January is 'Love your liver' month so now is the time to think about giving yours the care it deserves...
What does the liver do?
The body's largest internal organ, the liver performs an amazing 500 different functions. It produces bile, essential for breaking down fat for absorption and extracting vitamins A, D, E and K, stores energy from food until it is needed, and aids our natural immunity by releasing chemicals to fight infection.
When the liver is badly damaged or fails, almost every other organ in the body is affected.
Like any organ, the liver is susceptible to a variety of health problems - here are a few of the most common disorders.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
The British Liver Trust advises that a health liver should contain little or no fat. When too much fat builds up in the organ, the liver's function is slowed down. It is now one of the most common forms of liver disease and can lead to inflammation or scarring (fibrosis). Obesity, diabetes and heavy drinking are known to be triggers.
This is the term used to describe scarring of the liver. Whether caused by a virus or heavy drinking, cirrhosis is when the normal liver tissue is damaged or destroyed, preventing the liver from performing its normal function.
Symptoms include jaundice, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, itchy skin and fatigue and it more common among men over the age of 40 than any other group. Though it can be treated, cirrhosis cannot be reversed.
These are lumps of solid material, ranging from pea-sized to pebble-sized, made from cholesterol, bile pigments or calcium. When a gallstone blocks the flow of bile, it can cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Left untreated, they can cause inflammation or infection of the gall bladder, potentially leading to acute pancreatitis. They are commonly found in overweight people (often those over 40) and women, and a high-fat diet is often to blame.
In many case gallstones pass of their own accord via the intestines but non-surgical treatments that dissolve the stones, or keyhole surgery may be required if problems occur.
There are three types of hepatitis, an infection of the liver caused by a virus - hepatitis A, B and C. The most common type within the UK is hepatitis C - an estimated 250,000 Brits are infected though it is thought eight out of 10 are unaware of the infection as it can take years for any symptoms, which can includes nausea, weight loss, fatigue and loss of appetite, to materialise.
For this reason, roughly 75% of cases develop into chronic hepatitis C where the immune system is unable to get rid of the virus and it can develop into cirrhosis of the liver.
How to love your liver
With so many important jobs to do, your liver is robust enough to carry on even when it is damaged - it can even repair itself. But every organ has its limits and the liver is no exception.
Though problems with the liver can be hereditary, many cases of liver disease could be avoided if better care was taken.
Keeping tabs on your alcohol consumption is essential - sticking to the recommended limits (21 units per week for men and 14 for women) and enjoying (or enduring) two days free of alcohol each week will give your liver time to repair any damage.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) can also be avoided. If you are overweight or eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar foods, you are putting yourself at risk. A healthy balanced diet including plenty of fresh fruit and veg, and regular exercise are essential.
Hepatitis C is similarly preventable - care when using needles is vital, cover open cuts where person-to-person contact is likely, ie. during sport, and always practise safe sex.