Your liver plays a vital role in the digestion process yet not many people know much about the largest solid organ inside the body or how to look after it.
What your liver does
The liver performs more than 500 vital functions in the body, including producing energy, detoxifying the blood and fighting infection. It processes proteins, fats and sugars and helps to create amino acids, which are essential for the body. It digests fats in our food and produces the type of fats necessary for organ function.
It also breaks down simple sugars and converts them into glycogen which can be stored to provide energy for the body. When sugar is needed for energy, the liver is responsible for releasing it.
The liver also produces bile while helps the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, neutralises excess stomach acid, kills bacteria and carries cholesterol to be excreted by the body.
Along with the kidneys, the liver plays a vital role in detoxification, helping to remove harmful substances from medicines, cigarette smoke and environmental toxins. It also breaks down ammonia, which is a byproduct of protein digestion, and old red blood cells.
Preventing liver disease
As many as one in three adults are at risk of liver disease yet 90% of liver disease is preventable by making healthier lifestyle choices. To keep your liver functioning well you need to be aware of the three main risk factors:
Your liver is responsible for processing nutrients and fats in the food you eat. Being overweight increases your risk of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease which can lead to permanent liver damage. To maintain a healthy liver it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables and to cut down on sugar and fat. Taking regular exercise will help you to maintain a healthy body weight. Aim for a healthy lifestyle that you can maintain rather than aiming to lose weight quickly.
Avoid drinking too much alcohol. The maximum recommended limit is 14 units per week. As a guideline, a bottle of wine is just over 10 units, a large glass of wine is three units, a pint of beer is 2.3 units and a single shot of spirits is one unit. Taking two or three days off a week will give your liver a chance to repair itself. You should also avoid binge drinking.
Dry January is a one-month booze-free challenge run by Alcohol Change UK, a charity formed by the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK. The idea is that it only takes three weeks to break a habit so by stopping drinking for the month of January, you will reset your relationship with alcohol, helping you to establish a healthier way of drinking.
Hepatitis B and C is a blood-borne virus that can cause permanent liver damage and that increases the risk of liver cancer. Hepatitis A and E is spread through contaminated food or water.
To protect yourself from Hepatitis:
- Get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B when you travel abroad. There is no vaccine against Hepatitis C and E.
- If you are having a tattoo or piercing, make sure you use a licensed parlour that sterilises all equipment.
- If you need to use needles and syringes ensure they are clean.
- Never share personal items like toothbrushes or razors and practice safe sex.
- If you have ever been at risk – including people who had a blood transfusion before 1991 – you should get tested by your GP.
The British Liver Trust runs a Love Your Liver campaign to educate people about the importance of maintaining a healthy liver.
As well as information on prevention and getting tested for liver disease their website includes a Love Your Liver Health Screener to determine how at risk you are of liver disease.