When we think of our health and primary organs in the body, the usual suspects come to mind. We think of our hearts, kidneys and brain as some of the most important components to a healthy and prosperous life, but a primary organ that often gets forgotten is the liver. With our liver, we know how alcohol can have an effect on its health and productivity, but there are far more factors that influence liver health than one might be aware of. In this week’s Health Journal, we dive deep into liver health, why it’s important and what steps you can take to ensure this vital organ stays healthy for the long-term.
Why liver health is important and what it does:
To put in perspective how vital our liver is, it’s been known to perform “at least 500 functions” that keep us healthy. To emphasize its importance, the liver is the second-largest organ in the body and one of its primary functions is to flush out toxins that can harmful to us. In addition, our liver processes food, makes bile, helps maintain our blood sugar levels and so much more. Below we will list some of the ways our liver contributes to keeping us productive and healthy.
- Processes Food: When food enters the body, our digestive system immediately begins to break it down into small pieces and the nutrients eventually enter our bloodstream and pass through the liver. From here the liver processes the nutrients in the food according to what your body needs. This is vitally important because no matter how healthy one eats, without a properly functioning liver, your body won’t be able to properly use the nutrients in the food you are eating.
- Stores and Utilizes Nutrients: Once our liver has processed the nutrients from our food, it stores portions of them for future use by converting them to a form that our body can rely on for quick energy. If your liver is diseased or damaged, this process is severely hindered and can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
- Produces Bile: Now Bile might be a term some of us are unfamiliar with, but it’s a yellowish fluid that assists in breaking down food and is essential in helping with cholesterol and lipid digestion. Bile is produced to aid with digestion and specifically helps with the breakdown of fat as food passes from the stomach to the intestines. Without the production of bile, indigestion problems will occur but it will also lead to a decrease in the production of fatty acids.
- Supplies Energy: The liver plays a crucial role in balancing the sugar in our bloodstream and we know it’s vital for our glucose levels to stay within a certain narrow range. When your latest meal is being digested, your liver removes sugars from the blood and stores them as glycogen. If your blood sugar drops, your body will convert this glycogen into glucose and send it to your muscles which will act as fuel for your cells.
How to maintain a healthy liver:
As listed above, our liver plays a vital role in our health and contributes in a variety of ways. Now that you know how pivotal it is, you might be wondering what you can do to improve or maintain the health of your liver. Below are a few ways you can make a difference going forward.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being obese or overweight can put you in danger of having a fatty liver which can lead to non-alcoholic liver disease. Weight loss can help play a significant role in reducing liver fat.
- Eat a balanced diet: It is generally recommended that you avoid high-calorie meals, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread and white rice), and sugars. For a well-balanced diet, one should include good amounts of fiber, meat, dairy and “good” fats. Hydration is also very important so drinking enough water is essential.
- Exercise Regularly: Getting into a healthy exercise routine has a variety of benefits for your liver, including helping you maintain a healthy weight. It also helps turn triglycerides into fuel and can reduce liver fat.
- Use alcohol responsibly: We’re not here to tell you to stop drinking alcohol in its entirety or that drinking alcohol is all bad, but it is linked to a variety of health problems. Drinking alcohol can assist in damaging or destroying liver cells which can lead to scarring and long-term issues.
- Drink Coffee: This might be a welcomed sign for many of us coffee drinkers, but coffee is one of the best beverages you can drink to help promote liver health. Studies have shown that drinking coffee protects your liver from disease, even helping those who have preexisting problems. Drinking coffee has been shown to lower the risk of cirrhosis or permanent liver damage in people with chronic liver disease. These health benefits seem to stem from coffee’s ability to prevent the buildup of fat and collagen, which are two of the primary markers of liver disease.
What to avoid:
Now we know adding stuff to our diet is oftentimes a little easier than eliminating some of our favorite foods. But when it comes to liver health, there are just a few foods to avoid or at least consume in moderation and we have listed them below.
- Alcohol: Limiting alcohol intake can help protect against cirrhosis since drinking too much can wreak havoc on your liver. It is best to try to limit yourself to one or two drinks a day depending on gender and body size.
- Added Sugar: We have all heard that too much sugar is bad for us, but too much sugar also directly impacts our liver health. Part of our liver’s job is to convert sugar into fat and if you overdo it, the liver ends up making more fat than is needed which hangs around in places it doesn’t belong. Over the long run, this will lead to issues like fatty liver disease, so to do your liver a favor try making sugary items an occasional treat.
- Salt: It’s true that our bodies need salt, at least in small amounts, but many of our favorite foods contain a little more than we need. Research suggests that a diet high in sodium has a chance to lead to fibrosis, which is the first stage of liver scarring. Some easy ways to cut back on salt include avoiding processed foods like bacon and deli meats and choosing fresh veggies over canned veggies.