The #1 Best Habit for Your Liver, Says Physician
For most of us, we don't often think about the health of our liver, as it is constantly and silently working to keep us alive. But our liver performs over 500 vital functions and is essential for our health and wellbeing. Some of the most well recognized functions of the liver are: filtering our blood and clearing our body of toxins, producing bile which is necessary for digesting fat, regulating our blood clotting, and balancing our blood glucose levels by storing excess blood glucose as glycogen (and then converting glycogen back to glucose as needed). For all these reasons, and more, it is important to be kind to your liver so that your body can function optimally. I am a physician who specializes in weight loss and disease prevention, and fortunately, many of the same lifestyle factors that are important for preventing disease, will also help to keep our liver healthy. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common chronic liver disease and affects about 1/4 of the population. Being obese is the most common cause. In this this rapidly growing epidemic, an excess of fat builds up in the liver, which can eventually lead to inflammation and liver damage in some people (NASH- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis). Most people with NAFLD have no symptoms, and their condition is detected incidentally with elevated liver function tests seen during blood work, or excessive fatty deposits seen during an ultrasound or CT scan. It is not completely understood why some people accumulate fat in their liver, while some do not, but by maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly, you can significantly reduce your risk of this disease.
Drink Alcohol Only in Moderation, or Not at All
Everyone knows that drinking "too much" alcohol can damage your liver, but "too much" may be less than you expect. For women, and men over 65, moderate drinking means drinking up to 1 drink per day. For men 65 and under, 2 drinks a day is considered moderate. Alcohol is metabolized, or broken down, in the liver and in this process, toxic chemicals that damage the liver are produced. Drinking too much alcohol can initially lead to excessive accumulation of fat in the liver, resulting in fatty liver. It can then cause inflammation of liver cells, termed alcoholic hepatitis. Finally, it can damage and destroy liver cells causing scarring, which is called cirrhosis.
Beware of Supplements
Herbal and dietary supplements are being increasingly used by many, with the intention to improve their health and to increase longevity. But it is now estimated that 20% of liver injury in the US is due to the use of supplements. Most often, the liver damage from supplements is from multi-ingredient nutritional supplements, and the component responsible for the liver toxicity cannot be identified. Anabolic steroid bodybuilding supplements and green tea extract supplements have also been implicated.
The supplement industry is not well regulated, and for many vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements, it is very possible to have too much of a good thing. Before reaching for a supplement, always make sure to talk to your doctor first. Not only that, but rather than relying on supplements to get your nutrients, try to eat a nutrient rich diet instead. Not only will this save you money, and likely be more beneficial for your health, but it may also save your liver.
Take Medications Only as Directed
Our liver is responsible for breaking down and processing many commonly used medications, and when taken as directed, this most often causes no problem. However, when taken in excess, even the most benign seeming medicines can be harmful to the liver.
The most well-known example of this is acetaminophen, commonly known as Tylenol. Acetaminophen is widely available and extremely safe when taken as directed. When taken in excess however, acetaminophen is highly toxic to the liver and can cause liver failure and death. Acetaminophen is found in many over the counter cold and flu medicines and in both prescription and non-prescription pain medicines. Taking too much can happen easily, especially if you are taking several different medications which all contain acetaminophen. When taking medicine, it is important to read the labels, to know the ingredients, and to follow the directions so that you don't accidentally take too much.
Follow These Habits
Prevent hepatitis infections by getting vaccinated, washing your hands before cooking and eating, practicing safe sex, and avoiding the use of illicit drugs.
Hepatitis A, B, and C are all viral infections that damage the liver. Hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated food and water or by contact with someone who is infected. The best way to prevent hepatitis A is to get vaccinated, especially if you are at high risk or will be traveling internationally.
Hepatitis B is also easily preventable with vaccination. Most children have been vaccinated, but many adults have not. Adults should check with their doctor and get the vaccine if indicated. Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. Hepatitis C is also spread through blood and bodily fluids, but there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. Both hepatitis B and C are extremely common in the US and increase the risk for liver failure and liver cancer.
Last Word from Doctor
The liver is an amazing organ, without which humans could not survive. Taking care of your liver is crucial for your health and involves many of the same principles as taking care of the rest of your body. Maintain a healthy body weight. Eat fruits and vegetables. Exercise. Drink alcohol only in moderation. Take medications only as directed. Eat a nutrient rich diet and don't rely on supplements for your nutrition. Get vaccinated. Wash your hands. Avoid illicit drugs. Practice safe sex. If you follow these principles, you will not only reduce your risk for liver disease, but you will also reduce your risk for so many other chronic diseases, while increasing your energy, and improving your quality of life. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Ritu Saluja-Sharma MD is a board-certified physician in Emergency Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine, an integrative health coach, and the founder of Head Heart Hands.