9 Things That Can Damage Your Liver

You may think alcohol is the only culprit, but many factors can lead to cirrhosis or liver damage.

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Your liver is the largest organ in your body, as per Medline Plus, and it has some equally big responsibilities. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the liver has more than 500 vital functions; some of the more well-known jobs include filtering the body's blood, processing nutrients, helping to fight infection, and producing proteins you need for blood clotting.

Because it performs many functions, your liver is vulnerable to assault on multiple fronts. Scarring (cirrhosis) can occur if it becomes damaged, which can eventually cause liver failure or cancer.

And while most people associate liver damage with alcohol misuse, other factors can also play a role. Here, we explore the health conditions, drugs, and lifestyle habits that may cause your liver to become damaged—and what you can do to keep this vital organ healthy.

Obesity

Obesity is thought to play a role in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which affects about 100 million people in the United States, according to the American Liver Foundation, and "will soon be the number-one reason for liver transplantation in the U.S.," said David Bernstein, MD, chief of hepatology at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York. NAFLD happens when too much fat gets stored in liver cells, according to the American Liver Foundation. While experts don't know exactly what causes the condition, it is also linked to metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and obesity.

When liver cells have too much fat, cirrhosis and liver failure can occur. Although people in their 40s and 50s have a higher risk of developing NAFLD, a 2013 study published in Obesity also saw it in adolescents with obesity.

Soda

Sugar-laden sodas are a notorious cause of weight gain, so it's not surprising that they've also been linked to liver damage. One 2015 study published in The Journal of Hepatology found thatpeople who drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages a day hadhigher markers of fatty liver disease than those who didn't drink any sugary drinks or who opted for diet varieties(although this doesn't mean that diet sodas are a healthful choice). This risk was highest among people who were already obese or overweight.

Research published in Pediatric Obesity in 2013 found that people who consumed two sugary drinks a day for six months showed signs of fatty liver disease.

The bottom line? Cutting back on soda has been shown to aid weight loss, and doing so may help keep your liver healthy, too.

Acetaminophen

Sold over-the-counter as Tylenol and by prescription as Vicodin or Percocet, acetaminophen in high doses can cause liver failure and even death, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).If an overdose is treated right away, the chances of surviving it are good—but a better course is prevention.Never take more than the recommended dose of acetaminophen (or any medication, for that matter), and make sure you aren't taking more than one medication that contains the ingredient. Always remember to check the ingredient labels for any over-the-counter drugs you are taking,

"There's acetaminophen in dozens of products," said Daniel F.Schafer, MD, professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.This includes many cough-and-cold formulas.

Other Drugs

In addition to acetaminophen, other drugs can also harm your liver, according to the NLM. For example, long-term use ofanabolic steroids(male hormones that some athletes use to improve their performance) has been linked to a slightly higher risk of liver cancer. Illegal drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and dissociative (psychedelic) drugs, can also cause liver damage.

For many reasons, avoid misusing drugs—legal and illegal. If you notice symptoms of liver damage (such as jaundice, dark urine, or pain in your abdomen), speak with your healthcare provider about any drugs you may be taking.

Hepatitis

Chronic hepatitis B and C are responsible for most cases of liver cancer worldwide, says the American Cancer Society.Hepatitis C, the more common cause in the U.S., is spread through contact with infected blood, meaning you can get it from sharing needles, unprotected sex (though this is less common), and rarely, blood transfusions.Getting a tattoo with a dirty needle also puts you at risk.

Chronic hepatitis C infection can usually be cured with drugs, but getting a quick diagnosis is essential. The disease is often referred to as a "silent killer" because many people don't know they have it, and it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure, and death if left untreated. "The key is early detection and getting people therapy," said Dr. Bernstein.

Hepatitis B, which is also spread through infected blood, is less common in adults in the U.S. because a vaccine is available and recommended for most children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Genetic Diseases

Genetics can also play a role in the health of your liver, and several hereditary conditions can lead to liver disease, as described in a 2017 study published in Clinical Liver Disease.The hereditary disease hemochromatosis, for example,causes a build-up of iron in the body, which can cause cirrhosis and eventual liver failure, according to the NLM.Less common is Wilson disease, which causes a build-up of copper in the body, damaging not only the liver but also the brain and other organs, says the NLM.

Luckily, both conditions are treatable, if not curable.For hemochromatosis, iron levels in the body are reduced by regularly removing blood.For Wilson disease, certain drugs called chelating agents can remove copper.

Autoimmune Diseases

Certain autoimmune diseases can also impact liver function.When the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the liver, it's called autoimmune hepatitis, according to the NLM. No one knows exactly what causes the body to turn on itself, but genetic factors may play a role. This disease usually affectswomen, and it's more common in people who have another autoimmune disease, as well.

Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is another autoimmune disease that usually affects women, according to the American Liver Foundation. Both conditions can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure if not treated. Although there's no cure for autoimmune hepatitis or PBC, treatment can keep you healthy.

"As long as you keep things under control, you can live a normal life expectancy," said Dr. Bernstein.

Smoking

Here's yet another reason to quit: Smoking can increase the risk of liver cancer and liver cirrhosis. In fact, a 2013 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found that smoking was associated with an increased risk of liver cirrhosis independent of alcohol intake.

The toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause inflammation and eventual cirrhosis.Smoking also promotes the production of cytokines, chemicals that cause even more inflammation and damage liver cells. Another concern: In people with hepatitis B or C, smoking can increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer according to the NLM.

Alcohol

Although other factors play a role, alcohol misuse remains a major cause of cirrhosis and subsequent liver disease.An estimated 10 to 15% of heavy drinkers will develop liver scarring, according to the American Liver Foundation. This means that drinking in moderation (or not at all) can go a long way toward keeping your liver healthy.And if you already have liver damage, it's still important to abstain.

"There are no magic pills to get rid of cirrhosis," said Dr. Bernstein. "Management is stopping alcohol."

Current CDC guidelines recommend that women consume no more than one alcoholic beverage a day and men no more than two. And mind your portions: One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.

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