Life really does depend on the liver. Here’s why
Of the five hepatitis viruses – types A, B, C, D and E – the most deadly are types B and C, which together are the most common cause of liver damage. Here’s how to protect your liver from disease.Updated: Apr 22, 2017 21:23 IST
Flu viruses routinely grab attention by threatening to trigger outbreaks and pandemics, with the newest concern being the bird flu virus H5N9 infecting 15 people in China in April.
Chronic infections, such as those from viral hepatitis that cause outbreaks in pockets and together killed 1.34 million people – around the same number as TB and HIV – in 2015, however, rarely get a fraction of the attention.
They should. Around 325 million people worldwide live with chronic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver that may cause liver scarring, liver cancer and death if untreated, said the World Health Organisation’s Global Hepatitis Report 2017. Hepatitis viruses are the most common cause of liver damage, but other infections, toxic substances (alcohol, certain medicines, food contaminants), bad lifestyle (fatty food, obesity) and autoimmune diseases may also cause chronic disease.
Of the five hepatitis viruses – types A, B, C, D and E – the most deadly are types B and C, which together are the most common cause of liver damage. Hepatitis B, C and D spread by contact with contaminated blood or body fluids (the same way as HIV, but hepatitis B is 50 to 100 times more infectious). Hepatitis A and E spread through unsafe food and drink.
Jaundice outbreaks, like the Shimla outbreak in January 2016, are usually caused by hepatitis E, which causes self-limiting disease but can trigger acute liver failure. Symptoms usually appear when damage has set in, and include yellowing of the skin and eyes, abdominal pain and swelling, yellow urine, pale or tar-coloured stools, chronic fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite.
Here’s how to protect your liver from disease:
Three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine at birth, one month and six months, and two shots of the hepatitis A vaccine six months apart, prevent infection against these two viruses. A vaccine against hepatitis E virus has been developed and used in China, but is not available elsewhere. Since there is no vaccine against Hepatitis C, the virus still causes the most infections – around 1.75 million in 2015.
Eat low-fat food
The liver breaks down and stores excess fat, which makes up more than 5-10 per cent of its weight. Overloading it with fat and sugars leads to non-fatty liver disease, which tends to run in families. People who have high cholesterol, diabetes, are overweight or have a sedentary lifestyle are also at higher risk of disease.
Liver damage can be reversed at the “fatty” stage by cutting back on saturated oils (such as butter, ghee, palm and coconut oil, which solidify at room temperature) and simple carbohydrates such as pasta, white bread and sugar and eating more fruits and vegetables. Drinking more than two to three cups of coffee a day also protects against damage.
Watch out for food toxins
Chronic exposure to pesticides, bacteria and mould in food harms the liver. Aflatoxin, a toxin produced by Aspergillus moulds that commonly infect corn, seeds, peanuts, pistachios and almonds, causes up to155,000 deaths worldwide annually from corn and peanuts contamination alone. The toxin was found to also contaminate sunflower seeds, which is widely used for oil in India and Africa, reports a study in Tanzania. Store food in a dry place and cook it thoroughly to destroy toxins. Reheat leftovers thoroughly to destroy invisible bacteria, fungi and mould, which also develops rapidly in cooked rice.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease initially causes inflammation than then irreversible scarring that reduces the cirrhotic liver to a fraction of its normal size. To prevent damage, avoid alcohol and if you must drink, do not have more than two drinks (60 ml of spirits, two cans beer, two glasses of wine) a day if you are a man and one (30 ml of spirits; one can of beer, one glass of wine) if you’re a woman.
Some medicines, including the popular painkiller paracetamol and some cholesterol drugs cause liver damage if had in large amounts. Accidental paracetamol overdose is common because it is an ingredient to several over-the-counter medicines used to treat cough, cold and fever. There is a risk of injury to the liver and intestinal bleeding when it’s combined with aspirin, other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and alcohol.
The US’s National Library of Medicine’s Liver-Tox database has updated information on the diagnosis, cause, frequency, patterns and management of liver injury from medicines, including herbal and dietary supplements.
If a close relative ever had an inherited liver disease, such as hemochromatosis (iron toxicity), Wilson disease (copper poisoning) or alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency (protein that protects the lungs and liver from damage), get a liver enzyme test done once a year.
Protecting the liver is not as tough as it sounds because the liver is a very resilient organ that continues functioning even after losing most of its cells to disease. It is the only organ can regenerates and grows cells to replace the damaged ones. So, with a little help in the form of getting vaccinated and eating healthy, it will stay in the pink of health.
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First Published: Apr 22, 2017 18:52 IST