If you are like most people, New Year is probably the only time you think about your liver, especially if you have drunk more than you usually do over the Christmas period. Most of us have a general, if somewhat vague, awareness that alcohol is bad for the liver. Apart from a fleeting thought, however, do you know anything about your liver? Do you even know where it is? It’s on your right hand side under your ribs and it happens to be the largest organ in your body. It’s about the size of a rugby ball and it weighs 2-3lbs. It’s the only organ that has the ability to re-generate itself (remember poor Prometheus). It’s an amazing organ.
Your liver is vital to your well being. Every time you eat
, your liver is involved. In fact, it may best be described as a nutrient processing plant. Once your food is digested, nutrients enter your blood stream and are taken straight to your liver for processing. Your liver clears the blood of waste products, hormones, drugs and toxins; it makes, stores and releases sugars and fats; it stores and supplies vitamins, minerals and iron to parts of the body where they are needed and it aids your digestion by releasing bile salts to break down your food.
Whilst you maybe aware of the damage to your liver from alcohol, you are probably less aware of the harm from fatty foods, high levels of saturated fat and high salt intake. This is known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and it tends to develop in people who are overweight or obese or have diabetes, high cholesterol or high triglycerides. The inflammation caused by the fatty deposits can lead to scarring of the liver and, in some cases, to liver failure. NAFLD is becoming increasingly recognised as yet another serious consequence of chronic obesity.
If you want to love your liver you should:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid fad and de-tox diets. Contrary to popular belief no diet is capable of “liver cleansing” and yo-yo dieting is harmful. A sensible diet such as the Weight to Go diet (www.weighttogo.com) is ideal
- Limit your fat intake. High levels of fat in the blood (hyperlipidaemia) and high levels of cholesterol (hypercholesterolaemia) are common causes of fatty liver disease. Keep your levels low by making sure the majority of fats you do eat are unsaturated fats
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Women please note you are more susceptible to the adverse effects of alcohol on the liver
- Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking has been linked to liver cancer.
- Above all; exercise. In a 2008 study researchers gave obese rats access to running wheels for 16 weeks after which they were tested. There were no signs of fatty liver present. The wheels were then removed and within one week of living a sedentary lifestyle the signs had returned. The positive benefits of exercise are yet again evident for disease prevention.
Finally if you are considering weight loss surgery, in particular gastric band surgery, some surgeons insist that patients go on low fat pre-operative diets in order to shrink the liver as it helps with the operation. The good news about gastric banding and gastric bypass is the remarkable and rapid impact on NAFLD with complete resolution of the disease in more than 80% of cases.
Dr David Ashton
3rd January 2012