You can’t live without your liver and if you don’t keep it healthy you put yourself at an increased risk for liver diseases that can affect your entire body and life with symptoms that include abdominal pain and swelling, swelling of the legs and ankles, itchy skin, chronic fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, and the tendency to bruise easily. More severe symptoms include excessive sleepiness, mental confusion, coma, and death. Thankfully, your liver can repair and regenerate itself, and there are many lifestyle strategies you can incorporate to improve liver health. At around three pounds, the liver is the second largest organ inside your body (your skin is number one).
- When you continuously and excessively drink alcohol or overeat, fat builds up in your liver, called Alcoholic fatty liver disease and Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD)
- It’s estimated that as many as 25 percent of American adults have some degree of fatty liver disease.
- You can protect and repair your liver with a healthy diet, portion control, exercise, and limited or no alcohol.
What does the liver do?
This football-sized organ sits in the upper right portion of your abdomen and is responsible for many essential functions in your body. These include:
- Removing toxins from the blood.
- Helping to digest and filter foods, beverages, vitamins, minerals, and medications.
- Storing fuel in the form of sugar (glycogen) and fat.
- Producing bile needed for digestion.
- Assisting with blood clotting.
While liver disease can have many causes, it usually starts as inflammation of the liver that can be caused by poor diet, toxins, chemicals, viruses, bacterial infections, and parasites. All forms of inflammation will disrupt and limit normal liver function. Usually, people associate liver disease with excessive alcohol consumption, but the most significant risk for liver disease today may be the epidemic of diabetes and obesity. When you continuously and excessively drink alcohol or overeat, fat builds up in your liver, called Alcoholic fatty liver disease and Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD) respectively. It’s estimated that as many as 25 percent of American adults have some degree of fatty liver disease. Those who are obese or diabetic are 70 to 90 percent likely to suffer from the condition, which occurs when your liver accumulates too many fat cells and causes inflammation. Untreated, both types of fatty liver disease can lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis, or liver cancer.
Your Liver and Digestion: One critical liver function is with the digestive system. When blood comes to the liver from your digestive organs, it carries the nutrients, medications, and toxic substances you have consumed. In the liver, substances are processed, saved, transformed, cleansed, removed, and/or absorbed. Once your liver has discerned what needs to go where, it either returns the materials to your blood or the liver will release the waste to your intestines to be eliminated. Each macronutrient is handled differently:
- Fats: Your body needs bile (a brown, green digestive liquid that’s produced by your liver) to break down and absorb the fats you eat.
- Carbs: Eating carbs signals the hormone insulin, which ushers sugar into your cells. Your liver stores excess sugar that is not used by cells as glycogen. Excess sugar will be made into fat that is then stored in other cells of your body.
- Proteins: Your liver changes amino acids into energy your body can use, or it transforms them into carbs or fats. Ammonia is a harmful byproduct of amino acids. A healthy liver converts ammonia into urea, which is then released as waste in your urine.
- Vitamins and Minerals: Your liver stores vitamins and minerals and releases them into your blood when your body needs them.
How can I improve the health of my liver?
- Eat Healthy: You can protect and repair your liver with a healthy diet. Follow the Mediterranean way of eating and living, which includes plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil, nuts and seeds, fish, and whole grains. Avoid trans fats, overly processed, and high sugar foods.
- Limit Alcohol: If you drink alcohol, drink it in moderation (one drink a day for women, two for men).
- Follow Medication Directions: Take medication as prescribed and talk to your doctor about herbal remedies (some can damage your liver). Taking too much prescription or nonprescription drugs overloads the liver. Don’t mix medicines with alcohol.
- Get Moving: Include exercise, which can help you lose weight and reduce fat in your liver. If you want suggestions for putting together an entire training regimen you can find some great ideas at the Seattle Fire Department website, at FireFit Program, at 555 Fitness, or for some extra motivation consider joining a challenge designed for firefighters.