You probably love your family, your home, and maybe even your job and the way you look.
But do you love your liver?
It’s possibly not something you’ve even thought about before – but given that fighting infection and turning food into energy are just two of more than 500 functions performed by this amazing organ, maybe it’s time to start. This is certainly what the British Liver Trust are hoping to encourage, with their ongoing Love Your Liver campaign.
More than two million people in the UK have liver disease, and 16,000 die from it each year. In fact, as Andrew Langford, British Liver Trust chief executive, points out, liver disease, and deaths from it, have increased by 400% in just over 30 years, probably due to increased alcohol intake and obesity.
But contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just alcoholics that have liver damage – people who drink over the recommended alcohol limits (which isn’t actually that difficult), the obese, and those who’ve caught viral hepatitis are all at risk of cirrhosis, where the liver doesn’t function properly due to long-term damage.
“The majority of us are underestimating how much we’re drinking, and on top of that, there’s the increasing burden of obesity in the UK,” says Langford. “Those two reasons are certainly what’s fuelling the liver disease epidemic at the moment.”
The charity hopes their campaign will help reverse this trend, by highlighting liver health risks and offering people an online assessment of how healthy theirs is.
After the skin, the liver is the largest organ in the body. Its 500-plus functions include fighting infections; turning digested food into energy; controlling levels of fat, amino acids and glucose in the blood; neutralising and destroying drugs and toxins; storing iron, vitamins and other essential chemicals; manufacturing, breaking down and regulating hormones, and making enzymes and proteins responsible for most chemical reactions in the body, such as those involved in blood clotting and repair of damaged tissues.
“When you see how many functions the liver’s got, you realise why it’s such a vital organ, and why you’d die without it,” Langford points out.
There are more than 100 types of liver disease, and while official figures suggest one in five people are at risk of liver damage, Langford believes this is an underestimate, and the true figure’s nearer to one in three.
Yet as much as 95% of liver disease is preventable – alcohol and obesity can both be tackled by lifestyle changes, and viral hepatitis can be avoided to a large extent with good awareness and precautionary measures.
Units add up
Alcohol-related liver disease is the most common form of the disease, and the most frequent reason for death from liver problems. In 2007, 4,580 people died in England and Wales alone from this form of liver damage, and in the last 30 years, mortality from it has risen by over 450% in the UK.
“If you drink too much alcohol, it’s very hard for the liver to metabolise it effectively,” explains Langford. “It’s very important people realise it’s only the minority of people with alcohol-related liver disease who are alcoholics. The majority are people who are drinking too much, too often.
“If you only have ‘a couple of glasses of wine’ regularly, how big is your glass? We need to be more careful with alcohol – there’s no such thing as safe or healthy drinking.”
The British Liver Trust recommends not exceeding the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week, with at least two booze-free days a week to give the liver chance to recover.
Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease occurs when fat deposits, which can cause inflammation and scarring, build up in the liver, often associated with obesity and diabetes.
“Obesity-related liver disease is increasing,” says Langford. “The liver just can’t deal with the amount of fat and calories going through it.”
People who have – or may have – this type of liver damage should try to maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet, and take at least half an hour’s exercise a day.
In the blood
Viral hepatitis affects more than 700,000 people in the UK, with hepatitis B and C being the forms of the condition associated with long-term liver disease and sometimes even liver cancer. Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and body fluids, hepatitis C through blood.
“Hepatitis B and C can be in your body for a very long time before you get any sign that it’s damaging your liver,” notes Langford. In fact it’s estimated that five out of every six people with chronic hepatitis C don’t know they have the infection.
Vaccinations are available for hepatitis A and B, but not C. Using a condom during sex is important to prevent hepatitis B infection, and not sharing drug equipment or razors and making sure medical and tattooing equipment is sterile, particularly when abroad, are some of the measures that can help protect against both hepatitis B and C.
How’s your liver?
Liver disease doesn’t usually cause any obvious signs or symptoms until it’s fairly advanced and damage has set in. At this stage, symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, itching and jaundice. There may also be changes in urine or faeces, and changes in behaviour or memory as toxins build up.
“The destruction of your liver can be slow,” explains Langford. “It’s not really ’til your liver starts to fail that you get any signs, and often that’s quite late in your disease.”
He says very advanced liver disease is incurable, and the only hope is a transplant. “But if you catch it early enough and reverse the causes, that will have a benefit – so you lose weight if the cause is obesity, or if you’re drinking too much, you stop.
“We’re very keen people become aware of the risk factors, and if you have any early signs that you’re worried about, or know you put yourself at risk, then it’s well worth getting checked out,” he adds.
“We’re seeing such a rapid increase in liver disease and deaths from it, but if you know what the risks are, you can make some educated choices.”