12 September 2016 08:58:18

How to love your liver

In the same way that the wrong kind of petrol can seriously damage your car, the cells of your liver are vulnerable to attack. Along with excess alcohol, virus infections and even being overweight can cause harm.

Tucked away under your ribcage at the top of your stomach on the right you have an amazing organ called a liver. It processes toxins (including alcohol) from the blood, helps control cholesterol and blood clotting and aids digestion. But what if it goes wrong?

In the same way that the wrong kind of petrol can seriously damage your car, the cells of your liver are vulnerable to attack. Along with excess alcohol, virus infections and even being overweight can cause harm. So can an inherited condition called haemochromatosis (where dangerously high iron levels build up in the liver) and a rare condition called PBC that damages the bile ducts in your liver.

Some common liver conditions

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease starts with a build-up of fat inside the liver (usually there's little or no fat here). Largely related to being overweight, it's thought to affect up to one in five British adults. Smoking,high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and type 2 diabetes also make you more prone. In the early stages you're unlikely to know you've got it. But in some people it causes inflammation and scarring, with fewer healthy cells to carry out all the essential jobs the liver does. In extreme cases it can even cause your liver to fail - a condition called cirrhosis.

Hepatitis

Hepatitis is the medical term for inflammation of your liver. Most of us probably think immediately of viral hepatitis and the most common kind across the world is type A. This is very easy to catch from other infected people or from contaminated food or drink (it's much more common in countries where overcrowding or poor sanitation are common, but affects only about 400 people a year in the UK). Hepatitis B and C (the most common form of viral hepatitis in the UK) are usually passed on by sexual or blood contact, with drug users at higher risk.

Most people recover quickly and completely from hepatitis A. Hepatitis B and particularly C can cause chronic infection which increases the risk of cirrhosis of the liver, as well as liver cancer. There's no immunisation available against hepatitis C, but it can often be treated successfully. Excess alcohol can also cause hepatitis.

Jaundice

If you did a survey of what people thought were the symptoms of liver disease, top of the list would almost certainly be yellow skin (and whites of the eyes). Jaundice happens when bilirubin - a yellow pigment made when red blood cells are broken down by the liver - isn't processed properly . But other symptoms include tiredness, aching or pain over your liver, weakness, weight loss, easy bruising and itching. You can also get a swollen tummy, feet and legs.

How to be kind to your liver

The great news is that unlike many other organs, your liver has a remarkable ability to recover even from quite advanced inflammation. And the same health lifestyle steps will help protect your liver from harm and help it to keep helping you.

Top of the list must be keeping alcohol intake down. Sticking to recommended alcohol limits - maximum 14 units a week, spread over several days, minimises liver risks

But these days, keeping to a healthy weight is almost as important. A healthy diet, with lots of fruit and veg and less sugar, fried food and animal/dairy fat, will help too. Regular exercise helps reduce the fat inside your tummy, and helps protect your liver too. Any kind of aerobic exercise (the kind that makes you mildly breathless, like dancing, jogging or brisk walking) helps. Ideally you should be working towards 30 minutes, five days a week.

If you're going abroad

You can also protect yourself against hepatitis caused by infection, especially if you're travelling abroad. In many countries, immunisation against hepatitis A is recommended routinely, which means you can get it on the NHS. A single immunisation will protect you for about a year, but getting a second immunisation within six to 12 months of the first means you'll be protected for up to 20 years.

For hepatitis B, you may need immunisation if you're travelling to remote areas or for long periods - your practice nurse can advise. You may also be able to get hepatitis B vaccination if you work in jobs that put you at higher risk, like healthcare.

As with all vaccines, it takes some time for your body's immunity to build up after your first injection. So don't forget to make an appointment with your practice nurse at least eight weeks before you travel, to maximise your chance of being fully protected.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.