Written by Solaade Ayo-Aderele - Nigeria
In humans, the liver is very important because of the numerous functions it performs. Scientists say this vital organ, being one of the largest in humans, detoxifies the body by ridding it of harmful substances, while it also produces the biochemical substances that are necessary for proper digestion of food.
The presence of a healthy liver in the body is what makes the blood what it is, experts say, as the liver produces the albumin – a major component of blood serum.
A General Practitioner, Dr. Daniel Ogunboyejo, says when a woman is pregnant, in the first three months, the liver is the main site of red blood cell production in the foetus. And even after the baby is born, this organ produces the hormone that plays an important role in the child's growth and continues to aid the building up of organs and tissues in adults.
Ogunboyejo also notes that when a person's blood pressure becomes low (hypotension), the liver, working in tandem with the kidneys, produces angiotensinogen – a hormone that is responsible for raising the blood pressure when activated by another enzyme (renin) that is released when the kidney senses low blood pressure.
Experts say the liver is thought to be responsible for up to 500 separate functions, usually in combination with other systems and organs. And that is why they conclude that this organ is necessary for survival, as there is no way to compensate for its absence in the body in the long term.
Scientists say the liver is basically the 'body's filter.' The function of the liver is to process medications, alcohol, and other such chemicals and toxins and remove them from the body. "Therefore, anything you put into your body will, at some point and in some form, pass through the liver," Ogunboyejo warns.
At a media briefing about Hepatitis C, a specialist in hepatology, gastroenterology and endoscopy, Dr. Aderemi Oluyemi, warns that numerous activities can jeopardise the liver, leading to damages that are sometimes irreversible unless the patient goes for liver transplantation – an extreme and expensive procedure that is not available in the country.
How can you damage your liver? These ways...
Abusing anabolic steroids
Many people, especially athletes, body builders and weight lifters, use anabolic steroids without supervision by a competent physician. Yet experts say these synthetic variants of the male sex hormone (testosterone), if used regularly and for a long period, can raise the risk of developing liver cancer as well as some other cancers.
It can also result in liver tumours; the liver may be enlarged, become deep red in colour and fragile.
"It may also lead to haemorrhagic cystic degeneration of the liver – a rare condition that requires urgent surgery," Ogunboyejo notes.
Unguarded antibiotics, painkiller use
Many of the over-the-counter drugs that we use casually without consulting the doctor affect our liver the way we don't imagine, Ogunboyejo says.
For instance, physicians say drugs used to treat epilepsy (anticonvulsants), cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins), acetaminophen (painkillers) and isotretinoin (used to treat severe acne) all have terrible effects on the liver.
Worse still, a study published in the journal Gastroenterology also shows that of all types of prescription drugs, antibiotics are the ones most likely to cause liver damage.
Ogunboyejo laments that in most cases, people don't just take these drugs in isolation; rather, they may combine two at a time. For instance, it isn't improbable for people to take a combination of antibiotics and paracetamol. "In which case, you increase your risks of liver damage exponentially," the doctor warns.
The physician therefore counsels, "If you have recently finished a course of antibiotics, or if you have been taking them long-term, it is vital to ask your doctor for a liver function test to determine the health of your liver."
According to Diabetologist/Medical Director, Rainbow Specialist Medical Centre, Lekki Phase 1, Dr. Afokoghene Isiavwe, people who are diabetic are more likely to develop liver damage than people with normal blood sugar level.
"More than people probably realise, diabetes has terrible effects on the liver. That is why I recommend that every diabetic has a blood test and ultrasound to check on the health of their liver annually," she advises.
She adds that the closer you are to a healthy body weight, and the closer to normal your blood sugar level is, the better your liver's health.
Impure water, alcohol use
What is the source of the water you drink? For the average Nigerian, we source our water from privately-owned wells or boreholes, which may not be bad enough if the wells are up to standard depth and the water sweet, odourless and colourless.
However, many people don't know the 'texture' of their water, which may be hard or soft.
A study carried out by Scottish researchers show that those who drink 'soft' water and who also consume alcohol risk developing Alcoholic Liver Disease – a major killer.
Soft water is water which has relatively low concentration of calcium carbonate and other ions. It lathers with soap easily and contains few or no minerals such as calcium or magnesium ions.
The study author/liver transplant surgeon, Prof. Roger Williams, says those who drink soft water are exposed to the risk of liver damage because such waters contain lower levels of magnesium – the mineral that helps to protect the liver from the effects of alcohol.
But even on its own, Alcoholic Liver Disease occurs after years of heavy drinking, says a nutritionist, Dr. Tobi Lawrence. "Alcohol can cause inflammation in the liver; and over time, scarring and cirrhosis can occur. Cirrhosis is the final phase of alcoholic liver disease," she counsels.
Lawrence notes that the longer the time you have been using alcohol, the higher your chances of getting liver disease go up.
"It is also based on the more alcohol you consume," she warns; advising that even those who claim to be moderate drinkers can still have damaged liver if it's a habit they persist in for a long period.
Smoking is harmful to virtually every organ in your body. Scientists say there are over 60 chemicals in cigarette smoke, all of which have the potential to affect and disturb all parts of the human anatomy. These chemicals prevent the liver from performing its main function by making it to age and become less efficient at removing toxins from the body.
Lawrence says foods that are processed and contain lots of preservatives, fats and cholesterol can cause the liver to become clogged with fat residue. Avoid processed, deep fried or fatty foods such as sausage, bacon, corned beef, etc., to allow the liver to unblock itself and regenerate its cells.
Symptoms of liver damage
Symptoms of liver diseases include weakness and fatigue, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, and yellow discolouration of the skin (jaundice).