When people think of the liver, a lot of the time they think of alcohol, and the fact that too much drinking can damage your liver. This is indeed true, as one of the liver’s main jobs is to filter the blood, including filtering out the toxins from alcohol and drugs. However, liver disease, which is an umbrella term for conditions affecting the liver, can have many causes, from sexually transmitted infections to autoimmune conditions. We’ll be going over some of the main causes, types and symptoms of liver disease in today’s blogpost, so that you can better understand your symptoms and take control of your health.
What does the liver do?
The liver is the second-largest organ in the body after the skin, and it is thought that the liver has as many as 500 functions, so it certainly is important. The main functions of the liver are:
- Filtering blood - this purifies the blood coming into it from the digestive system and other areas of the body, converting or filtering out excess hormones and external toxins from food and drink. Waste is then sent either to the kidneys to be excreted through urine, or into the bile to be further digested and excreted through the stool
- Absorbing and metabolizing - bile is created in the liver and sent to the small intestine, which helps to break down the proteins and fats in our food. Carbohydrates are broken down directly in the liver and sent into the bloodstream
- Storing vitamins and minerals - almost all of the vitamins and minerals we need are stored in our liver, and released as and when needed.
What are the main types of liver disease?
With so many functions of the liver, it’s no surprise that there are many types of liver disease when things aren’t functioning so well. There are however some main types, and these are:
Alcohol-related liver disease
As mentioned earlier, this is the most commonly known, and the most common cause of liver disease. When alcohol is consumed in excess, the liver struggles to cope with the demands of filtering out the blood and starts to work inefficiently.
Fatty liver disease
Obesity causes a buildup of fat, not only to the outward appearance, but also around our internal organs. Too much fat around an organ means it can’t function properly and will start to suffer.
This is an inflammation of the liver, and is usually a viral infection contracted through bodily fluids such as blood or feces, or through sexual activity. Sometimes excessive alcohol can cause hepatitis, and in rare cases an autoimmune disease is the cause. We’ve written a blogpost before on the 5 types of hepatitis.
This is scarring on or in the liver, and is caused from long term damage. Most of the other liver diseases here will result in cirrhosis if untreated, and damage from cirrhosis itself is irreversible.
Passed on through the genes in families, this condition means the body can’t process iron properly, meaning iron is deposited directly into the blood causing problems all around the body.
Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis
Inflammation, scarring and narrowing of the bile ducts, meaning the liver cannot produce and process bile efficiently.
A blockage in the bile ducts that is usually caused by gallstones. You’ve probably heard of gallstones before, which occur when there is too much cholesterol in the blood and solid lumps of cholesterol form. Cholesterol is made in the liver and carried through the bile ducts, so gallstones can form in the bile duct itself and cause cholecystitis.
Primary Biliary Cirrhosis (PBC)
A rare, progressive autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the bile ducts, perceiving them as a threat. It’s not really known why this happens in some people.
Symptoms of liver disease
There are some specific symptoms depending on the type of liver disease you have, but generally speaking symptoms are hard to spot until liver damage is quite progressed, and cirrhosis has already occurred. The main symptoms of liver disease are:
- Jaundice - this is where the eyes, skin and sometimes urine appear more yellow in color than usual, and is caused by a build up of bilirubin, a waste material in the blood.
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Swollen legs or ankles
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained or easy bruising
Preventing liver disease
The liver is a very forgiving organ for one that does so many jobs around our body. It can function for a long time without showing symptoms of liver disease, and a healthy liver can regenerate itself from only a third of the original mass. Once you have damaged your liver however, and caused cirrhosis and other serious harm, things can get quite difficult to treat and care is mainly aimed at easing symptoms and preventing further damage. Liver failure occurs when the liver is damaged too much, and can prove fatal, unless a liver transplant is possible.
The good news is that other than with the rare genetic or autoimmune liver diseases, most types of liver disease are avoidable by improving overall lifestyle. Cutting down or entirely cutting out alcohol, drugs and cigarettes from your diet can vastly improve the function of your liver, as it doesn’t have to deal with the toxins. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight for your body is also a great way to ensure your liver can work to the best of its abilities. In addition to this, getting vaccinations for certain strains of hepatitis, and safeguarding against other strains by using protection against STIs and dirty needles, can reduce your risk of contracting viral infections that cause hepatitis.
If you are worried about any of the symptoms mentioned in this blogpost, you can place them into the Isabel Symptom Checker to get a list of possible causes, and discuss the results with your doctor.