Your liver is the largest organ in your body, and it has some equally big responsibilities: filtering the body’s blood, processing nutrients, helping to fight infection, producing proteins you need for blood clotting, and much more. But all these jobs mean your liver is vulnerable to assault on multiple fronts. If it becomes damaged, scarring (cirrhosis) can occur, which can eventually cause liver failure or cancer. And while most people associate liver damage with alcohol abuse, other factors can also play a role. Here, 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 between 80 and 100 million people in the United States and "will soon be the number-one reason for liver transplantation in the U.S.," says David Bernstein, MD, chief of hepatology at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York. It happens when too much fat gets stored in liver cells. While experts don’t know exactly what causes NAFLD, the condition is also linked to metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and high triglyceride levels, in addition to 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 recent study published in The Journal of Hepatology found that people who drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages a day had higher markers of fatty liver disease than those who didn’t drink any sugary drinks, or who opted for diet varieties
- 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. 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.
- Genetic disease: Genetics can also play a role in the health of your liver, and several hereditary conditions can lead to 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.
- Autoimmune disease: Certain autoimmune diseases can also impact liver function. When the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the liver, it’s called autoimmune hepatitis. No one knows exactly what causes the body to turn on itself, but genetic factors may play a role. This disease usually affects women, and it’s more common in people who have another autoimmune disease as well.
- Smoking: Smoking can increase the risk of both liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. 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 to liver cells.
- Alcohol: Although other factors do play a role, alcohol abuse remains a major cause of cirrhosis and subsequent liver disease. An estimated 10-15% 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.
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