October is National Liver Awareness Month. It’s a great time to get to know your liver better. What does it do? Where is it located? How can you keep it healthy? What are the signs something is wrong? Let’s get to know your liver.
What is the liver?
First off, your liver is an MVP among your organs. In fact, you can’t live without it. Shaped somewhat like a football that’s flat on one side, it’s located on your right side, right under your rib cage. The liver’s top three functions are:
- Cleaning your blood of toxins
- Providing you energy
- Producing bile for digestion
For something that only weighs about 3 pounds, your liver does a lot of work. It’s like a little factory or an internal chemical refinery. Your liver processes what you eat and drink and turns it into nutrients and separates out harmful substances from your blood.
What are the symptoms of liver disease?
Your liver is an amazing organ and works 24/7, but it can be damaged by an unhealthy diet, drugs, alcohol, toxins and hepatitis viruses. These factors can lead to cirrhosis, tough scarring which builds up and hampers the liver’s ability to work properly. Approximately 5.5 million Americans are living with cirrhosis or chronic liver disease. Approximately 4.4 million Americans are living with hepatitis B or C, and most don’t know they are infected. And liver cancer has more than tripled since 1980.
Most types of liver disease don’t cause symptoms in the early stages. Here are some symptoms that might indicate liver disease that has progressed:
- Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Pale, bloody or tar-like stools
- Dark urine
- Swollen legs, ankles or abdomen
- Feeling tired and weak all the time
Some liver diseases may even result in the need of a liver transplant. They include:
- Biliary atresia (a condition in babies in which the bile ducts outside and inside the liver are scarred and blocked)
- Metabolic diseases (e.g. Wilson disease, urea cycle defects, tyrosinemia, organic acidemias)
- Autoimmune hepatitis or sclerosing cholangitis
- Viral hepatitis
- Acute hepatic necrosis, or acute liver failure
- Portal hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure in the portal vein, the large vein that brings blood from the intestine to the liver, and its branches.)
- Liver tumors
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis
How can you keep your liver healthy?
You can help keep your liver running in tip-top shape.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and good carbohydrates. Don’t overindulge in fatty foods and sugary drinks.
- Maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity.
- Limit alcoholic drinks to one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men
- Exercise, every day
- Practice safe sex to avoid hepatitis infections. Injected drug use is also a leading cause of hepatitis C infections.
- Avoid tattoos and piercings, which can cause breaks in the skin and leave you vulnerable to hepatitis viruses.
- Make sure you are vaccinated against hepatitis. Currently, vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B.
Your liver is just as important as your heart. It helps you produce energy and fight off infections. If you are experiencing symptoms of liver disease, don’t ignore them.
Call to action: If you are concerned about your child’s liver health, make an appointment with Ryan Himes, MD