Originally Published: October 6, 2013 6:01 a.m.
As long as we are healthy, there is much about our own bodies that we simply take for granted. The liver, for example, is one organ that is not always well understood by most people. The liver is the largest organ inside the human body. It filters harmful substances from the blood, makes substances that digest food, and changes food into energy. Its healthy functioning is vital to our overall health.
October is National Liver Awareness Month, an opportunity for all of us to learn a little more about the liver's essential role. During this month, health providers, hospitals and organizations like the American Liver Foundation are urging Americans across the nation to take control of their health by learning about this important organ - how it functions, how to spot the common signs of liver disease, and what steps people can take to protect their liver. Education is especially important in the fight against liver disease - which is rapidly becoming one of the nation's most serious public health problems.
Liver disease ranks as a top 10 cause of death for Americans, with more than 26,000 people dying each year from some form of chronic liver disease. More than 30 million Americans - one in every 10 U.S. citizens - are affected by some kind of liver disease, including hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver cancer. In fact, unlike most cancers, the incidence of liver cancer is actually increasing.
Getting plenty of the right kind of exercise and eating good foods are both very important to maintaining a healthy liver. Here are a few other things you can do to maintain good liver health:
Consume alcohol only in moderation.
Discuss your current mix of medications with your physician. Taking too many medicines can be toxic to your liver.
Avoid mixing alcohol with other drugs or medications unless approved by a physician.
Ensure proper ventilation when using aerosol cleaning sprays.
Take precautions when working with chemicals. Pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals can cause liver damage when they come into contact with the skin.
Many forms of liver disease are preventable through healthy lifestyle choices like exercise and eating the right foods. Alcohol-related liver disease, for example, is caused by excessive alcohol consumption and is the most common preventable type of liver disease. Other types of liver disease, particularly hepatitis A and B, can be controlled by vaccines. If undiagnosed and left untreated, however, Hepatitis B can lead to serious illness such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The liver processes everything we eat, drink, breathe and even put on our skin. When the liver is not functioning properly, it can result in acute and chronic illnesses, or even death. Unfortunately, many people do not recognize the symptoms of liver disease and are unaware they have an illness until it's too late.
Some signs that may indicate liver disease include:
Unusually dark urine, unusually light-colored stools, bloody stools or stools that are tar-like.
A yellowish discoloration of the skin or eyes.
Abdominal swelling or severe abdominal pain.
Chronic fatigue, nausea or loss of appetite.
People exhibiting one or more of these symptoms should contact their physician. However, people with liver disease often experience no symptoms, so it is important that patients get regular screenings, know their risk factors and talk to their healthcare provider about whether they may be at risk for hepatitis or liver disease.