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The liver is a detox champion and one of the most vital organs in our bodies, so let’s treat it right.

The liver is a super organ. Not only does it give our blood a regular detox, it also produces essential nutrients our body needs to function. And it’s the only human organ that can regenerate itself: a donated section of a liver will actually grow to almost its original size in the recipient. And the donor’s liver will grow to replace the part that was removed.

Needless to say, taking care of this special organ is important. People often relate liver disease to alcohol abuse or injection drug use, and while both of these unsafe practices can cause liver disease, other situations are also risky.

Shayla Steeves, regional director Atlantic Canada for the Canadian Liver Foundation, gives us the liver facts.

Q Why is the liver so important?
A The liver is the largest internal vital organ in the body and weighs in at more than one kilogram. It processes everything we eat, drink, breathe or rub on our skin. It performs about 500 functions that are vital to life: it cleanses the blood, regulates the supply of body fuel, manufactures many essential body proteins, regulates the balance of many hormones and regulates cholesterol.

Q Who gets liver disease?
A One in 10 Canadians is affected by a liver or biliary tract disease [a disease affecting the bile ducts, which run bile between the gall bladder and the small intestine for digestion]. People who suffer from liver disease can be of any age, from infancy to older adults. And there are more than 100 liver diseases.

Q What are the most common forms of liver disease?
A Fatty liver disease is the most common in Canada with 1.4 million people affected. Obesity is a leading cause of fatty liver. You can be a non-drinker and still get liver disease if you are overweight and lead a sedentary lifestyle. Fatty liver disease can result in cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Viral hepatitis affects approximately 600,000 Canadians, and the most common forms are A, B and C.

Q How do you protect yourself against these diseases?
A We encourage people to get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. People will get vaccinated if they’re travelling to a country with a high incidence of hepatitis A or B, but the virus can be contracted in Canada as well.

Hepatitis A is found in the stool of the infected person and is contracted through contaminated food or water.  Hand washing and clean food preparation both help prevent the spread of hepatitis A.

Hepatitis B is contracted through blood or body fluids or sexual contact with an infected person. Some practices that can lead to contracting the virus are getting a manicure or pedicure with instruments that haven’t been sterilized, sharing a razor, a toothbrush or getting a tattoo or piercing.

Q What are the symptoms of hepatitis?
A Symptoms of any form of hepatitis can include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, abdominal discomfort, jaundice [yellowing of the skin and eyes], dark urine, low grade fever and loss of appetite. Very often, there will be no symptoms, especially with hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

There’s no vaccination for hepatitis C, which is spread through blood-to-blood contact in similar ways to hepatitis B. It may have mild or no symptoms but can lead to cirrhosis [a permanent scarring of the liver tissue], liver failure or liver cancer.

Q How does alcohol affect the liver?
A If the liver is detoxifying alcohol continuously, its cells may be destroyed or altered, resulting in fat deposits, or fatty liver and, more seriously, inflammation or cirrhosis. Women who drink more than 10 drinks a week or more than two per day, and men who drink more than 15 drinks a week or more than three per day, increase their risk of liver disease.

Q Do detoxifying cleanses really work?
A As of today, no alternative therapy has been proven effective in treating liver disease. Most of these liver cleanses are not considered regular medicine and have not been tested in the same way as regular medicines.

Q What are the symptoms of liver cancer?
A Symptoms that often appear only in later stages of liver cancer are: weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, jaundice, fluid in the abdomen and itchy skin. Early detection of liver cancer is extremely important because small cancers that start in the liver are curable if detected early.Because the liver filters blood from all parts of the body, cancer cells from elsewhere can lodge in the liver and grow.

Q How can we help our livers?
A Reduce or eliminate drinking and smoking. Eat a well balanced diet and introduce exercise into your routine. Read food labels to avoid foods high in saturated fats, sugar and sodium. Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B.

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