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How Not to Wreck Your Liver

By Suz Redfearn
WebMD Feature

Your liver is a key player in your body’s digestive system. Everything you eat or drink, including medicine, passes through your liver. 

“The liver is a vital organ and not something you can live without,” says Rohit Satoskar, MD, of the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute. “It’s an organ you could easily trash if you don’t take good care of it, and once you trash it, it’s gone.”

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The liver is the second-largest organ in your body (the skin is the largest). It's about the size of a football and sits under your lower ribcage on the right side. It filters chemicals like drugs and alcohol from the blood; regulates your hormones and blood sugar levels; stores energy from the nutrients you take in; and makes blood proteins, bile, and several enzymes that the body needs.

There’s nothing tricky about keeping your liver in good shape. It’s all about a healthy lifestyle, says Ray Chung, MD, of the Liver Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Taking care of your liver is far more about avoiding what’s bad than it is about eating or drinking things that are particularly nourishing to the liver,” he says.

Care for Your Liver

Here are the proven ways to avoid wrecking your liver:

Don't drink a lot of alcohol. Alcohol can damage liver cells, leading to the swelling or scarring that becomes cirrhosis, which can be deadly.

According to the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol use is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Stay at or under this to keep from harming your liver.

Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise. A condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) also can lead to cirrhosis. It comes from being overweight, having diabetes, or having high levels of fat in your blood. NAFLD affects about 25% of people in the U.S. It can be avoided through weight loss if you’re overweight, getting regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet.

Stay away from medicines (or combinations of medicines) that harm the liver. Cholesterol drugs and the painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be toxic to the liver if too much is taken over time or at once. You may be taking more Tylenol than you realize; it's found in hundreds of drugs like cold medicines and prescription pain medicines. Certain combinations of drugs can be toxic to the liver; so can taking some medicines while drinking alcohol. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what medicines shouldn’t be combined with each other or alcohol. And always follow dosage information.

Be aware of hepatitis and how it is transmitted. Hepatitis is a virus that causes the liver to become inflamed. There are several different types. Hepatitis A is transmitted by water or food that's been contaminated with bacteria found in feces. It usually gets better on its own. Hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood and body fluids. If untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure. Hand washing and avoiding places that don't seem clean can prevent hepatitis A. To prevent hepatitis B and C, don't share items like toothbrushes, razors, or needles, limit the number of sex partners you have, and always use latex condoms if you have more than one partner.

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