Stuck at home with pubs and restaurants closed, schools on hiatus and a looming global pandemic on the horizon, it’s little wonder many of us leaned on a tipple or two from the drinks cupboard this year, to ease the uncertainty and help us through.
Needless to say, all that extra boozing probably isn’t great for our health. Aside from leaving you with an unpleasant hangover the next morning after, drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing liver disease and potentially cause irreparable damage to this important organ.
Should you be concerned? And can you do anything to reverse the damage of lockdown-related drinking? We talked to some experts to find out how to help keep your liver happy and healthy…
Why is the liver so important?
The liver is a large organ located in the right upper abdomen. Every day, it performs more than 500 vital tasks, essential for survival.
“Our liver is a vital organ because it essentially works to filter out all the nasty toxins that enter our body through food, drink and medicines we consume,” explains Dr Aragona Giuseppe, GP and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor. “Our food and drink is first digested by the stomach and intestines, before being absorbed into the blood stream and heading to the liver.”
Giuseppe says the liver is a particularly clever organ because it knows when it needs to eliminate toxins from the body through excretion, and when to keep vital nutrients by releasing them back into the blood. “It essentially filters out and removes the ‘bad stuff’ and keeps the ‘good’,” the doctor adds.
Alcohol can have a damaging effect
Giuseppe says the liver goes into overdrive to break down most of the alcohol that a person drinks, so it can then be excreted from the body. However, this process results in a chemical reaction that can be detrimental to the cells of the liver, causing damage.
Drinking too much (even binge-drinking over the lockdown period) can potentially trigger a build up of fat and prevent the liver from carrying out other vital functions in the body. “Conditions that damage the liver can also lead to scaring (or cirrhosis), as the liver attempts to repair itself,” Giuseppe adds.
Over time, scarring can eventually lead to liver failure, a life-threatening condition. However, early treatment may help give the liver time to heal.
Liver disease doesn’t always cause noticeable signs and symptoms, but they can include yellowish skin (jaundice), abdominal pain, itchy skin and swelling in the legs and ankles.
“It’s important that we take care of our liver because it performs more jobs for the body then most of our other organs put together, and it’s an essential organ in terms of maintaining the overall body health,” notes Giuseppe.
How can I look after my liver?
Here are some top tips for supporting your liver health and reducing your risk of developing complications later in life.
1. Cut down on alcohol
Alcohol is without doubt your liver’s worst enemy. The British Liver Trust recommends taking a break from alcohol for at least three days a week, to give your liver a chance to repair and renew.
“You should aim to drink no more than 14 units per week, or cut out alcohol completely,” says Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.
2. Eat a healthy diet full of antioxidants
Many dark berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries, contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which may help protect the liver from damage. Other antioxidant-rich foods include ginger, goji berries, turmeric, basil, cumin and coriander. Lee says you should also try to reduce your dietary fat and sugar content, as both can be difficult for the liver to process.
Remember though – a good, healthy diet doesn’t mean you can drink as much booze as you want! You still need to pay attention to those units.
Obesity, particularly, abdominal or central obesity, is a major risk factor for developing fatty liver disease. With the help of regular exercise, you can maintain a healthy weight and support your liver health. Lee suggests you should make sure to get at least 30 minutes of regular exercise per day.
4. Protect your liver from viral infections
“Make sure you have a hepatitis A and B vaccination before you travel abroad and take care with blood products,” says Lee. “For instance, you should only visit tattoo parlours and body piercing venues which follow strict codes of hygiene and sterilisation. It’s also important to practise safe sex too.”
The bottom line, Lee says, is that – generally speaking – there’s nothing really tricky about keeping your liver in good shape. It’s all about a healthy lifestyle.
If you’re unsure about the health of your liver, The British Liver Trust (britishlivertrust.org.uk) has a short online test to help you assess your risk factors and take further steps to reduce them.
If you’re worried about your liver or your consumption of alcohol, speak to your GP, who can advise you on the best course of action and how to seek support if necessary.