The Liver: What You Should Know About Keeping It Healthy
by Tiffany Joy Yamut, RN
The liver is the most important organ in processing the macro- and micronutrients obtained through our diet. With the burgeoning rates of obesity in the United States (approximately one quarter of the population has a BMI consistent with this), liver disease and cirrhosis have become common complications of the extra weight. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) now leads alcoholic and infection-associated liver disease in the US (and around the world).
This article written by Tiffany Joy Yamut RN will provide an overview of the functions of the liver and how we can keep it healthy. Fortunately, as we start off in this new year, the pathway to a healthy liver is a journey that parallels optimal health. Here is to our livers!
Christopher M. Cirino, DO MPH
Founder Your Health Forum
The Liver: What You Should Know About Keeping It Healthy
A highly important yet underrated organ in our body is the liver. Did you know that the liver performs over 500 vital functions just to keep you healthy? It helps break down everything you eat, fight infections, and regulate hormonal balance to name a few.
Most of us don’t think much about our liver until it gets damaged. But let’s not wait for that to happen. In this article, we’re going to shine some light on this truly amazing workhorse. After all, it’s a new year which means an opportunity to set new goals that include better liver health.
What Is the Liver?
The liver is the second largest organ in the body with the size of a football. It weighs 1,500 grams and is situated at the upper right part of the abdomen.
What makes the liver so special? Here are some interesting facts about the liver:
- It’s capable of regenerating (rebuilding) itself. While other organs develop a scar once damaged, the liver develops new cells to replace damaged tissue. However, excessive drinking can reduce your liver’s ability to regenerate over time.
- It can hold 1 gallon of blood every 2 minutes. This explains the liver’s deep reddish-brown color. Blood enters the liver from the intestines, spleen, and pancreas.
- It’s bigger than the brain. That’s true! Here’s another interesting fact: A diseased liver results in reduced brain function and damage. This condition is called hepatic encephalopathy.
The Role of the Liver in Detoxification
Detoxification is another huge role that the liver plays. This is the process of removing substances that shouldn’t remain in your body. Examples include:
- Sugar – The liver prevents your blood glucose levels from rising too high by removing sugar from your blood and storing it in the form of glycogen.
- Alcohol – While alcohol metabolism happens in some tissues (such as the brain and pancreas), most of it happens in the liver. Ethanol is broken down into acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that causes cancer. Acetaldehyde is then converted into a less toxic compound called acetate. However, you should still be careful not to drink too heavily. High doses can lead to toxicity; frequent doses can lead to dependence.
- Other toxins – These include metabolites of certain medications. Medications that have been identified to cause liver damage include acetaminophen, amoxicillin, and several anti-seizure medications.
Your Lifestyle Affects Your Liver
Most people think that it’s only alcohol that can damage the liver. But you’ll be surprised to know that your dietary choices, physical activity, and even smoking all play a role in your liver health. With that being said, an unhealthy lifestyle contributes to fatty liver disease. You’ve probably already heard about this condition. Let’s dive into it.
What is Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty liver disease describes a condition where fat has accumulated in the liver. Too much fat in your liver will damage and even scar it. When fibrosis or scarring becomes severe, you could develop liver cirrhosis (cancer of the liver).
There are two types of fatty liver disease you should know about:
One is Alcohol-Related Fatty Liver Disease (ALD) caused by chronic alcoholism. You can prevent this from progressing into hepatitis (liver inflammation) and eventually cirrhosis by avoiding alcohol.
The other type is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). This condition is common in individuals who are overweight or obese. NAFLD is further classified as: Simple fatty liver in which no inflammation is present or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) which is more serious.
With NASH, inflammation is present and may develop into liver cirrhosis and failure. What’s interesting is that NASH is closely associated with insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, and increased triglycerides in the blood.
Excess Sugar and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
Unfortunately, not a lot of people realize the impact of too much dietary sugar on their liver. Multiple research studies demonstrate how excess sugar can increase the amount of fat that builds up in your liver.
Fructose, a simple sugar that’s naturally present in fruits and some vegetables, is also abundant in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is commonly found in soda, candy, cookies, salad dressings, and store-bought baked goods.
Let’s get this clear:
Fructose itself isn’t harmful but too much of it is. It’s difficult to over-consume fructose in fruits and veggies, but easy in processed foods that contain high amounts of this sugar!
In animal studies, it was shown that fructose rapidly caused fatty liver. For example, male mice that drank water with 55% fructose developed severe hepatic steatosis where triglyceride fats accumulated in their liver cells.
How does excess fructose lead to fatty liver?
The liver converts fructose into glucose to provide your body with fuel. But if the liver is overloaded with fructose, that excess fructose turns into fat, a process called lipogenesis. These fat droplets then start to accumulate in liver cells.
With this breakdown of fructose into fat, the following changes also occur:
- Triglyceride levels increase
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels increase
- Tissues become insulin-resistant
Another study has also linked NAFLD with conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Hepatic Health Recommendations
Now that you know what fatty liver is, it is important to discuss how to keep your liver healthy. After all, the best way to avoid fatty liver, or worse, cirrhosis, is to take care of it. Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with a liver problem, here are 8 ways to be kinder to your liver starting today:
1. Exercise to lose weight
A study on 117 obese children diagnosed with NAFLD showed that exercising and restricting their energy intake induced weight loss. But not just that, all aspects of NAFLD also improved as well as their insulin sensitivity.
By now you already know that being overweight or obese puts you at risk of having a fatty liver. Follow an exercise regimen that you can keep up with. You can do strength training or mid to high-intensity aerobic workouts. Be consistent to achieve your weight loss goal.
2. Adopt a low-sugar or no-sugar diet
Make this year a year of less sugar or no sugar at all. Sugar hides in processed foods like sweet drinks, chocolates, pastries, and sauces. It doesn’t matter if it’s unrefined or refined sugar ― sugar is still sugar!
Watch out for these different names of sugar on food labels: Fructose, lactose, dextrose, maltose, cane sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, maltodextrin, and confectioner’s sugar.
3. Incorporate fasting into your lifestyle
Researchers in Australia discovered that fasting every other day, a form of intermittent fasting, changed fatty acid metabolism in the liver. They believed that this helped improve glucose tolerance.
Going without food for hours will not only break a weight-loss stall, but it also helps the liver heal. Here’s more about intermittent fasting for beginners.
4. Drink alcohol responsibly or quit
If you’ve been drinking for years, give yourself a break to allow your liver to heal. Some damage in the liver can still be reversed if an individual stops drinking. And if you drink, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend the following:
- Women – No more than 1 drink per day
- Men – No more than 2 drinks per day
5. Follow the recommended medication dosage
People with liver problems should be careful with drug dosages if they’re currently taking any medication. Pain medications containing acetaminophen should be used as directed. High dosages damage the liver. If possible, only take the smallest possible amount to obtain pain relief.
Those who are diagnosed with liver cirrhosis should have their kidney function tested. This will help guide their medication dosages. Reason: People with severe liver damage often have kidney failure.
6. Get vaccinated
The CDC recommends discussing the following vaccines with your doctor if you have a liver disease:
- Influenza vaccine
- Hepatitis A and B vaccines
- HPV vaccine
- Zoster vaccine
- Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine
- MMR vaccine
- Varicella vaccine
These vaccines offer protection against infections that are common in those with liver problems.
7. Watch out for certain medications and dietary supplements
Yes, certain over-the-counter supplements for performance and weight loss may also damage the liver. Common examples of supplement ingredients that can be bad for the liver include the following: Aloe vera, ephedra, kava, and black cohosh. Androgenic and anabolic steroids have also been known to cause liver injury.
8. Eat nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich foods
Micronutrients in food will support liver health. Vitamin E, for example, reduces oxidative stress. In one study, researchers observed a reduction in inflammation and fibrosis. There’s also growing evidence showing that vitamin D protects against liver disease progression.
The best way to supply our bodies with essential nutrients is through food. Top sources include vegetables, fruits, meats, and seafood ― foods that are whole and unprocessed.
Small lifestyle changes will make your liver happier. While they cannot completely reverse existing liver disease, they help stop its progression. You need to think about your liver health as early as now. The liver regenerates itself but it cannot keep on doing so if you abuse it.
Pay attention to your weight, sugar intake, alcohol consumption, and medication/supplement intake. Also, talk openly with your doctor about any concerns about your liver.
- The Effects of Physical Exercise on Fatty Liver Disease
Tiffany Joy Yamut is a registered nurse and health writer. She is an advocate and ambassador for a healthy lifestyle, having found greater health after modifying her diet toward Keto. Her articles include topics on anything low-carb, keto, and fitness. She is also a writer on Medium and author of her website ketogenic buddies. Your Health Forum warmly welcomes Tiffany as a writer on this platform.
Other articles written by Tiffany on Your Health Forum: