What Does the Liver Do and Why Should I Care?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Amy Caine, PA-C, MPAS

Read all about how important your liver is!

What does my liver do?

The liver is an important organ responsible for:

  • processing drugs and detoxifying poisonous chemicals in our blood,
  • making bile to help digest food,
  • storing and releasing sugar when our level of blood sugar becomes to low,
  • storing iron and other vitamins,
  • and producing clotting factors and other important proteins.

What makes a liver unhealthy?

Inflammation in the liver, caused by alcohol, medications, fatty infiltration, viruses and auto-immune disease, impair the liver’s ability to carry out these critical functions. Chronic inflammation can lead to replacement of healthy liver tissue with scar tissue. This scarring of the liver is referred to as cirrhosis. While the liver is known for its ability to regenerate or heal itself after injury or inflammation, significant cirrhosis is not reversible.

The cirrhotic liver is unable to perform its usual tasks and causes significant complications such as bleeding, accumulation of fluid in the abdomen (known as ascites), infection, and excessive levels of ammonia in the circulation that can lead to coma. In addition, having cirrhosis increases ones risk of liver cancer. The only cure for cirrhosis is liver transplant.  However, the number of people awaiting a new liver far exceeds the number of livers available.

What can I do to prevent liver disease?

Many causes of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis are preventable and treatable. Unfortunately, most people with chronic liver disease are not aware of it until permanent liver damage has already occurred. Being aware of your risk for liver disease and getting tested when appropriate is crucial to preventing advanced liver disease and cirrhosis. Here are some things you can do to take care of your liver:

  • Eat right and exercise with the goal of maintaining a healthy weight. This will help prevent excessive fat deposition in the liver which can lead to Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis or NASH.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. If you have known liver disease you should avoid alcohol altogether.
  • Talk to your doctor to determine if you should be tested for hepatitis B or C, and if you should be vaccinated to prevent hepatitis A and B.
  • You should be tested for Hepatitis C if you:
    • or received a tattoo from an unregulated facility.
    • have ever been incarcerated,
    • were born between 1945 and 1965,
    • have been on hemodialysis, shared needles or supplies to inject drugs,
    • have had a blood transfusion before July 1992,
  • You should be tested for hepatitis B if you:
    • have immigrated from a country with a high prevalence of Hepatitis B such as Africa, Southeast Asia, Mediterranean countries or the Caribbean;
    • have had a family member or a sexual partner test positive for Hepatitis B;
    • have multiple sexual partners;
    • are a healthcare worker;
    • have been incarcerated;
    • have ever used injection drugs;
    • have been on hemodialysis;
    • and all pregnant women.
  • Tell your doctor about all medications you are taking including over the counter medicines and supplements. Not all herbal supplements are safe. Talk to your doctor before starting any new medications.
  • See you doctor if you experience yellowing of the skin (called jaundice), abdominal pain or swelling, dark urine.

Learn more about hepatology here.