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What to Know About Liver Disease: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

28 minute read


Explore the Liver Health Guide:

Getting to Know Your Liver

Conditions That Affect the Liver

The Most Common Problem: Fatty Liver

Identifying Problems With Your Liver

How to Improve Liver Health

Natural Treatments for Liver Disease

Dietary Changes to Improve Liver Health

Promote Liver Health Outside Your Diet

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Your liver just happens to be the biggest organ in your body, weighing close to three pounds. As the largest organ, your liver is essential to health and your life. You cannot live without your liver, so it is imperative that you take great care of it.

The more you know about your liver, its functions, and the diseases that threaten it, the better prepared you will be to promote optimal health and longevity.

Essentially, this is your crash course in liver health—by the end, you will know what the experts know. Do you have questions about the liver and liver disease? You’ve come to the right place. Let’s get started.

Getting to Know Your Liver

Your liver sits in the upper right quadrant of your stomach just below your diaphragm. This essential organ is vital for life and plays a valuable role in metabolic functioning and your immunity.

Your liver has two main lobes, each divided into eight smaller segments. Within each of these segments, you will find close to 1000 lobules, each with their own duct that flows to the common hepatic duct.

This intricate system allows your liver to have a significant amount of blood flowing through it at any one time. As compared to the rest of your body, your liver holds close to 13 percent of your body’s blood at any given time.

The liver is designed to support metabolic processes in your body. It does this by breaking down and converting substances, extracting energy, and making toxins less harmful and removing them from the body.

The cells in the liver, known as hepatocytes, receive blood and nutrients and then determine where the nutrients should go as well as what needs to be stored and eliminated. Your liver also stores vitamins and minerals to release later when your body needs them.

In addition to sorting nutrients from the blood, filtering and removing toxins, your liver also breaks down fats and proteins.

The liver is also the primary filtration system for alcohol and medications and is responsible for filtering them out of your body to prevent damage. As if all this were not enough already, your liver also performs the following important roles:

♦ Creation of proteins which are responsible for blood clotting

♦ Breakdown of old or damaged red blood cells

♦ Creation of immune system factors that can fight infections

Despite all the work that your liver does for you, the most amazing attribute of this organ is that it has the ability to regenerate. After any injury or surgery, your liver can grow back by having the existing cells become enlarged.

Once this happens, new liver cells multiply, and it can essentially reach the same weight and size it was before the surgery or tissue removal. Sadly, some damage cannot be undone, and lifestyle choices and lack of proper liver care can cause serious liver diseases.

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Conditions That Affect the Liver

There are a number of diseases that can affect your liver and interfere with its functions. While some are treatable, others are not, so taking care of your liver is important. The most common conditions that can impact your liver include:

Jaundice 

Your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow results from the presence of excess bilirubin in your blood. Bilirubin is found in your red blood cells and when these cells die, your liver filters them out for disposal. If your liver is impaired in any way, these build up in your blood.

Biliary Atresia

This condition affects your bile ducts specifically when you are an infant. If left untreated, scarring can occur around the liver which affects the ability for the liver to function optimally. There are treatment options available for this so long as it is discovered early enough.

Cirrhosis

When scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, you have cirrhosis. Several things can contribute to this such as chronic hepatitis, excessive alcohol consumption, and genetic disorders such as Wilson’s disease.

Hemochromatosis

This is an inherited condition that leads to a buildup of iron in the body. Excessive amounts of this mineral can damage your liver.

Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver caused by specific factors and there are different types that range in degree of severity.

Hepatitis A: Common in developing countries with unclean drinking water, you can typically recover from this type.

Hepatitis B: This is spread through sexual contact or sharing of contaminated needles. This can cause serious problems for your liver, but there is a vaccination to protect against it.

Hepatitis C: This can also spread through unclean needles and through sexual contact, although this is less common. Hepatitis C is a chronic condition that causes inflammation to the liver and can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, or cancer.

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The Most Common Problem: Fatty Liver

The most common condition impacting the liver in the United States is known as fatty liver (or hepatic steatosis), with 25 to 30 percent of the population affected. This condition is characterized by the buildup of fat around the liver and too much fat can cause serious damage.

A diagnosis of fatty liver is given when 5 percent of liver cells contain fat. Typically the liver can regenerate but if there is too much fat, it is unable to do this and scarring can occur.

Mild forms of fatty liver can be reversed and improved with lifestyle and diet changes. In mild to moderate cases, the condition does not even have any symptoms. As the condition worsens, though, you may start to notice certain symptoms that signal a need to start taking better care of your liver.

If the condition is allowed to progress, it can become fatal. Liver inflammation that becomes chronic causes permanent scarring, liver cancer, and eventually end-stage liver disease.

There are two main types of fatty liver; nonalcoholic and alcoholic. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease develops as a result of the body’s inability to breakdown fats. NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) is an additional type of condition that occurs in a similar way, but with excess inflammation.

If untreated, these conditions can lead to permanent scarring, cancer, and liver failure.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by excessive alcohol consumption. As the primary resource for filtering toxins, like alcohol, your liver becomes stressed with heavy drinking.

Tissues become scarred, and the liver is unable to effectively breakdown fats. Fat builds up and causes more scarring and impairment, leading to cirrhosis and possibly liver failure. The good news is that, by giving up alcohol, the liver can heal, and the fat will disappear.

Beyond excessive alcohol consumption, there are a number of factors that could increase your risk of fatty liver disease:

♦ Obesity

♦ Diabetes

♦ Genetic inheritance

♦ High cholesterol or triglyceride levels

♦ Malnutrition

♦ Using more than the recommended dosage for medications

♦ Low physical activity

Most cases of the fatty liver do not progress to liver disease because of the liver’s ability to regenerate. However, if you are at risk for fatty liver, it is recommended that you take precautions and make certain lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.

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Identifying Problems With Your Liver

The key to maintaining optimal liver health is having knowledge of the signs and symptoms of a distressed liver.

Liver pain can present as a dull, throbbing ache in the upper right abdomen area or stabbing pain that seems to take your breath away. There may also be swelling or possibly back pain that radiates to the right shoulder blade. Any pain that comes from your liver is a cry for help and should not be ignored.

In addition to pain, there are several more subtle signs that your liver could be in distress. The symptoms of fatigue, nausea, and poor appetite are common to many other problems, meaning they are often overlooked as potential liver problems.

Your body, therefore, has more subtle ways to let you know that your liver needs some attention.

Bruising and Bleeding

If you bruise or bleed easily after an injury, your liver may not be as healthy as it should be. Bruising and bleeding is caused because the proteins needed to clot your blood are no longer being produced at significant enough levels.

Bad Breath

There are a number of things that contribute to bad breath, but it is also a sign of liver damage that you should investigate further. The presence of a fruity, musky odor on your breath signals dimethyl sulfide, which builds up in the blood when you have cirrhosis.

Itchy Skin

Most people ignore itchy skin unless there is a rash, but a persistent itch may signal liver damage. A blocked bile duct causes bile to flow back into the bloodstream, where it accumulates and causes your skin to become itchy.

Spider Angiomas

The appearance of small, spider-like capillaries under your skin is a sign of higher than normal levels of estrogen. This is indicative of a damaged liver that is not metabolizing hormones optimally. These veins typically appear on the legs and face.

Red Palms

Burning, itchy, red palms can be a sign of liver damage that occurs as a result of abnormal hormone levels in the blood.

Blemishes

Patches of brown pigmentation can occur on the face if your liver is a little sluggish. This is produced as a result of excess estrogen in the blood, which causes an increase in melanin (skin pigment) production.

Lack of Concentration

An unhealthy liver can also cause you to lose focus. Since the liver is responsible for removing toxins and energizing you, less than optimal function results in less energy and concentration for you. Being overloaded with toxins can make you feel sluggish and fatigued.

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How to Improve Liver Health

Knowing what to look out for is only half of the problem. Once you have established that your liver may be damaged, you need to know what to do to correct the situation.

While some liver conditions cannot be reversed, there are changes you can make to ensure further damage does not occur. In many cases, so long as the damage is not too extensive because the liver can regenerate, certain lifestyle changes can improve liver health.

Of course, you don’t have to wait to have a liver condition before you start taking care of this vital organ. Certain choices you make now can impact the future of your liver and you can start promoting its health today.

The healthier the liver is the better able it is to resist damage and the more optimally it can function for you as you age.

Remember that your liver works hard every day and the removal of toxins is no easy feat, so whatever you can do to support and strengthen this powerhouse organ, the better off you will be.

The most important changes you can make to your life to promote liver health start with your diet. There are foods to avoid that can impair liver health and foods to eat that support liver function and protect it from damage.

With the right diet, you can support the liver’s detoxification processes and prevent it from being overwhelmed with toxins as well as prevent fat buildup. If your liver is impaired and cannot remove toxins, your immune system is unable to accurately detect increased toxin levels that can cause inflammation and an autoimmune reaction.

What you eat directly impacts the liver’s ability to process these toxins.

Too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats (as found in a diet with high processed food consumption) increase the amount of stress placed on your liver. The worst foods to eat for liver health include:

♦ Excess alcohol and caffeine

♦ Packaged foods that contain refined oils, sweeteners, and artificial additives

♦ Sugary snacks and drinks

♦ Refined grains

♦ Produce that is sprayed with pesticides

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Natural Treatments for Liver Disease

While any liver disease treatment should be discussed with a healthcare professional, there are numerous natural remedies available. A combination of these, specifically in specially formulated liver health supplements, can be an important part of gaining relief from symptoms and boosting the health of your liver.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is one of the most thoroughly studied possible treatments for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Because vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, it reduces oxidative stress in the body from free radicals.

NAFLD is strongly associated with insulin resistance and obesity, both of which can be improved by an increase in antioxidant intake, and especially with vitamin E, as it is regarded as “the major lipid-soluble chain-breaking antioxidant found in the human body.”


Silybin and Milk Thistle

Silybin is the major active compound in the plant milk thistle. While milk thistle is often used as a natural liver health remedy, silybin in an isolated form, called silymarin, can be even more effective.

The benefits for NAFLD stem primarily from silybin’s effects as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antifibrotic compound. Anything that reduces oxidative stress and inflammation will be helpful in relieving NAFLD, and these properties will be common among all legitimate liver health remedies and treatments.

N-Acetyl Cysteine

N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is a medication with the same chemical structure a the semi-essential amino acid, cysteine, which is naturally found in foods that are high in protein, like poultry, dairy, and legumes.

The primary benefit of using NAC is that the amino acid is one of the primary ingredients in your body’s production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant. However, when it comes to liver health NAC is also useful because of its role in body detoxification.

In fact, NAC is used in cases of acetaminophen overdoses specifically to help prevent kidney and liver damage from occurring. However, like any supplement, you should discuss the possible side effects of this treatment with a healthcare professional prior to taking any.

Alpha Lipoic Acid

While this compound, derived from caprylic acid, is required for aerobic metabolism, it is also useful as a supplement due to its antioxidant properties. Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) was found in a massive 2018 meta-analysis to “significantly decrease inflammation markers” when used as a supplement.  

Zinc Glycinate

A combination of both zinc and the essential amino acid, glycinate, zinc glycinate takes advantage of the liver health benefits found in both substances. Zinc has been found to actually help block the negative effects the protein lambda-3, which is strongly linked to the tissue damage that liver disease can cause. Zinc also acts as an anti-inflammatory for this reason.

Selenium AAC (Amino Acid Chelate)

Selenium is naturally found in many foods as is generally not a deficiency most Americans need to worry about. However, in individuals with NAFLD as well as alcoholic liver disease, selenium levels were found to be lower than in healthy people.

Selenium is essential for optimal liver function, so taking selenium as a supplement can be beneficial as a liver disease treatment. However, selenium should be discussed with a doctor prior to treatment, as taking too much selenium has been found to actually increase the risk of NAFLD.

Turmeric Curcumin

Turmeric and its active compound, curcumin, have long been known as effective natural anti-inflammatories. Taking a supplement containing curcumin, especially a readily bioavailable form, has been shown to help decrease inflammation.

Curcumin has also been found to lessen the liver injury caused by many conditions and toxicity; it has even been shown to help reverse cirrhosis.

Black Seed Oil

Black seed oil, while not extensively researched for its benefits as a NAFLD treatment, has been shown to have numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammation effects. These naturally leads to its use as a potential treatment to alleviate the problems of liver disease.

Again, though, you need to consult with your doctor before taking this substance, as taking too much black seed oil has been shown to potentially cause liver damage.

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Dietary Changes to Improve Liver Health

Now that you know what to avoid, it would be beneficial to know what foods are best for liver health. Typically following an anti-inflammatory diet will eliminate the foods that cause distress to your liver.

There are, however, a few foods that deserve special mention, as they are proven to be beneficial to the function and longevity of your liver.

1. Coffee

While too much caffeine can be bad for your liver, a few cups each day can be beneficial. Coffee drinkers have been shown to have a lower risk for cirrhosis or permanent liver damage.

Coffee decreases inflammation and produces antioxidants, which remove free radicals known to cause liver damage. In addition to this, it prevents the buildup of fat and collagen which both contribute to liver disease.

The greatest benefits seem to come to those who drink three cups a day, just be careful of adding excess sugar and cream.

2. Green Tea

Tea has been used for centuries to promote health, and green tea, in particular, benefits your liver. The high antioxidant content in green tea improves levels of liver enzymes and protects against oxidative damage. Some studies have even found that green tea can reverse the negative effects associated with a high-fat diet, improving overall liver function.

Take care of tea if you already have liver problems, as it has been known to make things worse. While this is rare, you should always check with your doctor first before drinking tea.

3. Berries

Blueberries and cranberries, in particular, are great for liver health. They are high in antioxidants and anthocyanins, which protect the liver from damage.

Blueberries have even been found to increase levels of antioxidant enzymes and immune cell response. Berries can also help to slow the development of fibrosis and scar tissue growth.

4. Grapes

Another small and tasty fruit that helps your liver is grapes. Full of resveratrol, grapes, and grape juice can benefit your liver by lowering inflammation and increasing antioxidant protection.

Most studies that show liver health improvements involve grape seed extract, so the effects may not be as significant with just eating regular grapes. However, the antioxidant boost will always go a long way in protecting your liver and other organs.

5. Grapefruit

The antioxidant's naringenin and naringin in grapefruits are important for protecting liver cells. These can reduce the development of fibrosis, which occurs when excessive connective tissue builds up.

Regular consumption of grapefruits helps to decrease the amount of fat in the blood, which means less is available to accumulate around the liver. In addition to this, these powerful antioxidants improve the metabolism of alcohol, which may counteract some of the negative effects alcohol consumption can have on the liver.

6. Cruciferous Vegetables

Broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and green grasses, such as wheatgrass, help to improve potassium levels. Low potassium levels result in the production of indole, a known carcinogen, and cause of cancer.

Green grasses, in particular, contain a specific type of chlorophyll that helps to escort toxins from the liver at the same time as increasing antioxidant production. The cruciferous vegetables also help to increase the production of digestive enzymes, which detoxify the liver and support its ability to push out toxins from the blood.

7. Powerful Herbs

Herbs such as turmeric, cilantro, oregano, and coriander all boost glutathione production and lower inflammation. Glutathione levels naturally decrease as you get older. As a result, oxidative stress and the risk of fatty liver disease increase.

Herbs that improve glutathione levels while reducing inflammation help to keep your liver healthy despite the natural effects of aging.

8. Fatty Fish

Fish, such as tuna or salmon, are packed full of omega-3 fatty acids which are known to promote heart health. Many people do not realize that they can help your liver too.

These fatty acids are beneficial and can help prevent the buildup of harmful fats around your liver. They also improve insulin resistance, which helps prevent the liver from storing glycogen unnecessarily.

The important thing to remember with fatty acids is balance. You can increase your omega-3s, but if you are still consuming high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, the risk for liver disease will still exist. To truly benefit your liver, increase omega-3 intake while decreasing omega-6s.

9.  Beetroot Juice

The nitrates and betalains (antioxidants) in beetroots prevent oxidative damage and inflammation. This juice can also increase the production of detoxification enzymes which help the liver and prevent it from becoming distressed and damaged.

10. Olive Oil

As one of the healthiest oils, olive oil helps to protect your heart and boost metabolic health. With just a teaspoon a day, individuals with the nonalcoholic fatty liver disease showed improved liver enzyme and fat levels.

This oil also produces positive metabolic effects and enhances blood flow through the liver. Overall, using olive oil for cooking or taking a dose every day will help improve insulin resistance, reduce fat accumulation, and improve liver enzyme levels and function.

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Promote Liver Health Outside Your Diet

Outside of dietary changes, there are additional things you can do to keep your liver healthy and functioning as you get older.

1. Food Preparation

The way you prepare your food is almost as important as what you are eating. By properly preparing your food, you can reduce the toxins and carcinogens that can damage your liver.

You also need to reduce the number of antinutrients, which are natural toxins found in plant foods that benefit the plant but are difficult to digest by humans. By soaking sprouts, grains, and nuts first, you remove these and your liver is not overwhelmed.

When it comes to cooking foods, be sure not to overcook them, as this produces more toxins.

2. Go Organic

It may not always be feasible, but when possible, you should always choose organic, grass-fed, and cage-free foods. This avoids having any food that may have been exposed to pesticides or added hormones that can run down your liver.

The healthier the animal is, the more nutrients you get, so going organic is good for your liver and you.

3. Reduce Stress

Chronic stress and holding onto negative feelings result in disruption to your endocrine system. When this happens, hormone production is unbalanced and inflammation can attack your liver.

A poorly functioning liver can result in brain fog, digestive disorders, headaches, and dizziness because of the link between your liver and hormones. Staying positive and reducing stress will reduce the risk of liver damage by keeping hormones and neurotransmitters in balance.

4. Stay Active

Good circulation is essential to liver health because it stores and processes your blood. A stagnant body is more susceptible to disease, so keep your blood flowing with regular physical activity.

Exercise prompts your liver to release blood and nutrients to other organs more efficiently, meaning the rest of your body can function at optimal levels too.

5. Supplements

There are supplements available to boost liver health, largely based on herbs that are used in traditional medicine. Herbs like milk thistle, holy basil, and dandelion root help the liver to metabolize chemicals.

| Related: Why Milk Thistle Is Good but Silybin Is Better for Liver Health |

Most processing by the liver results in the production of ammonia. However, if the liver is slow, this can build up and ends up recirculating.

Taking supplements helps to prevent this by supporting optimal liver function.

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The Bottom Line

You cannot live without your liver, and unlike kidneys, you only get the one. Yes, there are possible transplant options if that becomes necessary, but that is the absolute last option you want to be forced to deal with.

Your best bet is to take care of your liver and promote its health every day. The better your liver functions, the better you will function. Together, you can enjoy life and longevity.

READ NEXT >>> The Complete Guide to Fatty Liver Disease


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