December is a month filled with office parties and festive celebrations. While Christmas is a wonderful time to relax and celebrate with family and friends, all this overindulgence can play havoc with our health. It therefore seems timely that the British Liver Trust has named the month of January national Love Your Liver month.
The liver is extraordinary. It filters around one and a half litres of blood every minute, ridding our body of toxins such as alcohol, caffeine, drugs and food additives. Weight gain over Christmas time results in extra fat stored in the liver, and the extra caffeine, alcohol and the morning-after painkillers, all place additional pressure on this important organ.
In fact, according to the NHS, 1 in 5 people in the UK have a fatty liver, and rates of liver disease in the UK are rising (1).
How does overindulgence damage the liver?
When the liver tries to break down alcohol and other toxins, this can cause oxidative stress which damages cells in the liver. It is also thought that alcohol and other irritants can damage our intestine which means that toxins from the intestine can get into the liver, leading to inflammation and scarring. The liver turns glucose into fat which it sends round the body to store for use when we need it. Alcohol affects the way the liver handles fat meaning that fat starts to build up in the liver.
Dr Mark Wright at the British Liver Trust explains that the liver tends to suffer at Christmas because Chritmas indulgences are not simply restricted to a single day – instead the festive period is drawn out over several weeks, meaning that the liver is subject to excess fat, alcohol and calories over a long period of time. If we bombard our liver with too many toxins we can eventually overstretch our liver’s resources.
How can we protect and repair the liver?
The good news is that these early signs of liver disease are reversible as the liver has the remarkable ability to repair itself. The Love Your Liver campaign suggests just three simple steps to protect your liver’s health:
1. Stay off alcohol for 2-3 days in a row each week;
2. Take more exercise and stay fit;
3. Cut down on sugar and fat.
Nutritionally, there are a number of measures that are also believed to help an over burdened liver to repair itself. Foods that help promote healthy liver function include:
- High sulphur foods, such as garlic, legumes, onions and eggs;
- Water soluble fibre such as pears, oatbran, apples and legumes;
- Cabbage family vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and sprouts;
- Functional foods such as artichokes, beets, carrots, turmeric and cinnamon.
A good quality antioxidant supplement can also support your liver by providing it with the resources it needs to repair oxidative damage. Certain nutritional supplements can also support the liver’s detoxification processes. For example, sulphation is the chemical process used to detoxify substances such as alcohol and paracetemol. The supplement methyl sulphonyl methane (MSM) – a form of sulphur – helps to support this sulphation process in the liver. The antioxidant supplement silymarin, or milk thistle, is also frequently used to help support and repair the liver, with much research supporting its benefits in diseases of the liver (2).
Stay Health Aware
As the liver has no nerve endings, it can be hard to notice the first signs of problems. If you feel you have been overindulging with fatty foods and alcohol over a long period of time you can ask your GP for a liver function test.
The Love Your Liver Roadshow is touring throughout the month of January and offers free liver assessments to the public. The roadshow is planned to stop at Portsmouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds, Middlesborough and Glasgow. For the most up to date information, visit the British Liver Trust’s Love Your Liver website.
Nadia Mason, BSc MBANT NTCC CNHC.
1. Liver Disease Summary Statistics. www.liver.nhs.uk.
2. Saller R, Brignoli R, Melzer J Meier R. (2008) An updated systematic review with meta-analysis for the clinical evidence of silymarin. Forsch Komplementmed.
3. Image courtesy of winnond.