It’s one of the most important bits of our bodies, but a recent survey of 1000 men and women 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 – it claims approx 12000 lives every year. So how much do you know about your liver and how to keep it happy?
The Lancet 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.
Deaths due to liver disease have risen by 400% since 1970
Happily, many forms of liver disease are preventable, and your liver is a pretty hardy organ: give it some TLC and it can bounce back, as long as liver disease or damage isn’t in its advanced stages.
As well as being our second largest organ (after skin) the liver 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. The liver can develop new cells and is very resilient, however, each time it filters alcohol, some of its cells die. And prolonged alcohol abuse over many years can reduce the liver’s ability to regenerate.
While most of us are probably aware that overdoing the booze longterm puts our liver health in jeopardy, not many of us are as aware of the ways we can keep it well. Despite having a lot on its plate – including removing toxins such as alcohol from the blood, fighting infection and illness, facilitating blood clotting, releasing bile to break down fat, ensuring good digestion and keeping cholesterol levels in check – it doesn’t really complain until liver disease is at a late stage when 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 is plenty you can do to reduce your risk of liver disease:
- Have a break from alcohol: 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.
- Don’t faddy diet: your liver is your body’s inbuilt detox machine and faddy eating is likely to cause it 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).
- 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. So if you’re struggling to kick your sugar habit, here’s 10 ways to take the edge off of cravings:
- 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 needed on 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. 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. 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 and it turns out your morning coffee 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% if you drink five cups a day, but if that’s not already in your routine, don’t suddenly go there unless you want major jitters. 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.
4. Take up resistance training: from preventing obesity to improving our mental health, 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.