Common Liver Problems
The liver is a vitally important part of the body. It is often considered as vital to life as the heart. It performs many functions, some of which include receiving and processing digested food that has come from the intestines and turning it into energy, maintaining levels of fat, amino acids and glucose in our blood, dealing with infections and the production of hormones, enzymes and proteins, all of which are vital in maintaining the body. It is an essential organ but too often people are unaware of the importance of keeping it healthy.
Perhaps the most common form of liver disease is alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) which is caused by an excessive consumption of alcohol. This form has several stages of increasing severity and a range of symptoms.
The most dangerous aspect of ARLD is that no symptoms will show at all until the liver has been damaged severely. At this point, various symptoms will start to show, including nausea, weight loss, jaundice, drowsiness or confusion and vomiting blood or passing blood when the bowels are emptied. ARLD consists of three stages, which may overlap at certain points.
The first is alcoholic fatty liver disease. A large intake of alcohol, even one that lasts for only a few days, results in fats building up in the liver. There are usually no symptoms in this stage and if you avoid drinking alcohol for a period of two weeks thereafter, your liver should return to normal. The second stage is alcoholic hepatitis and is a more serious condition which arises as a result of a longer period of alcohol consumption. Occasionally it can be caused by binge-drinking and can only be reversed with a permanent abstention from alcohol.
It is a serious and life-threatening condition and a great number of people die from it every year in the UK. The third stage is cirrhosis and by this time the liver has become significantly damaged. It is irreversible and only a complete and permanent abstention from alcohol will prevent any more damage and increase your life expectancy. Various support networks exist for the benefit of those who wish to give up drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous is one, but there are many others.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is caused by fat building up in the liver and is mostly seen in overweight and obese people. A healthy liver is one that does not contain any fat at all, or at least very little. NAFLD usually does not do any harm in its early stages, but if left to grow worse it can lead to serious liver damage and even cirrhosis. High levels of fat in the liver are also associated with a range of serious health issues, including diabetes and high blood pressure.
There are no symptoms in the early stages of NAFLD and it will usually be detected only if you are undergoing tests for another concern. Occasionally, people with more advanced forms of NAFLD may experience extreme tiredness, physical weakness and unexplained weight loss. If cirrhosis, which is the most advanced stage of NAFLD, sets in, you may experience more severe symptoms such as jaundice and oedema – swelling that occurs in the legs, ankles, feet and stomach areas.
Most cases of NAFLD will not be serious, although there are steps you can take to manage it. Adapting a healthy lifestyle is very important if you want to avoid it becoming more severe, which could potentially lead to the necessity of a liver transplant and losing weight is an important part of this. If you are able to lose more than ten per cent of your weight, fat is removed from the liver. Adopting a healthy diet is also an essential method of combatting NAFLD.
You should aim to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates in your diet and lower the amount of fats, sugars and salts that you eat. Eating smaller portions is beneficial too. You should also aim to exercise regularly. Around 150 minutes of moderate to intensity activity such as walking or cycling is recommended.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. It is caused by either an infection or excess alcohol consumption. There are several forms of hepatitis and they range from those that pass without too many problems, including hepatitis E, to those that can potentially cause cirrhosis and liver cancer, such as hepatitis B and D. Short-term, or acute, hepatitis, often has no apparent symptoms, but if symptoms do develop, they may include pains in the joints and muscles, nausea and vomiting, constant tiredness, dark urine, pale and greyish faeces and jaundice.
Similarly, cases of long-term, or chronic, hepatitis may not display any outward symptoms until liver failure occurs and in later stages symptoms may include blood in faeces and vomit, jaundice and confusion. There are several types of hepatitis. Some, such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B can be vaccinated against. Others, such as chronic hepatitis C, can be treated with antiviral medication but there are currently no vaccinations for them.
Autoimmune hepatitis is the rarest form and consists of the immune system attacking and damaging the liver. Its cause and prevention are both currently unknown, although it can be treated using medication that reduces any inflammations and counters the immune system.
Our livers are vital parts of our bodies. Without them, we would be unable to survive and neglecting them can have very serious implications on our long-term health. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation and we should seek to eat balanced and healthy diets, making sure than sugars and salts should be reserved for rare treats. If we take care of our bodies, our bodies will in turn take care of us and we can look to enjoy the benefits of a long and healthy life.
If you suspect you have trouble with your liver, you should immediately consult your GP who will be able to run tests that should determine whether there is cause for concern or not.
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