Few of us ever give any thought to our liver. But this resilient, hard-working organ is a critical factor in our health, and experts say we need to give it the respect and care that it deserves. ‘Love your liver,’ says Barbara Weiss, a naturopath in Toronto and frequent speaker for the
Canadian Liver Foundation. ‘Pay more attention to it. You can’t live without it.’
How your liver works
The liver accomplishes an amazing 500 functions in the body, including the one that most of us know about: filtering and cleansing the blood. Its other functions include the ability to regulate blood sugar, store fat, break down hormones and drugs, regulate cholesterol and manufacture bile (which eliminates toxic substances from the body and helps with digestion).
The damaging effects of alcohol and weight
But this mighty organ is also highly susceptible to abuse. Two elements of our lifestyle that are the most challenging to its proper functioning are obesity and the overuse of alcohol. When it comes to consuming alcohol, Dr. Morris Sherman, a gastroenterologist at Toronto General Hospital, recommends limiting intake to one and a half alcoholic drinks a day. ‘Once you are drinking more than that consistently, you run the risk of developing cirrhosis (permanent liver damage) after 10 to 15 years,’ he says. Excessive drinking (more than two drinks a day on a long-term basis) can lead to liver disease, which is reversible, and then cirrhosis, which often is not reversible, and finally liver cancer. Drinking too much is only one of many possible causes of liver cancer. Other risk factors include obesity, diabetes and infection with hepatitis B or C.
Risks for liver disease
Liver disease can also be caused by illnesses, such as hepatitis A, B and C. And taking certain drugs, vitamins and herbal remedies can lead to liver damage. Acetaminophen is an example of a medication that can hurt the liver if taken in excess or with alcohol, says Dr. Kevork Peltekian, a hepatologist at the Capital District Health Authority in Halifax. He warns that herbal medications such as ginseng, ginkgo biloba and garlic pills can also interfere with the liver’s normal functions.
Being overweight is also a threat to the liver. Excess fat in the body is stored in this organ, causing swelling and scarring, and possibly liver failure. Although 20 percent of Canadians have fatty liver disease, few of these people even know that they have it. ‘The liver doesn’t whine,’ warns Peltekian. ‘The way it’s made, it can take the hit. It won’t give signs until the damage affects more than 75 percent of the organ.’
Liver tests can indicate other health problems
Blood tests called liver function tests can detect inflammation or damage. Peltekian suggests asking your doctor about getting a baseline liver enzyme test in your 20s, and then once a year after that. The same problems that cause fat in the liver’including a sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition and being overweight’can also cause heart disease and stroke. In this sense, says Sherman, ‘the liver can serve as a red flag.’ So these blood tests can also act as an indicator of your risk for developing heart disease.
How to care for your liver
Both Peltekian and Sherman advise against using liver detox or ‘cleansing’ kits because they are completely useless and may not be safe. ‘The liver regenerates; it fixes itself,’ says Peltekian. ‘It does not need a cleansing process because it is the cleanser.’
The best advice for a healthy liver is to maintain a healthy weight and avoid heavy drinking, taking excess medications, mixing alcohol and pills, and acquiring hepatitis infections (there are vaccines against A and B). ‘If you take care of your general health, you’ll be taking care of your liver,’ concludes Sherman.
This article was originally titled "Be Good to your Liver," in the November/December 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.