which it does by releasing its store of glycogen which is produced when carbohydrates are broken down in the body. The liver also helps to fight infections. Most people’s livers function completely normally but some people suffer complaints such as:
Damage caused by alcohol
Alcohol misuse is a key cause of liver problems. Not exceeding the recommended limits of alcohol consumption is an important way to maintain a healthy liver. Women should not regularly exceed 2-3 units of alcohol a day and men should not regularly exceed 3-4 units a day. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out units as many pubs and restaurants often serve large measures of spirits (35ml) whereas a unit of a spirit is 25ml and often serve drinks in larger glasses. The strength of wine also varies, so check the bottle for information. Visit www.drinkaware.co.uk to find out more about alcohol units.
The liver filters alcohol, which causes some of the cells to die. However, drinking heavily over a long period will cause your liver to lose its ability to regenerate new cells, causing serious health implications. Over the last 30 years, the number of deaths caused by alcoholic liver disease has risen by over two thirds.
Often caused by a virus, hepatitis occurs when there is inflammation of the liver. The most common form of the disease is hepatitis A. It is caused by ingesting something which has been contaminated with the faeces of someone carrying the hepatitis A virus. Although there are some cases of it in the UK, it is more common in countries with poor sewage systems. There is a vaccination available against the virus, which is sometimes recommended when travelling to countries where hepatitis A is more common.
Hepatitis B is present in body fluids so can be spread through unprotected sex and from sharing needles for drug use. The disease is not very common in the UK and most people who are infected recover from the virus within a few months.
Hepatitis C is generally spread through blood contact, so is mostly transmitted by using contaminated needles. The effects of hepatitis C vary from person to person, some experience no ill health, whereas others develop very serious liver problems, including cirrhosis and liver failure.
Cirrhosis is a combination of scarring and the hardening of liver tissue and is caused by continuous damage to the liver. This process can take place over a number of years and may not cause any noticeable symptoms. Eventually, the build up of scar tissue will prevent the liver from functioning properly. Causes of liver cirrhosis are:
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Being overweight
- Having a long term infection, such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C, or an inherited liver diseases, which generally will become apparent in adulthood
This form of cancer is more common in older people. Early symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice – a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
The risk of developing liver cancer is increased by alcohol misuse, hepatitis B or C and obesity, which are similar factors to those which increase the risk of developing cirrhosis. Although the condition is rare, those who have high risk of the disease are advised to have regular check ups, contact your GP for further details.
For more information on keeping your liver healthy, visit www.loveyourliver.org.uk