What can go wrong with the liver?

Liver Health

Read more about the lifestyle factors that can affect the health of your liver


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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What can go wrong with the liver?

In the body, the liver has over 500 different roles including aiding the digestions of fats, removing toxins, storing essential vitamins and mineral and regulating the production and breakdown of many important hormones. 

Read more about the role of the liver here

Because the liver is involved in a number of different bodily processes, if damaged it can cause many health problems throughout the body. As the liver is responsible for removing toxins such as alcohol and drugs, it comes into close contact with these harmful substances which can cause liver damage. While it is true that a damaged liver can regenerate by producing new cells, prolonged exposure to toxins such as a high alcohol intake can lead to the development of liver disease.  

There are over 100 different types of liver disease which are thought to affect over 2 million people in the UK. There are many different types and causes of liver disease. 

1. Parasites and viruses can target the liver and cause problems.

Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver which may occur for a number of reasons including exposure to harmful substances such as alcohol or from a viral infection.

Everything you need to know about hepatitis

2. Liver disease can occur due to prolonged exposure to alcohol.

Alcohol-related liver disease occurs when the liver becomes damaged after prolonged alcohol misuse which leads to cirrhosis which is scarring of the liver.

Learn everything you need to know about alcohol-related liver disease here

3. Liver disease can develop due to fat building up in the liver and affecting its normal functioning.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when fat builds up in the liver cells. This type of liver disease describes a range of conditions that are caused by a fatty liver, usually seen in those who are overweight or obese.

Learn everything you need to know about non-alcoholic fatty liver disease here

Certain types of liver disease can be caused by an immune system abnormality such as primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), an autoimmune disease in which the bile ducts in the liver are destroyed. In PBC, the immune system attacks the liver cells mistaking them as foreign objects in the body such as bacteria or viruses. This leads to swelling of the bile ducts which restricts the flow of bile through the liver. The inflammation and fibrosis which PBC causes ultimately leads to scarring and liver failure. Women are more likely than men to suffer from this condition. 

Many who have PBC do not experience symptoms but if they do symptoms may include: 

  • Itching
  • Fatigue
  • Discomfort in the top right area of the abdomen
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • Dry mouth and eyes
  • Swollen feet and ankles 

If any of these symptoms arise then speak with your doctor. They will most likely advise you to have a blood test to check for anti-mitochondrial antibodies (AMAs). AMAS are produced by the immune system and are present in a large number of those who have PBC. Testing bilirubin levels in the blood is also good as the liver is responsible for taking bilirubin (a waste product released when red blood cells are broken down) and removing it as urine. High levels can indicate the liver is damaged. A doctor may also use ultrasound scans to investigate the liver damage further.

An individual’s genetics may be responsible for the development of liver disease. Haemochromatosis (iron overload disorder) is an inherited disorder in which there is a steady build-up of iron in the body. Excess iron in the body is often stored in the liver, heart and pancreas. High iron levels can lead to the development of liver disease, heart problems and diabetes.

The liver is very sensitive to the effects of excess iron and can cause cirrhosis which increases the risk of liver cancer. Symptoms of haemochromatosis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Erectile dysfunction in men
  • Irregular/absent period in women
  • Weight loss 

There is currently no cure for haemochromatosis, but the treatment options available can help reduce iron levels in the body and reduce the risk of damage. If haemochromatosis symptoms occur, a doctor will advise a blood test to check an individual's iron status in the body. For haemochromatosis, the main treatments include frequent blood draws to reduce iron levels in the body and chelation therapy to again reduce the amount of iron in the blood.

To learn more about liver disease symptoms, click here


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