Did you know that virtually everything that enters the digestive tract - foods, drinks, vitamins, herbs and medicines and everything that is breathed in the air or absorbed through the skin must pass through the liver in an attempt to be purified and detoxified? That is why many people compare the liver to a giant filter that helps keep your insides clean. If that filter should ever get broken or damaged, the rest of your body would slowly turn into the biological equivalent of a toxic dump! The liver is also a warehouse for the storage of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K, copper and iron. But, since the liver stores these vitamins and minerals, beware of overloading its storage capabilities. People who supplement their diets with too much vitamin A or iron can actually damage their livers.
If a person has a damaged liver, the body cannot digest the fats it needs to absorb Vitamins A, D, E and K. This is particularly serious in the case of vitamin K, which the body needs to make the blood clot. This is one reason why some people with liver disease have a pronounced tendency to bleed. It's also up to the liver to produce enough of the right type of amino acids for the body to build muscle. If your liver is too damaged to metabolize proteins correctly, your muscles may literally waste away. This makes you prone to bone fractures.
You may already know that the body uses fats as a kind of storehouse for excess calories. But did you know that fats are also necessary for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K? These vitamins can exist only in a fatty solution. So, sometimes if a person has a damaged liver the body cannot digest the fats it needs to absorb these vitamins. This is particularly serious in the case of vitamin K, which the body needs to make the blood clot. This is one reason why some people with liver disease have a pronounced tendency to bleed.
It's the liver's job to convert ammonia (a by-product of protein digestion) into a nontoxic substance known as urea, which can easily be eliminated from the body via the kidneys. If the liver is damaged, ammonia can build up in the blood and brain. This can cause a condition referred to as "brain fog" or encephalopathy, which is a state of mental confusion.Now you can see that the liver is an extraordinarily complex organ that controls virtually every aspect of your body's daily functions. So, how can you keep your liver healthy and happy? Here are a few tips:
1. Drink alcohol in moderation - especially if you are a woman. While alcoholism is more common among men, it has been demonstrated that women are more susceptible to the adverse consequences of alcohol on the liver.
2. Loose those extra pounds. It is estimated that approximately one-third of Americans are obese, and that approximately 75 percent of obese people have a fatty liver - a liver disease that may lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
3. Cigarette smoking should be terminated, as it has been linked to the development of liver cancer and may enhance the toxic effects of some medications, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) on the liver.
4. Avoid eating raw or partially cooked mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops), as these fish often live in hepatitis A contaminated rivers and seas. Or, consider getting the hepatitis A vaccine.
5. Protect yourself from hepatitis B and C. Not engaging in unprotected sex will greatly reduce the likelihood of infection with hepatitis B. While the risk of sexual transmission of hepatitis C is rare, protected sex is recommended if a person engages in anal sex, has multiple sexual partners, has frequent prostate infections, has open cuts or sores on the genitalia, or is menstruating. People with hepatitis B or C should avoid sharing anything that may contain even the tiniest amount of their blood, including toothbrushes, razors, and nail clippers. Also, anyone who intends to get a tattoo or have a body part pierced should make sure that they deal only with establishments that are clean and that adhere to meticulous sterilization practices.
6. If you have ever experimented with intravenous drugs, even just once, and even if it was many years ago, or if you have had a blood transfusion prior to 1992 -- get tested for hepatitis C. And, if you already have hepatitis C - consider getting treated - it can be cured if caught in time!
7. If you have ever been told that something is wrong with your liver, if even you feel fine - see a liver specialist (hepatologist). Signs and symptoms of liver disease and hepatitis are not always present - sometimes even when the liver has suffered severe damage.
Melissa Palmer, MD is author of "Dr. Melissa Palmer's Guide to Hepatitis and Liver Disease." She is an internationally renowned liver specialist who maintains a private practice devoted to liver disease on Long Island. For more information please visit her website www.liverdisease.com or call (516) 939-2626.