Ever stop and think: hey, how’s my liver doing during quarantine?
I’ve never thought long and hard about liver health. It came up watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) had to donate a part of her liver to her father. It crossed my mind when Robin Padilla’s TV ad for the supplement Liveraide began airing. Shit got pretty real one other time: A friend of mine was rushed to the hospital for an inflamed liver after one too many drinks. She was 19. And this prompted her to abstain from drinking alcohol through her early 20’s.
Fictional storylines, machismo-riddled commercials and extreme cases notwithstanding, this liver-loving side of the self never really called out. But since the pandemic hit, I realized that some of my coping mechanisms could use a major rethink––that my liver would be more than grateful for.
To paint you a picture, my desire to make healthier choices was one of the first things to take a backseat in the quarantine. No stress-baking took place but there was definitely stress-eating. Capping off work-from-home Fridays with a drink or two––or five––became a routine. And even with a paranoia-fueled focus on health during this time, that backseat was pretty snug and comfortable because, anyway, one could always “take a pill for that.” For a headache, difficulty sleeping, strengthening the immune system. If it isn’t a pill, it’s also not unusual to be pointed in the direction of a superfood or a cleanse or an antioxidant.
Stressful times for the liver, really. Ironic, too, considering I used self-care to justify some of these activities (welp). So let that major rethink begin. With the guidance of Dr. Edhel S. Tripon, M.D., a Hepatologist at the Medical City Ortigas, there’s a lot to unpack and even a lot more to debunk.
The Liver Is the Organ That Never Rests
It’s a shame liver health isn’t as top-of-mind a concern the way we’re reminded to take care of the heart and lungs (more than other internal organs anyway). The liver is not only a multitasker; it’s an overtime worker. “The liver has hundreds of functions,” begins Dr. Tripon. “To provide a few: it produces important proteins that affect immunity and it produces bile that helps clear the body of waste.”
The liver, she reiterates, is an extremely busy organ and a lot of things all at once: “It’s a power plant, it’s a waste management system, it’s also an energy supply and storage unit,” she says. “When you eat, the liver aids in digestion, thereby regulating your hormones, your fat and your cholesterol. When you’re asleep, obviously a moment you aren’t eating, the liver helps make sure that your sugar levels are in tip-top shape and provides backup energy.”
Pointing out one important relationship, Dr. Tripon says that when the liver fails, the immune system becomes weak. “This organ helps detoxify blood coming from the gut and produces proteins that enable the body to regulate the immune system,” she explains. “This is why it’s entirely possible for a person, in extreme cases, to go into a coma when their liver fails. Toxins that would have otherwise been filtered by the liver can go to the brain and the other organs.”
Mind Your Coping Mechanisms
The good news is: stress itself doesn’t affect the liver. The bad news? Certain coping mechanisms do the damage.
“If you drink a lot of alcohol or regularly binge on junk food…or just have bad eating habits, in general, you can overload your liver with fat,” explains the specialist. “Smoking, taking over-the-counter pain medications and even turning to unnecessary ‘natural supplements’ also cause the liver to work overtime.”
But this doesn’t mean you have to cut everything out completely. Regulating quantity—in more ways than one—is key. “Just because you don’t drink every day, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear,” she warns, touching on a finding that more and more millennials are suffering from alcohol-related liver diseases. “If you don’t drink on the weekdays but binge on the weekends, this of course negatively impacts your liver.”
Skinny People Can Have A Fatty Liver, Too
This is called a lean fatty liver and is something more common among Asians. “A more slender build might not show it, but CT scans can reveal that there is a lot of hidden abdominal fat,” expounds Tripon. Looking next at the world average: fatty liver disease is something that one in four individuals has.
“The presence of a fatty liver is higher among people who are overweight, are hypertensive, have high cholesterol, have poor sugar control or have family with a history of liver disease,” she says. “Not all fatty livers develop into a complication. But in about 25% of patients who have fatty liver, the organ reacts to the excess fat by becoming inflamed. This could lead to long-term cirrhosis or liver cancer.”
Let’s Talk About Those Cleansing Juices and Detox Teas
When it comes to rather trendy lifestyle items like cleanses and teas, Tripon has a candid admission: “Hepatologists are the most suspicious of these things.” In her experience, patients tend to believe that if something is herbal, it is safe. Moreover, if something is natural, it can’t cause harm.
“Some supplements are harmless but, at worst, they can be dangerous and even life-threatening,” she says. “We encounter patients who go into hepatitis (liver inflammation and they turn yellow) or their livers fail.” Hence, the notice on the packaging that reads “no approved therapeutic claims” or a lack of a DOH-mandated tag should be enough of a red flag.
As for superfoods and ingredients flouted as super-cleansers, Tripon advises that these should be taken with a grain of salt. “There are a lot of articles that enumerate food items that are specifically good for the liver,” she adds. “But the reality is that these food items simply decrease inflammation, in general or overall.” So it really is still best to err on the side of balance and moderation.
The Liver Appreciates Consistency and Moderation
No complicated, expensive diets are needed to be a little kinder to that liver. A balanced diet, the recommendation as old as time, is one key to improving liver health. “Black coffee also has some evidence in the prevention of liver scarring,” says Tripon. “So long as you hold the sugar.”
It boils down to physical activity, too. “At least 30 minutes of exercise five to six times a week (a total of 150 minutes) is also recommended,” she says.
Don’t Wait For Warning Signs
In Dr. Tripon’s specialty, the saying goes: when there is no liver, there is no life. But what should be noted as well is that the liver doesn’t call attention to itself. “If you have heart disease, for example, you get chest pains,” she explains. “But the liver is generally quiet. So there are cases where patients are in fact experiencing severe liver inflammation but don’t feel anything.”
So long as there are enough normal liver cells to handle a complication, a person will not encounter “warning” pangs that signal a trip to the emergency room. “He or she will not feel anything until, unfortunately, it’s already late,” she says. “An example of that would be when your body has ‘overloaded the system’ already and the liver runs out of its reserve.”
Who knew zeroing in on liver health could be the next thing on the self-care agenda? Cheers to that—without the excessive alcohol.
Art Matthew Fetalver