Other than the occasional jokes (and apologies) about drinking too much, residents of Dubuque and elsewhere don’t always give a lot of thought to our liver. But whether someone is in good health or receiving hospice care, it’s important to be aware of the important role that this organ plays – and what can be done to help it if it isn’t working as well as it used to.
The team at Above and Beyond Home Health Care and Hospice work with a variety of clients, some with liver problems, which can impact the rest of the body.
The liver, if you don’t remember biology, has important jobs in our body including breaking down food, cleaning the food, and storing energy. It also synthesizes proteins, cholesterol, and bile products. Although the liver is involved in some degree of filtering, the kidneys actually have the larger task of removing waste and fluid.
Some consider the liver one of the more complex organs in the body in terms of all it does on a regular basis, and the impact on the rest of the body if the liver isn’t performing as it’s supposed to.
Liver function can be impacted by toxins, primarily alcohol, but heavy metals can also affect it as well as larger than recommended amounts of acetaminophen.
The liver can also be affected by medical conditions like hepatitis. Obesity also can limit its function.
Noticeable healing has been observed from medical damage and actual trauma, but over time a liver can start to be less effective. It actually is known to grow physically smaller as someone ages, which can also start to impair function.
Unfortunately, many seniors do begin to experience liver problems as they age, including damage from years of heavy drinking, poor diet, or poor health. These problems can aggravate an already weak liver and decrease its function. They also are more likely to be diagnosed with one of several liver-related diseases.
At some point, a provider may recommend a full or partial liver transplant, if a liver is no longer working. But even with a transplant, liver function can decrease as someone ages, especially if they don’t correct or change some of their lifestyle choices. (drinking, smoking, poor exercise, etc.)
Treatment and recovery of liver damage will also generally take longer, and the new liver will also be more susceptible to future injuries. For instance, someone battling cirrhosis will often end up with scarring on their liver.
Active liver disease or a poorly performing liver can also affect the body’s other processes, such as making the kidneys work harder. Liver disease such as jaundice can even give the skin a yellow cast.
General fatigue is common, as well as weakness, weight loss, a loss of appetite, and itchy skin. Chronic alcohol-related liver disease can cause other symptoms including confusion, loss of balance, and chronic vomiting.
How to help your liver
Some of these actions, such as a liver transplant, are recommended for people whose liver is in poor condition and barely working, such as extensive scarring.
But before the liver condition reaches the severe stage, there are some options people can take to reduce future damage or even stimulate healing.
The biggest is to either stop drinking alcohol or at least reduce regular intake. Though an occasional drink may be fine when the liver is in good shape, a liver does benefit from time to “rest and reboot.”
Drinking nightly, especially in large quantities, can put further stress on the liver and not let it recover well with each binge. Healthline recommends 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of harder liquor, followed by stopping drinking alcohol for at least a month.
This strategy will help a liver heal or at least not decrease performance.
Completely giving up alcohol can be difficult for some, however, especially if it’s been a regular habit for years or even decades.
But medical professionals are quick to say that the more damaged your liver is, the further damage can be done with alcohol. And part of living with a transplant often means abstaining forever from alcohol since one will be less likely to receive a second liver transplant if alcohol continued to be a factor.
Health experts say there are other strategies to help improve liver function:
- Stopping any other dangerous substances that can be absorbed by your liver, such as cannabis or tobacco.
- Increasing exercise with a focus on improving cardiovascular health along with weight loss.
- Looking for vaccines for certain forms of hepatitis. (The A and B forms do have vaccines, but the C form doesn’t)
- Talk to your provider about your goal – he or she can help, including looking over your current medications to make sure none are known to cause liver damage over time.
- Eating less. You may be someone who likes larger portions, but this can put extra demand on an already weakened liver.
- Eating better. More fiber, less processed food and less salt and sugar can all aid liver function.
If you’d like to learn more about this organ, October is National Liver Awareness Month, an opportunity to find out about local and national resources and ways to help.