With World Hepatitis Day coming up on 28 July, it is a reminder to pay attention to your body’s largest internal organ — the liver — and take steps to maintain its optimal health.
What the liver does
- Produces bile for digestion and breaks down fats into energy
- Makes important physiological products such as cholesterol for the body
- Processes and stores essential nutrients that we consume
- Cleans the body by filtering out wastes and toxins
- Manufactures substances that help blood to clot
- Regulates blood sugar levels
Keeping an eye on the liver
The two fields of medicine concerned with keeping the liver healthy are:
- Gastroenterology, which focuses on the digestive system and its disorders
- Hepatology, which looks at the structure, functions, diseases and abnormalities of the liver
How liver disease is diagnosed
- Blood tests measure levels of liver enzymes and proteins in the blood that could indicate how well the liver is functioning and the extent of damage, if any.
- Imaging tests such as ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT) look for signs of abnormalities and scarring in the liver.
- A liver biopsy involves taking a small sample of liver tissue to analyse for signs of liver disease
Tips for a healthy liver
- Get yourself vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, which are the most prevalent strains of liver viruses in Singapore. This is especially important if you plan to travel to areas with poor sanitation. In Singapore, hepatitis B is the most common cause of liver cirrhosis.
- Maintain good personal hygiene and wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom and before eating, to lower the risk of contracting hepatitis A.
- Eat food that is properly cooked. In Singapore, most hepatitis A cases occur due to contamination from raw or partially cooked shellfish, while cases of hepatitis E can occur from eating uncooked pork.
- Limit your alcohol intake as far as possible. The recommended upper limit of alcohol consumption is two standard drinks a day for men and one drink for women.
- Keep your cholesterol in a healthy range, with a total blood cholesterol below 5.2mmol/L or 200mg/dl.
- Exercise for at least 150 minutes a week to keep off the pounds and prevent obesity.
- Practise safe sex to lower the risk of contracting hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
- Stop smoking
- Stick to a well-balanced diet with high-fibre foods. Avoid deep-fried and processed foods as they contain high amounts of fat that could lead to fatty liver disease.
- Consult your doctor before consuming medication without a prescription. Some traditional medicines and remedies may contain metals and toxins that can harm your liver or lead to liver toxicity and damage.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when excess fat builds up in the liver of people who consume little or no alcohol, while alcoholinduced fatty liver disease is caused by heavy drinking.
Excess fat in the liver causes it to enlarge and function abnormally. Risk factors for NAFLD include obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and a sedentary lifestyle. Patients with NAFLD may develop liver cirrhosis and liver failure if their liver conditions worsen.
Read more: Up to 1 in 3 Singaporeans has fatty liver disease. But did you know it is reversible? Click to find out how.
Cirrhosis is a long-term chronic disease where the liver becomes scarred and is unable to function properly. Cirrhosis can be caused by factors such as viral hepatitis or inflammation of the liver, NAFLD and long-term alcohol use. Left untreated, cirrhosis can result in complications such as liver cancer and liver failure.
Symptoms of this condition include:
- Jaundice or the yellowing of skin and eyes
- Dark urine
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Appetite and weight loss
- Fatigue and weakness
- Bruising and swelling
- Slurred speech
- Bleeding from the nose and gums
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