The liver is the largest and hardest-working organ in the human body, playing a significant role in its health and function. In fact, the liver performs more than 500 tasks to keep the body healthy: assisting with digestion, fighting infections and naturally cleansing the body of toxins. The liver has the amazing ability to regenerate when it is damaged, but when it is damaged beyond repair, it can cause a life-threatening condition.
A healthy liver supports other organs and functions by storing nutrients or filtering out toxins from the food, drinks and medications we consume. It naturally recycles the blood, controlling the amount of vitamins and minerals, and it is a natural detoxifier, getting rid of metabolic waste and pollutants through urine or stool.
Some of the liver's major functions include breaking down fat and protein so they are easier to digest, metabolizing carbohydrates for energy or storing them for later use, producing cholesterol and other proteins, storing iron, producing bile, supporting blood clotting, assisting the immune system, breaking down medications, as well as regulating vitamins and minerals in the blood.
There are more than 100 different types of liver diseases which affect millions of people, both adults and children. Liver disease can be genetic or a result of poor lifestyle choices or exposure to numerous environmental factors. Heavy alcohol consumption, obesity, type 2 diabetes, exposure to certain chemicals and toxins, sharing needles or exposure to others' bodily fluids may increase the risk for liver disease.
Fatty liver disease affects nearly one-third of adults, and it is one of the leading causes of liver failure. It damages the liver and reduces its function. Fatty liver disease is caused by an excess buildup of fat in the liver, which can be caused by high alcohol consumption over a long period of time. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is most commonly diagnosed in individuals who are obese, sedentary or consume a high-processed diet.
Fatty liver disease is the most common chronic liver disorder. More specifically, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the third most common reason for a liver transplant in America. Both types can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, which can lead to liver failure. Currently there is not a drug that helps treat fatty liver disease, but doctors recommend lifestyle changes that can help: stop drinking alcohol, eat lots of fruits, vegetables and high-fiber foods, maintain a healthy weight, and get plenty of exercise. Avoid fried foods, limit salt and sugar intake, and eliminate processed foods.
Complications of the liver can vary from person to person, and often symptoms of poor liver function or even liver disease aren't always noticeable. Some signs include chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, dark urine, itchy skin, abdominal pain or swelling of the ankles and legs. If you have a family history of liver disease or have concerns, take the time to speak with your doctor and get a proper screening.
Missy Corrigan is executive of community health for Sumter Family YMCA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 773-1404.
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