The liver: We can’t live without it


The liver is one of the most amazing but underrated organs in our bodies. We cannot live without it, and, unlike the kidney, we cannot bypass it with a dialysis machine. Lose your liver and you lose your life.

The liver is essential for digestion but also detoxifies our blood, filtering, breaking down and disposing of chemicals we cannot use. While there are many toxins that can harm the liver cells, it has an amazing ability to regenerate itself. It can suffer immense damage, nearly die out, then recover and allow many more years of life.

To help us discuss liver damage, we look at “hepato” from the Greek “hepar” or liver. Thus, the words “hepatocellular” meaning cells of the liver, and “hepatitis” referring to inflammation of those cells. Hepatitis can cause cirrhosis (liver scarring), liver failure, liver cancer and death.

The classic forms of hepatitis (yellow jaundice) are caused by the hepatitis viruses, A, B and C. Hepatitis C is particularly aggressive, but thankfully there is now a drug that can kill this virus. Toxins and chemicals can also cause hepatitis, the most common being drinking alcohol and acetaminophen (Tylenol). The combination of both is especially toxic. Other commonly used medications that can damage the liver include aspirin, cholesterol drugs called statins, anti-seizure meds like phenytoin (Dilantin), ketoconazole some antiviral drugs, and anabolic steroids. If you take these prescription meds, do not stop. Insteadm talk to your doctor if you have questions.

Unknown to many people is the fact that even some herbs and supplements, used excessively, can cause liver damage. Comfrey, black cohosh, aloe vera, cascara, kava and chaparral are just a few; even vitamins taken in quantity have poisoned the livers of children who mistook them for candy.

Regrettably, in our obese society, fatty liver is fast becoming one of the most common forms of liver damage. Fatty infiltration of the liver cells causes inflammation. NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) is the worst form of this. There is no medication; the only known cure is significant weight loss.

A simple blood test can reveal if your liver enzymes are in the normal range or if they are showing inflammation. The liver may be underrated, but please do not ignore it. Schedule your annual exam and talk to your doctor about your liver. Catch problems early and you might prevent long-term complications.

Kenneth A. Bartholomew, M.D., is a contributing Prairie Doc columnist. He practices in Pierre and serves on the Healing Words Foundation Board of Directors, a 501c3 which provides funding for Prairie Doc programs. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc on Facebook, featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc, a medical Q&A show streaming on Facebook and broadcast on SDPB most Thursdays at 7 p.m. 

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