How much do you actually know about your liver, and what should you be doing to keep yours healthy? Given that 39% of us can’t even identify it, here’s your liver ‘need to know’
A recent survey of 1000 men and women by Balance Activ revealed that over a third of us don’t know the difference between our liver and our kidneys. This is despite the fact that liver disease is one of the UK’s most fatal health issues- deaths due to liver disease have soared by 400 per cent since 1970, and 12,000 lives are claimed because of it every year. The Lancet commission on liver disease predicts that liver disease will overtake heart disease to become the leading causes of early death in Britain within two years, with excessive drinking, obesity and viral hepatitis provoking the escalation of liver issues. To put this into further perspective, the UK has one of the worst liver disease death rates in Europe, and at least two million Brits are currently suffering with a liver disease according to the NHS.
Now for the good news: many forms of liver disease are preventable, and your liver is a pretty hardy organ- treat it with some TLC and it’s got the capacity to bounce back, as long as liver disease or damage isn’t in its advanced stages . Bupa Health Clinic GP Dr Luke Powles expounds the liver’s superpowers:
“Most people don’t know that our liver is one of the most important organs in our bodies – if it stops working, we quite simply wouldn’t survive for long without medical intervention. It’s also our second largest organ (after skin) and can actually regenerate itself, which technically means that one person can donate part of their liver to someone else.”
NHS experts also emphasise that the liver has incredible capacity to process what you throw its way, up to a point:
“With the exception of the brain, the liver is the most complex organ in the body. The liver can develop new cells and is very resilient, however, each time your liver filters alcohol, some of the liver cells die. Prolonged alcohol misuse (drinking too much) over many years can reduce its ability to regenerate.”
We’re all aware that overdoing the booze in the long term puts our liver health in jeopardy, hence the likes of the Go Sober for October campaign, but are you clued up on exactly what your liver does, and what else you can do to keep it in good shape? After all, your liver has a lot on its plate- as well as removing toxins such as alcohol from the blood, it fights infection and illness, facilitates blood clotting, releases bile to break down fat and ensure good digestion and keeps cholesterol levels in check. This is all while barely making a peep, which is part of the problem where liver disease is concerned- signs and symptoms such as weight loss, jaundice and fluid retention don’t tend to appear until liver disease is at a late stage, at which point treatment is less likely to be successful. As such, the ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach is especially important when considering liver health, and there’s lots you can do to reduce your risk of developing complications...such as:
Have a ‘three days off’ rule with alcohol
Alcohol is without doubt your liver’s worst enemy, but then again you knew that. Your liver goes into overdrive to process alcohol when it enters your system, and drinking too much (even binge drinking over a short period) can trigger a build up of fat and prevent the liver from carrying other vital functions in the body. The British Liver Trust recommends taking a break from alcohol for at least three days a week to give your liver a chance to repair and renew. Obviously you still need to stick to official government guidelines of no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, and as above, binge drinking even just one night a week can have adverse effects- keep alcohol consumption measured rather than concentrated. Speaking of which…
Your liver can only clear between 8 mg- 10 mg of alcohol from your blood per hour, so the strength of your drink of choice is as key as the volume you’re consuming. The government is currently advocating “lower risk” drinking, with the Department of Health cracking down on the promotion of high strength cider, beer and wine. Clearly lining up the shots isn’t a healthier alternative, but in the case of standard spirit measurements, you know what you’re getting unit wise (one 25 ml measure of spirits = 1 unit).
As for cider, wine and beer, higher strength options can add a unit or more to your alcohol quota, even if you are sticking to a supposedly healthy ‘small glass of wine’ rule. As an example, a pint of low to average strength cider or beer comes in at two units, but order a pint of higher strength stuff and you’ve got three to process (that’s three hours of overtime for your liver). Obviously you can check the ABV (alcohol by volume) of what you’re buying before you order, but given that so many of us get roped into rounds or simply opt for the house wine or whichever pint is on offer, it’s a good reminder not to walk into the bar blind. Lower-alcohol options mean you won’t end up far tipsier than you bargained for in the time frame too. No one wants to be falling under the table after ‘just the one’ at casual work drinks. Awks.
Your liver is your detox machine- no amount of juice cleansing or detox dieting can clear your system of “nasties”. In fact, faddy eating patterns and unnecessary elimination diets are likely to cause your liver more trouble in the long-run, as the fact that they’re unsustainable means that on the whole you’re more likely to put weight back on and then some after you stop following said programme. Ironic, and not liver-loving considering that obesity is the second most common cause of liver disease (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). Not only are so called detox diets normally a miserable, unsociable experience, but you won’t be eating the healthy, balanced diet and thus getting the nutrients that your liver need to function optimally either. Which brings us to...
Scale back on sugar
A little bit of sugar in your diet will do you no harm, but our much publicised reliance on high sugar convenience foods and fizzy drinks , not to mention a lack of clarity in food labelling and irresponsible junk food advertising, means that many of us are consuming far more sugar than we realise . The British Dietetic Association highlights that it’s the ‘free’ (added) sugars that in general pose a problem for our livers, rather than naturally occurring sugars:
“In nature, sugar usually comes with fibre , vitamins, minerals and water – this combination is not harmful and is generally good for us. Fresh fruit, peas, and sweetcorn are good examples. Some processed foods can be surprisingly high in free sugars. Some experts believe that the liver handles high intakes of sugar in a way that is damaging to our health, especially if we are overweight or not physically active. This could lead to an increased risk of diabetes , heart disease and other health problems. Also, many high-sugar foods are low in nutrients and fibre. This means that a high-sugar diet can be low in nutritional value.”
Clearly you’re not going to be snacking on a bag of frozen peas as a sweet snack alternative, but you get the picture. If you’re struggling to kick your sugar habit, here’s 10 ways to take the edge off of cravings .
Make a brew
Staying hydrated is essential to keep a healthy liver humming along, and adding in green tea could amplify those benefits. The British Liver Trust suggests that drinking green tea could have a protective effect on the liver, owing to its exceptionally high antioxidant content, although further research is required to confirm this. It’s unlikely to cause any adverse effects if drunk in moderation (bear in mind the caffeine content pre-bedtime).
A herbal hydration route is also common in complementary therapy fields, and while the following teas are far from cures or liver fixes, adding them in is likely to reap more rewards than risks, and if nothing else will keep you well hydrated. Pukka Herbs founder Sebastian Pole shares his particular liver-related favourites:
“Try fennel tea for a change. Fennel is perhaps best known as a digestive tonic: in India, the seeds are chewed after a meal to aid digestion, and they can specifically help to relieve digestive symptoms such as wind and bloating. This makes fennel a fantastic addition if you’re suffering the consequences of overindulgence. Fennel has also been found to have diuretic properties, helping to flush out toxins via the urine.”
Dandelion root tea also aids digestion and can support normal bowel movements- it’s another good digestive tonic and can help if you’re a bit ‘bunged up’. This is vital, as we need regular bowel movements to properly excrete wastes and toxins from our body.”
If you’re not a tea drinker, rest assured that the link between coffee and liver health is even more encouraging...
Take a coffee break (or five)
If you need the call of the coffee machine to rise from your pit in the morning, it turns out you could be doing your liver a favour as well as your energy levels. Researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Edinburgh examined data from 26 studies, involving 2.25 million people, and concluded earlier this year that drinking two cups of coffee a day can reduce liver cancer risk by a third. This risk is reduced by an impressive 50 per cent if you chug five cups a day, but if that’s not already in your routine, don’t suddenly go there- major jitters will result, and some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others (*eye twitches*). Of course if you’re pregnant or have any other health conditions that make drinking a large amount of caffeine inadvisable, don’t dabble in double espressos for your liver’s sake, but even decaf coffee was shown to lower liver cancer risk, albeit to a smaller degree.
The British Liver Trust also praised the bean for other liver related benefits, including lowering the risk of liver conditions including fibrosis (scar tissue that builds up within the liver) and cirrhosis, and slowing the development of liver disease in some patients. It’s not a magic bullet, but the research is buzzing, and combining a three a day americano habit with a low alcohol intake and healthy diet is highly likely to set you on a path to peak liver health. Alongside exercise of course...
Take up resistance training
From preventing obesity to improving our mental health, good old exercise is important on many levels, but anaerobic resistance training in particular may help to reduce fat in the liver according to a study published by the University of Haifa in cooperation with Tel Aviv Medical Center and Tel Aviv University in 2015. Researchers found that, in a group of 82 participants between the ages of 20-65 suffering from fatty liver disease, 40 minutes of full-body resistance training in the gym three times a week resulted in a significant fall in fat levels in the liver after three months. Not only this, but blood cholesterol levels decreased too, as did levels of ferritin protein in the blood, which when elevated can indicate liver damage. Weight loss was relatively minimal, so the researchers still advocated including cardiovascular exercise for the best health outcome and to facilitate weight loss if needed, but it’s encouraging to know that you’re not enduring those burpees for nothing.
Signed up to ' Go Sober for October' or similar and struggling a bit? Here are some tips for making giving up alcohol for the month a LOT easier