PLEASE NOTE: This is not just for those who overindulge.
By Alicia Wanek
William James, often called the ‘Father of Psychology,’ once said, “Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.” While he was likely referencing a person, he may very well have been referencing the other liver, that often ignored but vitally important organ of the body. Somehow the poor liver has not been granted nearly as much hype nor is it seen as ‘glamorous’ as other organs. It is, however, a pretty amazing structure, but when it’s not functioning as well as it should, it can seriously affect quality of life.
Be honest, when you think of the liver, what comes to mind? Your first thought was its association with alcoholism, wasn’t it? The term cirrhosis is even presented to elementary-aged students during alcohol and drug awareness weeks. But how much have you heard about liver disease not associated with alcoholism? Madison Wagner, Clinical Solutions Specialist with Perspectum, a company that offers leading precision imaging for the liver, says, “It is assumed that liver disease is only due to excess of alcohol, but in reality it’s more prevalent in those who are obese, with metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.” About 25% of adults in the U.S. have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). That’s a large segment of the population. Of those, about 20% (or 5% of U.S. adults) have non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
A diagnosis of NAFLD simply means that a patient has excess fat in the liver and evidence of fibro-inflammatory activity, or disease activity for short, which can make it harder to function properly. If it progresses and causes inflammation and liver cell damage, the diagnosis is NASH. It’s nearly impossible to describe how important the liver is to the body, so anything affecting its function makes an impact. An article from Medpage by Robin Francis in 2020 ranked the “best human organs” and called the liver “god-tier.” He describes it this way:
The liver is wild. It metabolizes almost everything you put in your body, no matter how idiotic… because it detoxes more in a minute than a lifetime’s worth of juice cleanses. The digestive system sends all the nutrients to this megafactory that breaks down fat, tucks energy away, churns out dozens of different things such as hormones, clotting factors, proteins, bile. In fact, nobody even knows how much the liver does, but most textbooks estimate it performs about 500 different roles.
So, obviously we should take care of this “megafactory.” But how?
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward promoting good liver health. What you know about keeping your body healthy keeps your liver healthy, too. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating well, and exercising are key. It is no surprise that limiting alcohol intake makes a difference, illegal drugs as well. Additionally, decreasing your likelihood of contracting hepatitis through needles or unsafe sex, washing your hands frequently, and getting hepatitis A and B vaccines are important to the prevention of liver disease.
How can someone know if they have developed NAFLD? Unfortunately, liver disease has very few symptoms until the disease is in advanced stages. That’s why imaging techniques like Perspectum’s LiverMultiScan available at select Envision Imaging Centers in the Dallas/Forth Worth metroplex are imperative to gain quantitative information about liver health. “LiverMultiScan is inserted into the pathway of patients in whom NAFLD and/or NASH is suspected, for better staging and risk stratification and to inform the referral decision for further evaluation and management,” says Wagner. If a patient’s blood test or ultrasound indicate concerns about liver health, physicians can order the procedure as an add-on with other imaging or as a stand-alone exam. The physician and patient get measurable results, not just medical opinions, about the state of the organ and level of fibro-inflammatory activity.
What if your doctor orders a LiverMultiScan at Envision and you discover you are part of that 25% of the population with NAFLD? This might be the most amazing fact about the liver. It can repair itself. With lifestyle changes and medical intervention, a damaged liver can actually regenerate in much the same way your skin heals itself. Francis’ article points out,“You can donate up to 70% of your liver to someone and that chunk will develop into a whole liver, plus yours will grow back into a full liver in a month or two.” The liver can produce new cells to replace damaged tissue, although it cannot do so completely if there is advanced scar tissue or regeneration is prevented by a virus or alcohol. According to Wagner, “The liver is extremely resilient. If you have early understanding of potential NAFLD, and work on your clinician’s treatment recommendations, it can come back to health.” Physicians can always order a repeat of the LiverMultiScan to see the progress of treatment and to see how the liver is healing.
As the holiday season approaches this year and the festivities begin, it is wise to consider your liver, not just by monitoring the amount of alcohol you consume, but by the lifestyle choices you make. Take care of your liver, and it will take care of you. It is always better to make good choices the first time, even if this organ could give you a “do over.”