Liver for Life: How to Protect and Improve Your Liver Health and Function

by Deep, Radi, and Mithu on June 12, 2012

in General Health

Liver

Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.
William James

What is the liver?

The human liver is a reddish brown organ with four lobes and weights between 1.44–1.66 kg (3.2–3.7 lb). It is both the largest internal organ and the largest gland in the body, resting just below the diaphragm. It is connected to the hepatic artery which carries blood to the aorta and the portal vein which carries blood containing digested nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract, spleen, and pancreas.

The liver is the largest and one of the most vital and resilient organs in the human body. It is unique in that it is the only one capable of regenerating itself, even it has been significantly damaged due to viruses, toxic substances, alcohol, and disease.

It also performs more functions than any other organ, over 500 of them including fighting off infection, neutralizing toxins, manufacturing hormones, controlling blood sugar, and helping in blood clotting. It also produces bile which aids in digestion. The liver is necessary for long-term survival though liver dialysis can be used in the short-term.

Diseases of the liver and symptoms of poor liver function

Liver problems can be difficult to identify because the liver can absorb a great deal of punishment before it starts to react adversely. People may be completely unaware that they have any liver problems because they may have few if any symptoms. There are over 100 different forms of liver disease attributable to a variety of factors including viruses, genetics, toxins, and poor nutrition.  Because of its amazing powers of regeneration and its resiliency, however, many of the most common forms of liver disease can be prevented by understanding risk factors, taking precautions, and making healthy life choices.

The most common diseases include infections like hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E; alcohol damage, fat deposits, cirrhosis, cancer, and drug damage (especially by medications like paracetamol and cancer-treating drugs). Liver disease is often accompanied by jaundice, caused by increased levels of bilirubin, which in a healthy person, is removed by the liver from the blood and excreted through bile.

Some of the symptoms of liver damage include the following:

1)      Pale stools because stercobilin, a brown pigment derived from bilirubin metabolites produced by the liver, is absent.

2)      Poor digestion, abdominal bloating, nausea after eating fatty foods, weight gain around the abdomen, and constipation. A sluggish liver can also cause irritable bowel syndrome and flatulence, bad breath and / or a coated tongue.

3)      Dark urine, caused by bilirubin mixing with urine.

4)      Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes) caused by bilirubin deposits in the skin. This can lead to intense itching, the most common complaint by people who have had liver failure.

5)      Mood swings, depression, an inability to think clearly, impaired concentration and memory. If the liver is sluggish, excessive amounts of toxic metabolites can find their way into the blood stream and affect brain functioning.

6)      Bruising and easy bleeding because of the liver’s impaired ability to produce clotting agents.

7)      Allergic conditions such as hay fever, hives, skin rashes, and asthma.

8)      Headaches. Taking pain killers can worsen the situation because more stress is put on the liver in breaking down the drugs.

9)       High blood pressure and / or fluid retention.

10)   Hypoglycaemia or unstable blood sugar levels leading to low glucose levels, fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, and cravings for sugar.

11)  Gallbladder disease and gallstones. The liver tries to pump out excess fat by producing bile which flows into the gallbladder and then into the small intestines. This raises the cholesterol content of the bile and can result in gallstones made of hard cholesterol and gallbladder inflammation. An impaired liver cannot manufacture enough bile salts thereby keeping biliary cholesterol in solution.

12)   Excessive body heat that leads to sweating and body odour.

13)   A lowered tolerance for alcohol and various drugs like antibiotics.

In the United States, liver disease, including cirrhosis, is the seventh-leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 25 to 64.

The liver and medication

There are potentially hazardous side effects when certain medications and/or supplements are combined.  We mentioned paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) which can be dangerous when over-dosing takes place unintentionally or accidentally when several products are taken at the same time using this drug e.g. cold remedies and pain medication. Likewise, concerns have been raised about remedies like kava, one of many herbal products that can cause toxicity.

Any medication, herbal or pharmaceutical, undergoes important changes when processed by the liver. The original products may not be harmful in themselves but the by-products that result when processed by the liver can be toxic. Some medications combined with other medications, or combined with alcohol, can cause life-threatening complications. For this reason, people who already have liver problems have to be especially careful in taking even the most ordinary over-the-counter remedies for  treating common ailments like headaches and colds, or prescribed medications for high blood pressure or other health problems. People at risk should always consult with their doctor first rather than try self-medication.

The liver and alcohol

The liver processes alcohol and detoxifies the blood whenever you have a glass of wine, beer, or other liquor. But breaking down alcohol is only one of more than 500 of the liver’s vital functions which means it can only handle a certain amount at any one time. If too much is drunk, the excess alcohol will end up circulating in the bloodstream, affecting the brain, heart, and other tissues and resulting in increasing intoxication.

If alcohol is drunk in excessive quantities, either through binge drinking or multiple drinks on a daily basis, the liver becomes overworked. This can lead to the destruction of liver cells, a build up of fat deposits, and, more seriously, liver inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis). Alcoholic liver disease such as cirrhosis (permanent scarring) or liver cancer can be the end result.

Helpful tips to be borne in mind when drinking alcohol include the following:

1)      Know your tolerance level for alcohol. Some people have a higher tolerance than others and your gender, nationality, weight, and health are all determinants.

2)      It is the amount of alcohol and not the type of alcohol which is important to monitor when drinking. One ‘drink’ is equivalent to 12 oz. (341 ml) of beer, 5 oz. (142 ml) of wine, 3 oz. (86 ml) of sherry or port, or 1.5 oz. (43 ml) of spirits. Each has the same effect on the liver, whether taken alone or diluted.

3)      Alcohol and medication should never be mixed. The combination of acetaminophen/paracetamol and alcohol for example can lead to liver failure.

4)      Women absorb more alcohol than men generally speaking and are therefore more susceptible to alcohol-related liver disease even if they consume less alcohol.

5)      If you have hepatitis or any other form of liver disease, avoid alcohol completely.

6)      Limit alcoholic consumption to one or two drinks but never drink on a daily basis.

How to prevent liver disease

Here are some useful guidelines to bear in mind in helping to keep the liver healthy:

1)      Eat low fat, high fibre foods and keep salty and sugary snacks to a minimum. An unhealthy diet can lead to obesity which is a leading cause of fatty liver disease.

2)      Drink alcohol in moderation.

3)      Drink 8-12 glasses of filtered water daily as this helps to cleanse the liver and kidneys and aids with weight loss. There is also a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease in people who do not drink water.

4)      Consider the option of immunization against hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A can be contracted through contaminated food and water while Hepatitis B is spread through blood and body fluids. We would like to point out, however, that some studies have suggested that Hepatitis B vaccinations may be a possible risk factor for developing multiple sclerosis. While some of these studies have been criticised for their methodology, the resulting controversy has led to concerns regarding the safety of Hepatitis B vaccinations. There are also reports that the vaccine has been linked to immunological and neurological disorders (ref. http://www.thinktwice.com/hepb.htm ). We do not wish to comment one way or the other but urge our readers to do their own research in order to make informed choices.

5)      Consult a doctor first before mixing medications and/or herbal supplements as they can cause damage to the liver. Never mix medication with alcohol e.g. alcohol and acetaminophen/paracetamol.

6)      Always wash your hands after going to the bathroom. Hepatitis A can be spread through unwashed hands touching food.

7)      Airborne chemicals e.g. while cleaning or painting can damage the liver. Either make sure the environment is well ventilated or wear a mask.

8)      Take precautions when using weed control chemicals or spraying for bugs. Or investigate more organic alternatives.

9)      Exercise wherever possible. It helps the body, and especially the liver, to become stronger and better able to defend itself against disease and pollutants.

Nutrition for the Liver

A healthy diet enables the liver not to have to over-work itself. All food is metabolised through the liver and proteins are particularly important because they aid in repairing body tissues and preventing the buildup of fats and damage to liver cells.

Fatty liver disease is linked to poor nutrition, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles. It is also linked to insulin resistance, hyperlipidaemia (excessive fat in blood e.g. cholesterol), high blood pressure and type II diabetes. It is the result of the accumulation of excess fat in liver cells and a person can be said to have a fatty liver when fat makes up at least 5 – 10% of the liver. Essential fatty acids protect the liver from damage caused by obesity and the insulin resistance it provokes. These are specific fats that are critical for the proper functioning of the body and since the body cannot produce them on its own, it is necessary to incorporate them into your diet, particularly omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 sources include nuts, soybeans, walnut oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil and fish like salmon, herring, cod, flounder, tuna, bluefish, and shrimp. Omega-6 acids are likewise found in lots of nuts, oils, and meats.

People suffering from liver disease may have to limit or avoid certain foods e.g. salt. One should avoid or cut down on foods that overwork and damage the liver like margarine, cheese, white flour, stimulants, animal products, hydrogenated oils, fried or fatty foods, and all refined and processed foods.

Avoid packaged and processed foods as many of them are saturated with preservatives and full of unfriendly organisms in a dormant state. These organisms can begin to grow inside you once the food hits your intestines and the preservatives wear off. Preserved meats in particular should not be eaten. Eat organic foods where possible.  Protein can be obtained from diverse sources including legumes and vegetarian protein is just as complete as that derived from animal sources and contains all the eight essential amino acids.  It is also easier to digest and break down for the liver. Good sources of plant protein include beans, seeds (linseed, sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin), soya, tofu, greens, etc. Other sources include couscous, oat bran, and cottage cheese.

Good sources of animal foods rich in protein include poultry, fish, cheese, and lamb. People suffering from liver disease can also benefit from increasing their intake of carbohydrates as they have depleted levels of glycogen in which the carbohydrates are stored. Good sources of carbohydrates include cereal, whole grains, squash, and pasta, as well as fruits such as bananas and apples.  Other good foods for the liver include garlic, legumes, (kidney beans, peas, soybeans), radishes, parsley, ginger, brewer’s yeast and fresh salads with lemon juice dressing.

Herbs that Help the Liver

Certain herbs can greatly assist in repairing the liver. Milk thistle is beneficial for the treatment of diseases like hepatitis and jaundice and may also be able to counter the effects of alcohol damage to some extent. Silymarin, an ingredient in milk thistle, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which help to reduce the inflammation in damaged liver tissue and also eliminate toxins.

Dandelion also assists in detoxifying the liver and stimulating regeneration. It contains vitamin B which assists in the functions of the liver and increases the production of bile. Bile is essential in the digestion of fats, enabling them to be absorbed in the small intestine.

Turmeric shares similar liver protectant compounds that milk thistle contains. It is said to shrink hepatic ducts and can be used to treat liver conditions like hepatitis, cirrhosis and jaundice. Several animal studies suggest that turmeric protects the liver from the damaging effects of certain toxins, including alcohol. It also helps digest fats by stimulating the flow of bile.

Aloe vera juice is also very beneficial in helping to cleanse and heal the liver.

Other Products for the Liver

Other substances that are useful in helping a diseased liver include choline, carnitine, and lecithin. Choline is a water-soluble essential nutrient usually grouped within B-complex vitamins. It helps prevent fatty liver syndrome and liver damage. Carnitine is a naturally occurring amino acid synthesized in the liver and kidneys. According to a study conducted at King Saud University (Saudi Arabia) which was published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, scientists conclude that a deficiency of canitine is a factor for liver cancer and long-term carnitine supplementation may act as a preventative.

Lecithin is a waxy yellow molecule found in both plants and animals which also, incidentally, contains choline. It protects the liver from alcohol and other toxin-induced damage by discouraging fat accumulation in liver tissue. It is wise to use it under a doctor’s supervision due to the possibility of allergic reactions and side effects according to the University of Maryland Medical Centre. Symptoms may include itching, rash or hives, swelling of the face or hands, swelling of the mouth or throat, and chest tightness or breathing difficulties.

Castor oil, a famous natural remedy with a myriad of uses, is also known for its efficacy in treating the liver. Placing a castor oil pack on the skin increases circulation and promotes elimination as well as healing of tissues and organs underneath the skin. It is used to stimulate the liver, relieve pain, increase lymphatic circulation, reduce inflammation, and improve digestion. It should be placed on the right side of the abdomen to stimulate the liver and on the abdomen itself to relieve digestive disorders like colitis.

Conclusion

The liver performs vital functions and, if not treated with respect and care, suffers silently. Despite its amazing resilience and regenerative powers, it too has a threshold and the consequences of crossing that threshold due to abuse or neglect can be horrendous. These repercussions include obesity, a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, allergies, and other ailments. The liver plays an essential role in bolstering up the immune system.

We would like to direct your attention to some great informational and product resources to help you heal and restore your liver. The first is an excellent Ayurvedic guide on liver health and care. You can access it by clicking on the link below.

There are several products, including some of our favorite brands of herbs and supplements discussed in this article, that we would be pleased to recommend to our readers for either helping a damaged or diseased liver to recover or simply to help it maintain optimal health. On our product page,  our readers can browse through the supplements we recommend based on our own experiences as well as through careful research and scrutiny. They can then choose the particular products that they feel suits them best should there be a need. As always, we would recommend that they obtain expert advice before trying any products for safety reasons. To access our product page, please click on the link below:

Liver Healing: Supplements to Help Detoxify and Restore a Damaged Liver

The liver is a stoic workhorse. It deserves all the attention you can give it. It has a huge impact on the quality of your life being one of the most vital organs in your body.

References

1)      Canadian Liver Foundation

2)      Wikipedia

3)      Information on the Human Liver | eHow.com

4)      http://www.holistichealthtools.com/liver.html

5)      http://www.thinktwice.com/hepb.htm

6)      http://botanical.com/site/by_you/article_tumeric/turmeric.html

7)      http://www.nutritional-supplement-educational-centre.com/turmeric-benefits.html

8)      http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/138981.php

9)      http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/vitamins-minerals/how-essential-fatty-acids-benefit-the-body.html

10)  Earth Clinic Global Remedy Network

11)  www.naturalnews.com

12) http://www.livestrong.com/article/447597-lecithin-liver-function/

Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is only intended to educate and inform our readers. It is in no way intended to provide medical advice or to diagnose or treat any disease. If you have a health problem, you should consult a healthcare practitioner before taking any substances for medicinal purposes.

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