How Not to Wreck Your Liver

It's not something you probably think much about, but your liver is a key player in your body's digestive system. Everything you eat or drink, including medicine, passes through it. You need to treat it right so it can stay healthy and do its job.

"It's an organ you could easily trash if you don't take good care of it," says Rohit Satoskar, MD, of the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute. "And once you trash it, it's gone."

Your liver is about the size of a football and sits under your lower ribcage on the right side. It has several important things to do. It helps clean your blood by getting rid of harmful chemicals that your body makes. It makes a liquid called bile, which helps you break down fat from food. And it also stores sugar called glucose, which gives you a quick energy boost when you need it.

There's nothing tricky about keeping your liver in good shape. It's all about a healthy lifestyle, says Ray Chung, MD, medical director of the liver transplant program 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 some ways to keep your liver healthy:

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

How much alcohol is too much? U.S. government guidelines say men should drink no more than two drinks a day and women only one.

Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise. Your liver will thank you. You'll keep your weight under control, which helps prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that leads to cirrhosis.

Watch out for certain medicines. Some cholesterol drugs can occasionally have a side effect that causes liver problems. The painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol) can hurt your liver if you take too much. 

You may be taking more acetaminophen than you realize. It's found in hundreds of drugs like cold medicines and prescription pain medicines.

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Some medicines can hurt your liver if you drink alcohol when you take them. And some are harmful when combined with other drugs. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the safest way to take your medicines.

Learn how to prevent viral hepatitis. It's a serious disease that harms your liver. There are several types. You catch hepatitis A from eating or drinking water that's got the virus that causes the disease. You can get a vaccine if you're traveling to a part of the world where there are outbreaks.

Hepatitis B and C are spread through blood and body fluids. To cut your risk, don't share items like toothbrushes, razors, or needles. Limit the number of sex partners you have, and always use latex condoms.

There's no vaccine yet for hepatitis C, but there is one for hepatitis B.

Get tested for viral hepatitis. Because it often doesn't cause symptoms, you can have it for years and not know it. If you think you've had contact with the virus, talk to your doctor to see if you need a blood test.

The CDC recommends you get tested for hepatitis C if you were born between 1945 – 1965. The baby boomer generation is more likely to have the disease.

Don't touch or breathe in toxins. Some cleaning products, aerosol products, and insecticides have chemicals that can damage your liver. Avoid direct contact with them.  Additives in cigarettes can also damage your liver, so don’t smoke.

Be careful with herbs and dietary supplements. Some can harm your liver. A few that have caused problems are cascara, chaparral, comfrey, kava, and ephedra.

In recent years, some herbs and supplements have hit the market that say they restore the liver, including milk thistle seed, borotutu bark, and chanca piedra. Be wary of those claims. "There's never been any high-quality evidence that any of these promotes liver health," Chung says. Some may even cause harm.

Drink coffee. Research shows that it can lower your risk of getting liver disease. No one knows why this is so, but it's worth keeping an eye on as more research is done.

To keep your liver healthy, follow a healthy lifestyle and keep a close eye on medicines, Chung says. "The liver can be a very forgiving organ, but it has its limits."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 26, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Liver Foundation: "Liver Health and Wellness."

Bravi F. Hepatology, published online June 19, 2007.

Ray Chung, MD, medical director, liver transplant program, Massachusetts General Hospital. 

CDC: "Hepatitis A Information for the Public,"  "Hepatitis B Information for the Public," "Hepatitis C Information for the Public."

Medline Plus: "Acetaminophen."

The Ohio State University: "Anatomy of the Skin."

Rohit Satoskar, MD, assistant professor, departments of medicine and surgery, MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute.

University of Michigan Health System: "Too much of a good thing: Expert warns of overuse of over-the-counter pain medication."

University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia: "Keeping Your Liver Healthy."

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

U. S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, LiverTox: "Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury."

Walker, H. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations, Butterworth Publishers, 1990.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Milk Thistle."

Kennedy, O.J., Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, March 2016. 

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