The Grapevine

Liver Disease: 5 Things National Liver Awareness Month Taught Us

Sugar cubes
Reverse the rise of liver disease when you get tested for hepatitis, reach for more than high-fructose fruit, and more. Paul/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breast cancer takes center stage come the month of October. Company logos, social media avatars, and fitness classes (we see you, Zumba) all fade to pink in order to concentrate their awareness and support for the disease into Halloween. The thing is breast cancer steals some of the spotlight from National Liver Awareness Month, also in October. The liver is a very important organ, Dr. Talal Adhami, of the Cleveland Clinic's Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and a member of ALF's National Medical Advisory Committee, told Medical Daily — and he wish it got more than a month.

Here’s why: Thirty million people in America have one form or another of liver disease, the American Liver Foundation (ALF) reported, and these numbers are on the rise. Baby boomers in particular are more susceptible to disease, while 75 percent of the population infected with hepatitis B and C (a blood-borne illness) don’t even know it. “Most of the patients infected with hepatitis C don’t know because the condition goes unnoticed without any symptoms,” Adhami said. “It’s very common in patients who have had experience with intravenous drug use and blood transfusions, but everyone can benefit from generalized liver screenings.”

The more patients screen for hepatitis and abnormal livers, the better their chances of staving off disease and death. Even if their screening came back with negative results, Adhami said the treatment on the market has significantly improved over the years, the rate of success increasing from 40 to 90 percent. “It’s a curable disease,” he said. “We would like this illness to be under control, rendering it to a rare disease status. If we treat everybody now, this can happen in 15 to 20 years. If we accelerate our efforts, make liver disease ubiquitous, this can happen in five to 10 years.”

What else can patients do to protect their liver? More important, what can they not do to protect their liver? Adhami gave us the lowdown on what to avoid.

Alcohol

This is neither the first nor last time you’ll hear about the negative impact alcohol has on the liver. Years of heavy drinking can lead to inflammation in the liver, which can progress to scarring of the liver and cirrhosis. From this point, patients can wind up with liver failure, Adhami said. And if that patient has undiagnosed hepatitis C, liver disease is accelerated.

Physically cirrhosis makes for an extremely stiff organ. Adhami likes to tell his patients a healthy liver is like a wet sponges; it lets blood travel easy without any pressure. An unhealthy liver would be like taking that wet sponge and dipping it into wax. Blood can’t travel through, becomes extremely stiff and dense, and the consequences range from hypertension to bleeding.

Pain Relievers

Hepatitis, non-alcoholic and alcoholic fatty liver disease (more on this later) are the most common types of liver disease. More acute types, like hepatitis A, are endemic in third world countries, while disease can stem from drug-induced toxicity. The latter doesn’t only refer to IV drug use, but rather, it includes people who mix acetaminophen (Tylenol) with alcohol.

“It’s recommend no one takes more than 4 grams of Tylenol at a time,” Adhami said. “That goes down to 2 grams in patients who regularly consume alcohol, because Tylenol can transform into a toxic metabolite and attack the liver.”

It’s no surprise, then, that toxicity is the most common cause of liver failure.

Obesity

According to the ALF, 25 percent of people in the United States suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a fatty liver meaning five to 10 percent of it is fat for reasons other than alcohol, like obesity and high blood pressure. “Liver disease is associated with certain illnesses,” Adhami said. “Diabetes patients are more likely to have fatty liver disease and related complications, as well as higher rate of blood vessel disease, like strokes and heart attacks.”

Weight loss, monitoring for blood pressure and diabetes, and putting an emphasis on a healthy diet and exercise, is the treatment, Adhami said. Foods rich in simple carbs, such as white bread and sugar, though abundant, are very bad for the liver. Complex carbohydrates, such whole grains and vegetables, are the better choice.  

Sugar

Artificial sweeteners might be worse than table sugar. High-fructose corn syrup, which stems from naturally-occurring sugar in fruit, can be extremely detrimental to the liver, Adhami said. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat fruit; it’s only to make you aware loading up on high-fructose fruits can have a reverse effect on not only your liver, but your overall health. For example, a cup of blackberries boasts 7 grams, where as a cup of grapes boasts 23. Also, a little variety never hurt nobody.

“It’s a simple equation — what you put in is what you turn out as far as calories,” Adhami said. "Whatever calories you don't expend, your body is very good at packing and storing it for an episode of starvation, which doesn’t really happen nowadays. It’s how we store fat, and we have a problem with that."

Check out more all-encompassing ways to maintain a healthy liver, here.

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