Love your liverThe British Liver Trust are running a national awareness campaign throughout January.

The campaign focuses on three areas that are key to maintaining good liver health – alcohol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and viral hepatitis. Let’s look at the effect alcohol can have on your liver and the ways you can minimise the chances of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

What does the liver do?
The liver has many functions and the detoxification of alcohol and drugs is certainly one of those. Some other key functions include storage of fat soluble vitamins, storage of glucose (in the form of glycogen) which is then converted into energy, vitamin A and D production, storage of iron, modification of fats so they can be used by cells, manufacture of bile, conversion of saturated fat into cholesterol, the metabolism of protein and production of heat for the body.

Alcohol and the liver
Most people have a basic understanding that drinking too much alcohol is not good for the liver. In health terms, alcohol is a poison and, if taken in high enough quantities, can cause significant damage to the liver as well as the central nervous system, cardiovascular system and cause issues with pregnancy and those looking to conceive. Alcohol also depletes beneficial nutrients that we get from food. 

The British Liver Trust advise the following:-

  • drinking within safe limits (2 to 3 units per day for women and 3 to 4 units per day for men)
  • taking 3 days off alcohol every week to give your liver a chance to repair itself
  • avoiding alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to conceive

My own advice would always be to limit your alcohol intake rather than attempting to completely stop drinking. Like any drug – it is better to gradually reduce your consumption rather than completely stop (especially if you already feel dependent on it). I say this as my own training and philosophies suggest a higher chance of success and better overall health in the long run if we don’t attempt to completely deprive ourselves of things we see as a pleasure or a treat. Nobody is perfect and, if kept in check, having a few beers or glasses of wine some nights should not be something to worry about in terms of overall health. 

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
In basic terms, NAFLD is an excessive amount of fat in the liver that has not been caused by alcohol. Those most at risk of developing the disease may be any one or a combination of obese, doing little to no exercise or insulin resistant.

The British Liver Trust definition of NAFLD is:-

The first stage is fatty liver, or steatosis. This is where fat accumulates in the liver cells without any inflammation or scarring. For many people, the condition will not advance and a serious liver condition will not develop, but for some, NAFLD can progress on to NASH.

NASH is a more significant condition, as it may cause scarring to the liver, and can progress to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis caused irreversible damage to the liver and is the most severe stage of NAFLD.

It may be easiest to think of NAFLD as having the following stages:

1. Non-alcoholic fatty liver or steatosis
2. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
3. NASH with fibrosis
4. Cirrhosis

How can NAFLD be avoided?

The best thing you can do is eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, cut down on sugar, salt and saturated fat, limit toxins such as alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs and caffeine. Doing your best in this regard and aiming to achieve or maintain a healthy weight should go a long way towards avoidance.

Look to include as many of the following cleansing foods in your diet as possible on a regular basis – leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach, cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, artichoke, beetroot and use extra virgin olive oil cold (heating destroys many of it’s nutrients, although regular olive oil is good for heating). It is also vital to drink plenty of hydrating fluids. 1.5 to 2 litres a day are generally adequate and should be mostly made up of water, redbush tea, fruit or herbal teas. Regular green tea is high in antioxidants but contains caffeine. Decaffeinated drinks also still contain stimulant chemicals. If you don’t like the taste of water it might help to dilute a small amount of fruit juice in water.

You can find out more about the campaign on the Love Your Liver web site. The site includes a useful liver health screener tool and also information on an iPhone app to help monitor alcohol intake.