It’s January, the festive season is over and we are all taking stock of what the last few weeks have meant. Hopefully, they will be filled with lots of love, laughter and happy memories and we can start the year healthy and with renewed energy. However, for some people, this month may bring some unwelcome news regarding their health, and some of their past choices, may come back to haunt them.
Each year around 7700 people die from alcohol-related liver disease, which accounts for 60% of all liver disease. Liver disease is the third leading cause of premature death in the UK, yet 90% of liver disease is preventable according to statistics published on the British Liver Trust’s website.
What is so worrying for healthcare professionals about liver disease is that since 1970, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400%, which is in stark contrast to the number of deaths seen from other major diseases such as heart disease and cancer which have either remained stable or decreased.
This January, Love Your Liver Month creates a chance for people to stop and take stock of what they might be doing to their liver, raise awareness of some of the issues surrounding liver health, and make some changes before it is too late.
What does the liver do?
The liver is one of the largest organs in the body, however, it is often overshadowed by other organs despite it having over 500 vital jobs in keeping us healthy and alive, and many people fail to appreciate exactly what the liver does and why it is important.
The liver is dark reddish brown in colour and sits on the right-hand side of the body, just under the rib cage and is the largest solid organ, weighing on average about 1.3kg in women and 1.8kg in men. At any given time, the liver holds about 13% or one pint (0.57 litres) of the body’s blood supply. The main purpose of the liver is to absorb nutrients and detoxify and remove harmful substances from the blood. Liver cells are called hepatocytes and each cell has a lifespan of approximately 150 days. Some of the most important liver functions include:
- Processing digested food from the intestine and turning it into energy
- Controlling levels of fats, amino acids and glucose in the blood
- Clearing the blood of particles and infections, including bacteria
- Neutralising and destroying all drugs and toxins
- Manufacturing bile, storing iron, vitamins and other essential chemicals
- Manufacturing, breaking down and regulating numerous hormones including sex hormones
- Making enzymes and proteins which are responsible for most chemical reactions in the body, for example those involved in blood clotting and repair of damaged tissues
If damaged, the liver can repair itself up to a point but most people with liver disease don’t have any symptoms until the disease has progressed and it is too late for treatment. That’s why prevention is better than cure and raising awareness of liver disease, its symptoms and what you can do to prevent it, is so important.
Types of liver disease
There are a three main types of liver disease that people should be aware of, since in the majority of cases, they are preventable. These are:
- Alcohol-related liver disease – caused by regularly drinking too much alcohol
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – usually caused by being very obese which causes fat to build up in the liver
- Hepatitis – caused by catching a viral infection or by regularly drinking too much alcohol
Other types of liver disease include a genetic disorder such as haemochromatosis, and primary biliary cirrhosis which is thought to be caused by a problem with the immune system.
Love Your Liver Month is an awareness campaign run by the British Liver Trust each year with the aim of educating people and saving lives.
On their website, they have a Love Your Liver screener which can help people to identify if they are at risk from liver disease by asking them to complete a short questionnaire about their alcohol intake, lifestyle and known risks related to liver disease. It is important to see a GP if you feel that you might be at risk of liver disease as catching it early can lead to a much better prognosis.
Symptoms of liver disease
The NHS website lists the symptoms of liver damage (cirrhosis) as
- Feeling very tired and weak all the time
- Loss of appetite – which may lead to weight loss
- Loss of sex drive (libido)
- Yellow skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
They also acknowledge that there are other symptoms such as itchy skin or feeling/being sick and urge people to visit their GP if they are experiencing any of the symptoms and have some of the risk factors too.
However, as we all know, prevention is better than cure and it is important to try to reduce the risks of liver disease by:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Limiting alcohol intake, and
- Adjusting lifestyle to avoid risks of getting hepatitis infections
For people who might be at risk of hepatitis A or hepatitis B infections, vaccines are recommended.
Liver disease and alcohol intake
One of the main causes of liver disease is related to alcohol consumption. However, you do not have to drink an excessive amount to risk damaging your health. Drinking regularly just over the recommended levels can be harmful. The NHS recommend that adults should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis. This is equivalent to only 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of lower-strength wine. For anyone who would like to work out the number of units they consume each week, there is an online calculator at drinkcoach.org.uk.
On the official website, they are asking for pledges in 5 areas to hopefully lead to better liver health overall. These are:
- Give up alcohol for a month
- Complete a fitness challenge such as a ‘couch to 5k’ event
- Stick to 5-a-day, every day
- Cut down on sugar (to the WHO recommended 6 teaspoons a day
- Ditch processed food and takeaways
So why not consider one or more of the pledges this January to help your liver stay healthy? And remember, you can also raise awareness by sharing your actions on social media using the hashtag, #LoveYourLiverPledge.
Here’s a (non-alcoholic) toast to happy livers!
References and more information
Liver Trust - Talk to a nurse helpline: 0800 652 7330