We all know overdoing the booze long-term can damage our livers, but do we really know what that means for our health in general? Just consider what the liver does.
This vital organ is the body’s processing, storing and distribution factory, and performs more than 500 jobs, including transforming food into energy; detoxifying all the poisonous chemicals we consume (such as alcohol, drugs and pollutants); storing vitamins, fats, sugars and minerals until the body needs them; producing bile, which breaks down fats, so they can be absorbed by the body; and helping us fight infections (super important at this time).
It is fair to say that every other important bodily system relies on a well-functioning liver.
Worryingly, liver disease is now the third leading cause of premature death in the UK. Since 1970, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400%, and every day, over 40 people die from some form of it. The good news is, though, 90% of liver diseases can be prevented with simple lifestyle changes.
Two main types of preventable liver disease
Alcohol-related liver disease – this accounts for 60% of all liver disease. Excessive alcohol consumption can leave the liver inflamed and swollen. This swelling can lead to scarring, which is what cirrhosis is.
Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease – 1 in 3 people in the UK have the early stages of this disease, often caused by obesity.
Signs your liver needs some love
Nutritionist Libby Lemon says to watch out for these symptoms, which could indicate early stages of liver disease…
1. Dark circles under the eyes that are not genetic
2. Dark urine
4. Bruising easily
5. Soreness swelling under your right lower rib cage, where the liver sits
6. Swelling in legs and ankles
7. Skin conditions, like adult acne or itchiness
8. White or greasy, smelly stools
It’s not too late!
OK, you’ve been hitting the hard stuff, but given the right conditions, the liver is exceptional at healing and regenerating itself, so here’s how you can give it some love…
Back off the booze a bit
‘Alcohol is a toxin the liver needs to detoxify,’ says Dr Shireen Kassam, consultant haematologist and certified lifestyle medicine physician. ‘The breakdown of alcohol produces compounds that cause inflammation to the liver.’ On top of this, ‘When you consume alcohol, your liver makes metabolising the alcohol its priority,’ says nutritionist Libby. So it’s not on top form to carry out its other essential jobs.
• Even in these desperate times, stick to the guidelines of 14 units a week for women and men. This is the equivalent of 6 pints of average-strength beer (4% ABV) or medium-sized glasses of wine (175ml, 12% ABV) a week. And have a minimum of two alcohol-free days in a row.
• If wine o’clock is getting earlier and earlier in your house because you’re out of your normal routine, try to wait until after 8pm to have a drink, so there is less temptation to finish the bottle!
• Get creative and make a virgin cocktail, or have a non-alcoholic beer or G&T – at least that way it still feels like you’re having a treat.
You are what you eat
If you do have one glass too many, it’s important your liver is in top form to cope with the toxins. ‘Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease is often caused by a Western diet, which is typically high in saturated fat and sugar from animal-derived foods (meat and cheese) and processed foods,’ says Dr Shireen. ‘Saturated fat and sugar can lead to a build-up of fat inside and around the liver cells and impair their function.’
● Cut back on red and processed meat, processed/packaged foods, white bread and other white flour products, sugar-sweetened beverages and foods with lots of added salt.
● Increase your intake of fruit, vegetables (especially green leafy veg), whole grains, beans, herbs and spices such as turmeric. ‘The more colourful your food the better,’ says Libby, ‘because these provide antioxidants to help the liver with the detoxifying process.’
Make the most of that one trip out of the house and go for a long walk, run or bike ride. Exercise decreases stress on the liver, increases energy levels, and helps to prevent obesity – a leading cause of liver disease. There has been a surge of online fitness classes to join in the last few weeks, so if you are self-isolating and not leaving the house, sign up to one of those.
Get to bed
The body does most of its processing at night, and that includes the liver too. It’s tempting to stay up and binge-watch Netflix at the moment, but stick to a routine, aiming to go to bed between 10pm and 11pm, and wake up between 6am and 7am, so that the liver can perform its necessary cleansing and resting functions.
Watch your meds
Just like alcohol, most medications have to be processed by the liver. ‘Medications require a healthy liver for their action in the body,’ explains Dr Shireen Kassam.
‘Commonly prescribed pills that can affect the liver include paracetamol, statins, antibiotics, oral contraceptive pill and antidepressants.’ It is important to never exceed the stated dose of your medications and support your liver health with a healthy diet.
– Libby Lemon is a nutritionist for Pukka Herbs, where you can buy turmeric teas and capsules. Click HERE to go to the website.