Posted on March 11 2018
The eighth chapter in Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How Not To Die, deals with the body’s largest internal organ, the liver, which we can’t live without. It is an amazingly complex organ, with over 500 different functions, but the primary function of the liver is to protect our blood supply by processing nutrients for the blood and keeping toxins out of the blood supply.
About 60,000 Americans die of liver disease each year. What goes wrong to cause these deaths? Liver cancer caused by infection is one contributor, as is liver disfunction caused by drug overdoses, particularly Tylenol. But the primary causes of liver disease are alcoholic liver disease and nonalcoholic (i.e. food caused) liver disease, both of which we have considerable control over. So, let’s see how we can protect ourselves from both of these avoidable liver diseases.
Alcoholic liver disease is caused by consuming too much alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to the accumulation of excessive fat in the liver which causes liver inflammation and scarring and eventually, liver failure. Heavy alcohol consumption can lead to a fatty liver in less than three weeks! But stopping the consumption of alcohol can reverse the damage within five to six weeks for most people (in about 5% to 15% of the population the disease will continue to progress even when heavy alcoholic consumption stops).
What is “too much” alcohol? Most people know the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines: the regular consumption of more than one drink a day for a woman or two drinks for a man. And a drink is defined as one 12-ounce beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
Once liver inflammation occurs (called liver hepatitis), three-year survival rates can be as high as 90% if alcohol consumption stops. But, the next stage, liver scarring (cirrhosis of the liver) is irreparable.
So, it is fairly simple to avoid alcoholic liver disease: do not regularly drink to excess. What about nonalcoholic liver disease? This is an even bigger problem than alcoholic liver disease in terms of the numbers of deaths is causes. It is due to excessive fat in our diets. An estimated seventy million adults in the USA have nonalcoholic liver disease
Researchers in Sweden had subjects with normal liver enzyme function eat two fast food meals per day, and after just one week of this diet 75% of the subjects had suffered liver damage. Fast food meals are almost designed to cause liver disease as the disease is strongly associated with the consumption of soft drinks and meat. Drinking just one can of soda a day raises your odds of getting fatty liver disease by 45%. Excess cholesterol in the diet from eggs, meat and dairy products can become oxidized and then set off a chain reaction that results in excess fat in the liver. The excess cholesterol in the liver cells can also cause your white blood cells to attack the excess cholesterol, and as the white blood cells die off they can release inflammatory compounds, potentially resulting in serious hepatitis. Based on a study of 9,000 American adults who were studied for thirteen years, cholesterol consumption was a strong predictor of cirrhosis and liver cancer. Those consuming the equivalent of two Egg McMuffins or more each day appeared to double their risk of hospitalization or death.
So, again, the prescription for avoiding nonalcoholic liver disease is to reduce your consumption of excess calories, cholesterol, saturated fat, and sugar. Avoiding fast food would be one easily identified step toward better health.
There is one additional liver disease that Dr. Greger addresses in this chapter: viral hepatitis. There are five viruses that can cause viral hepatitis, A, B, C, D, and E.
Hepatitis A virus is foodborne or waterborne and is caused by consumables tainted with feces from improper handling and preparation (this is why all restaurants require their employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom). You can be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and you can avoid undercooked or raw shellfish and chicken as well as other foods.
Hepatitis B is bloodborne (along with other bodily fluids) and is transmitted sexually. Again, you can be vaccinated against Hepatitis B and every child should be protected in this manner. Also avoid intravenous drug use and unsafe sex.
Hepatitis C (the leading cause of liver transplants) is also bloodborne but cannot be vaccinated against. It is caused primarily by sharing needles.
Hepatitis D is relatively rare in the United States and Dr. Greger does not discuss it, but he does focus some attention on Hepatitis E, because this disease is more related to the type of food we eat. It is becoming increasingly apparent that pork meat may often carry the Hepatitis E virus. While properly cooking pork can kill the virus, it is in the food preparation and handling stages where the virus may present a danger of infection. The good news is that most people who develop Hepatitis E fully recover from the disease.
So, can you do anything to help protect the liver other than cutting down on alcohol consumption and fast food, and making sure you properly cook and handle food? Yes, it appears that you can.
Whole-grain foods appear to reduce the risk of liver inflammation. In one double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study (the “gold standard” for scientific studies) researchers found a significant reduction in liver inflammation in overweight people who consumed oatmeal for breakfast. So, eat more oatmeal! And, you may want to have a cup of coffee with that oatmeal, because coffee appears to reduce liver inflammation. There have been several studies which show that drinking more than two cups of coffee per day reduces the risk of developing chronic liver problems by more than 50%. Enjoy!