If there is an organ in the human body that shows true greatness, it is the liver. At about 1400 grams, it weighs about five times as much as the heart, so it’s a real heavyweight. And not just that! Despite the stresses caused by drugs, alcohol, fatty food, and sugar, the liver usually serves us for a lifetime – even so, if it may not be healthy for as long.
“A diseased liver does not hurt, patients have hardly any symptoms,” says Professor Markus Cornberg, senior physician at the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endocrinology at Hannover Medical School. Many people have liver disease, but only about one in five is detected early.
The good news is that for a healthy liver, everyone can do a lot as a preventive measure – far more than many of us believe.
“Most people think of alcohol and detoxification function in the liver first,” Cornberg says. The organ is extremely versatile and fulfills several vital tasks.
Diagnosis of liver disease
“Together you can think of it as a factory,” says Professor Christian Trautwein of the German Society for Gastroenterology, Digestive and Metabolic Diseases. A factory that is primarily concerned with chemistry. Proteins from the diet are first broken down into their individual parts and then assembled into new products. It forms into enzymes that control many biochemical reactions in the body, or hormones that regulate our mood or our appetite.
Even fats could not be metabolized without the liver. This is because it produces the necessary bile acids. “Bile is the liver’s most important partner in digestion,” says Trautwein, although somewhat the junior partner.
The Liver forms about half a liter of bile juice every day. It is thickened in the gallbladder and enters the intestine from there. The liver not only produces, but it also stores a wide variety of substances. Sugar, for example, in the form of glycogen, this body fuel migrates to the depot of the liver. Vitamins and trace elements such as copper, zinc, or iron are also stored there in certain quantities.
So much of what we eat or drink has to be managed by the liver in the end. A balanced diet can therefore also influence the health of this organ. As a metabolic center, the liver is involved in two blood circuits – the only organ besides the heart. Through the vein cycle, it receives nutrients directly from the intestine.
A good connection also has disadvantages. “Almost every drug we swallow will sooner or later have to pass through the liver,” says Dr. Harald Mückter of the Walther Straub Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology in Munich.
As a result, drugs are often partially or completely metabolized before they reach their actual destination. Many undesirable side effects of medicines, therefore, affect the liver. “Because it is a large and robust organ, severe damage from medications only occurs with long-term use,” says Mückter.
Alcohol is a much bigger challenge for the liver. This is mainly due to the substances, like acetaldehyde, that the organ produces from them.
“Acetaldehyde can react with all sorts of substances, including those from the liver cells themselves,” explains Mückter. Therefore, it is not only partly responsible for the hangover the next day but also makes the liver work harder.
In addition, the liver also converts alcohol into fat. And when it gradually fattens, it promotes a variety of other conditions – from diabetes to cardiovascular problems.
The liver is particularly susceptible to inflammation (hepatitis). The most common trigger for this is a viral infection.
However, fatty liver can also become inflamed – without the intervention of viruses. More and more people have a fattened organ. According to an estimate by the Liver Foundation, more than a third of adults over 40 are affected in this country.
In the past, the problem was mainly associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Today, obesity, diabetes, and lack of exercise are more likely to be the causes.
The best support for liver and gallbladder is to avoid what harms these two organs.
Infections: Hepatitis and many other viruses can cause liver inflammation.
Detoxification: Reducing alcohol is good for the liver. Days of abstinence help the organ to regenerate.
Medications: Many active ingredients are broken down in the liver. Some of them can damage the organ, such as an overdose of paracetamol.
Unhealthy fats: If the food contains too much of it, the liver cannot process and store them completely. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids from vegetable oils are best.
Sugar: In addition to alcohol and obesity, diabetes is considered a risk factor for liver fattening. It also increases the risk of gallstones.
Lack of activity: More exercise is good for the liver. Sport supports metabolism and can break down liver fat.
Obesity: Too much body fat puts the liver at risk. Bodyweight should be reduced by five to ten percent within a year.
Every patient can do something about their fatty liver disease. The diseased organ recovers well – if you support it.
For example, in a patient whose liver levels in the blood were dramatically high. “We were thinking about hepatitis at first,” Cornberg said. The man was overweight, barely moved, and drank more alcohol. His liver was heavily fattened.
Doctors strongly advised him to change his lifestyle. And the patient followed the advice. He started playing sports, ate a balanced diet, and took a few kilos off. After a year, his liver values were back to normal. According to Cornberg, “Lifestyle can cause, but also stop, many liver diseases.” After all, the liver can heal.”
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