March is Liver Health Month

March 30, 2012

What is the main cause of liver disease? You may think the correct answer is alcohol, but this is not the case.

The liver is the largest internal and most metabolically complex organ in humans. This organ performs over 500 different functions including fighting off infection, neutralizing toxins, manufacturing proteins and hormones, controlling blood sugar and helping to clot the blood.

The truth is that there are over 100 forms of liver disease that affect men, women and children, and only one is directly caused by alcohol.

Many types of liver disease still have unknown causes but the most frequent liver diseases are generally caused by one of the following factors:

  • Viral hepatitis
    Caused by viruses that attack the liver, viral hepatitis comes in many forms, with the most common forms world-wide being hepatitis A, B and C. In Canada, hepatitis C is the leading indication for liver transplants.
  • Obesity
    The leading cause of liver disease in Canada, however liver function can be improved with weight loss and better dietary habits.
  • Alcohol
    Factors such as gender, age, nationality, weight and overall health can affect how a person’s liver metabolizes alcohol.
  • Genetics
    Several forms of liver disease are caused or thought to be caused, by defective genes.
  • Autoimmune disorders
    The body’s immune system may attack the liver or bile ducts causing inflammation and scarring which leads to a progressive form of liver disease.
  • Drugs and toxins
    The liver is responsible for processing most of the chemicals and medications that enter your body – this leaves it vulnerable to acute or chronic liver disease caused by medications. In some cases, this is a predictable consequence of overexposure or over-consumption of certain medications such as acetaminophen.
  • Cancer
    Although primary liver cancer is relatively uncommon, many other forms of cancer metastasize to the liver. Liver transplantation may be indicated for some forms of liver cancer that are caused by an underlying liver disease. Chemotherapy and radiofrequency ablation are also used to treat liver tumors.

(Source: Canadian Liver Foundation)

At LHSC, a multi-disciplinary team works with patients to provide treatment and care for liver disease. Prevention plays a big part in preventing liver disease and in ensuring that liver conditions do not progress to a point where transplant is required.

Ways to prevent liver disease:

  • Maintain a healthy weight, avoid a high fat diet, exercise regularly and if you are diabetic, it is important to control your blood glucose levels within the normal range.
  • Get vaccinated for Hepatitis A & B. If you know someone who has Hepatitis C, it is important not to share razors, toothbrushes and anything that could be contaminated with blood.
  • Avoid excessive use of acetaminophen (Tylenol) because it can cause life-threatening liver failure especially in combination with alcohol and other drugs.
  • Do not use Ecstacy (MDMA) which is a type of amphetamine – even one tablet has the potential to cause complete liver failure.
  • Do not drink excessive amounts of alcohol and if you have any type of liver disease, you should not ingest any alcohol. Do not drink alcohol during pregnancy because it can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in the baby. FASD causes life-long learning, behavioural, and physical impairments.
  • Be cautious in the use of herbal preparations. Some of these mixtures contain elements that are toxic to the liver.
  • All patients with Hepatitis B or C should be seen by a hepatologist or infectious disease specialist to ensure that they are assessed for antiviral therapy and have ongoing follow-up care.
This diseased polycystic liver was transplanted with a healthy liver at LHSC's Multi-Organ Transplant Unit

This diseased 'polycystic' liver (right) was transplanted with this healthy liver (left) at LHSC's Multi-Organ Transplant Program.