Your liver is your body’s high-performance engine
Car owners often have some sort of a relationship with their vehicles. Some may put their time, money and effort into caring for a high-performance vehicle. Others care only the bare minimum about their vehicles, ignoring the oil leaks, the spreading rust or the concerning noises, just hoping that it will always start up in the morning.
The same rules apply to your greatest and most valuable investment; your body.
Your body is a luxury vehicle that requires fuel, regular maintenance, hazard protection and some loving care. Your liver functions like your body’s engine. It drives many of the body’s critical systems but unfortunately, it can be easily overlooked. The reality is that when your liver stops and breaks down, your body does too.
The Canadian Liver Foundation would like to share critical ‘engine’ information with you and encourage you to talk to your doctor about liver testing.
Quick facts: 1 in 4 Canadians may be affected by liver disease.
- Your liver is the body’s largest internal organ, weighing in at about 3 pounds.
- A healthy liver is dark reddish-brown with a smooth, rubbery texture.
- At any one time, your liver contains about 10% of the blood in your entire body, pumping about 1.4 litres per minute.
- Your liver can regenerate, making it possible for one person to donate part of their liver to another. This is called a “living donation.”
- Within the first few months of a living liver donation, the liver can regenerate to within 90% of its original size.
- There are over 100 liver diseases, only one is caused by alcohol.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common liver disease in Canada, affecting over 7 million people.
- Biliary atresia is the leading cause of liver failure in children.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose is the leading cause of acute liver failure.
- Liver cancer is now one of the fastest rising and deadliest forms of cancer in Canada.
- Over half a million Canadians suffer from chronic viral hepatitis.
It was in June 2013, that I unexpectedly fell ill. I felt nauseous, extremely tired, lost my appetite, had pain in the upper right side of my stomach and just felt generally unwell. I assumed that I had the flu and I figured I would feel better within a week, but this was not the case. I started to notice that the whites of my eyes weren’t so white anymore; in fact, they were looking very yellow. This prompted me to seek medical help. Read more
Taking a look under the hood
Your liver, the largest internal organ in the body, is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, immediately under the diaphragm. It is divided into lobes; a large right lobe and a smaller left lobe that tapers to a tip.
Your liver works hard 24 hours a day, providing your body with energy, fighting off infections and toxins, helping clot the blood, and regulating hormones. If you thought that was enough, consider that this complex and vital organ performs over 500 functions.
Every day your liver…
- Cleanses your blood by metabolizing alcohol, drugs and other chemicals.
- Neutralizes and destroys poisonous substances.
- Regulates your supply of body fuel by producing, storing and supplying quick energy (glucose) to keep your mind alert and your body active.
- Manufactures many of your essential body proteins which allow for your body to transport substances in your blood, the clot your blood and resist infections.
- Regulates the balance of hormones including sex, thyroid, cortisone and other hormones.
- Adjusts your body’s cholesterol levels by producing, excreting and converting cholesterol into other essential substances.
- Controls your body’s supply of essential vitamins and minerals as well as iron and copper.
- Produces bile to eliminate toxic substances from your body and assist with your digestion.
- Performs literally hundreds of other functions that your body simply cannot live without.
When your engine stalls…
The liver is a resilient, maintenance-free organ, which is why it so often gets ignored—until something goes wrong. Because of its wide range of responsibilities, the liver often comes under attack by viruses, toxic substances (including alcohol), contaminants and progressive diseases like obesity.
Just like a worn-out engine, symptoms of liver disease can seem minor and easy to ignore. The liver is such a strong organ that it will continue working even when two-thirds of it has been damaged by scarring (cirrhosis).
My name is Maddy, and I am 17 years old. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis. Up until that point, I appeared to be a perfectly normal teenager. Looking back, however, I realize that I had been living with many symptoms of liver failure.
Liver disease can take over 100 different forms and can be caused by a variety of factors including the hepatitis viruses, obesity, alcohol, genetics, autoimmune disorders, drugs, toxins and cancer. Cirrhosis is often considered to be a liver disease and may be the only liver-related condition that many people have ever heard of. While not a disease, cirrhosis is a condition that results from permanent damage or scarring of the liver. It is the end stage of many forms of liver disease.
Statistics show that liver disease is on the rise. 1 in 4 Canadians may be affected by liver disease, including everyone from newborns to older adults. Liver disease can affect people from all walks of life regardless of age, sex, ethnic background, socio-economic status or lifestyle.
Just like a car engine, significant damage can be masked by seemingly insignificant symptoms. This often makes liver disease difficult to diagnose, especially when some symptoms (if any), can easily be mistaken for other health problems, such as the flu.
Your doctor or “mechanic” may look for signs of liver disease such as yellowing of skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice), a swollen abdomen or tenderness in the area of the liver.
They may use blood tests to determine if your liver is functioning correctly and to discover what may be affecting your liver.
Every day you make decisions that affect your liver health. The choices you make on household product purchases, food consumption and daily activity can have positive or negative effects on your liver.
If your doctor suspects that you may have liver disease, he/she will want to discuss any possible risk factors to which you may have been exposed.These risk factors may include
- Poor eating habits.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- Prescription or over-the-counter drug use.
- Past blood transfusions.
- Occupational exposure to blood.
- Exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Body beautification (tattoos, piercings, etc.).
- Sexual activity.
- Current or past use of injection drugs.
- Alcohol consumption.
- Family history of liver disease.
- Being born in or travelling to a country with high rates of viral hepatitis.
- Being born between 1945 and 1975.
Preventative maintenance and operating tips
To keep your liver running at an optimal level, follow these tips:
- Fill up with premium fuel: Everything you eat and drink passes through your liver, so provide your liver with only “high octane” fuel. Maintain a balanced diet by choosing foods that are high in fibre, and are low in saturated fat. Avoid foods that are deep-fried, high in salt or sugar, rich desserts, and soft drinks.
- Lose the “spare tire”: It may be helpful to keep a spare tire in your car, but definitely not around your belly! Obesity can lead to fatty liver disease, so try and keep your weight close to the ideal mark by eating right and being physically active for at least 150 minutes a week.
- Avoid contaminants: The cleaner your engine, the better it runs. Since your liver has to filter out all the contaminants that enter your body through what you consume, breathe in or rub on your skin, you should try to avoid harmful substances. Prescription and non-prescription drugs, alcohol and certain chemicals can damage your liver if misused.
- Protect yourself from hazards: Air filters, fluids and regular maintenance help protect your vehicle from both wear and tear and environmental hazards. You can protect your liver in similar ways. Get immunized against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, practice safe sex, never share razors, toothbrushes and needles (which can spread hepatitis B and C through blood), and make sure tattooing and body piercing equipment are properly sterilized.
- Don’t underestimate warning lights: Your vehicle is equipped with various warning lights to indicate when there’s a problem. Unfortunately, your liver’s warning lights may not be as clear. Signs of liver disease can often be misinterpreted, such as flu-like symptoms, fatigue, or lack of appetite. If you have any of these symptoms and abdominal pain, dark urine, or jaundice, consult your doctor.
- Go for regular maintenance checkups: Regular visits to your mechanic will help keep your vehicle running well.
Prevention is the best way to ensure your liver is functioning at peak performance. Be sure to see your doctor for regular checkups so she/he can identify potential problems before they start. Take extra care by asking your doctor for a liver test.
What can you do if you have liver disease?
- Follow your doctor’s advice on nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle choices.
- Learn about liver health and what you can do to manage your condition.
- Call the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) support line for resources and clarification on your diagnosis.
It was in June 2013, that I unexpectedly fell ill. I felt nauseous, extremely tired, lost my appetite, had pain in the upper right side of my stomach and just felt generally unwell. I assumed that I had the flu and I figured I would feel better within a week, but this was not the case. I started to notice that the whites of my eyes weren’t so white anymore; in fact, they were looking very yellow. This prompted me to seek medical help.
I went to the ER to get checked and was admitted that same night. The physician told me that my liver enzymes were extremely elevated at 50x the normal range. I remember feeling scared but not necessarily about my health. Like many mothers, I was more scared about my kids and being away from them. After several days in the hospital and numerous tests later, I was told I had viral hepatitis and that it was an isolated incident. I felt very relieved to know that I was going to be alright. I recovered on my own without needing any medication and went on with life, feeling thankful it was nothing worse. I later realized how wrong I was.
In March 2014, I once again started feeling unwell and when I saw the telltale signs of jaundice once again, I immediately contacted my doctor. I could see the concern on my kids’ faces and I hoped I was wrong and this wasn’t what I knew it was. My suspicions became reality when I was hospitalized for two weeks. This time, a liver biopsy was ordered. They confirmed I had a rare form of autoimmune liver disease called autoimmune hepatitis (AIH). Additionally, I was now told I now had stage two fibrosis (a sign of early-stage liver cirrhosis). I wasn’t put on any medication and thankfully, I recovered. Within six months, I reached normal liver enzyme levels.
In January 2015, the doctors tried putting me on the immunosuppressive drug in hopes of suppressing my immune system to prevent a relapse. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, I suffered a rare side effect of acute pancreatitis (sudden inflammation of the pancreas) and was hospitalized for almost three weeks. The recovery was longer this time. My body had been through a lot, so I wasn’t so quick to bounce back this time.
Overtime, I was able to recover. I was also fortunate enough to have three years in remission with normal-range liver enzyme results until this past October 2017, when I relapsed with my AIH. I am managing with the relapse and I am thankful and lucky to have had the three years of remission. I know this is not indicative of most people with AIH. It gave my body the chance to recover that many people living with AIH don’t get the opportunity to experience.
Living with AIH has definitely changed the way I live my life. I do not have the energy levels I once had, and have since been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia (a condition in which the blood lacks adequate healthy red bloods due to insufficient iron levels). I am very grateful just to be alive and around for my family. I continue to do my best to eat well, exercise and minimize my stress. This is all in hopes that I can get myself back into a state of remission and avoid another relapse, but as with all autoimmune conditions, there is no telling when my body’s immune system will decide to attack my liver next. In the meantime, I will continue to educate myself and others on the importance of liver health. I sincerely hope that research soon leads to a better understanding of this disease for all who suffer from it.
Join our awareness efforts and #CheckYourEngine
My name is Maddy and I am 17 years old. in 2016, I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis. Up until that point, I appeared to be a perfectly normal teenager. Looking back however, I realize that I had been living with many symptoms of liver failure.
I had attributed many of my symptoms to being a teenager; fatigue, little to no appetite, a loss of interest in school/friends, and feeling moody or depressed. These were all serious indicators that something much more insidious was going on. They call liver disease the “silent killer” and I believe it since many noticeable physical symptoms did not occur until my liver was in big trouble.
I have always been a low energy person. During childhood, I used to often ask my parents if it was time for a nap or bedtime. I was happy to sit and watch the goings on of my family and nobody thought twice about it. “Maddy is such a quiet girl,” I’d often hear.
With regards to my appetite, it became clear to my mother that much of what she was cooking for me was not being eaten. I had always had quite a healthy appetite…especially for the types of food that have a short shelf life such as yogurt, vegetables and fruit!
Next was the itchiness. I was very itchy, everywhere and frequently. Many had simply suggested that my skin was dry due to the winter, and to try some moisturizer.
Ultimately, if it hadn’t been for my transformation into a human banana, who knows how long it would have taken me for me to be brought to a hospital! The yellow tinge (jaundice) began in my eyes, and was first thought to be due to my recent switch to contact lenses. This was followed by comments from teachers and friends who noticed my “off” colour. One day while driving together, my mother noticed the corners of my eyes appearing yellowish. She made an appointment right away and my family doctor sent us for blood work immediately, believing that I might have contracted a type of hepatitis from some food or drink.
Our doctor had promised to call my mother as soon as possible with the results, but as luck would have it, he came down with a bad flu and was off for a couple of days. We tried to go on with life as normal over the weekend, relaxing at home and on Sunday, headed out to the mall for some shopping. My mother couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I was noticeably exhausted and complaining of feeling unwell. She decided to take me to the hospital the following day.
I received my first lab result at my hometown hospital. I remember the nurse who came in and told me that she was shocked I hadn’t been sent to the hospital sooner. This began my downward spiral and led me to my final diagnosis.
Overwhelmed by the multiple tests and rapidly declining health, my local hospital organized a quick transfer to SickKids. My family and I were very relieved. My mother insisted on bunking with me in my room every night, and my dad and sister stayed with me until every evening. My parents were incredibly worried and I felt like everything was out of control; it was a very scary time for us all!
The worst were the biopsies. I wasn’t in very much pain, although with all the needles, I felt like a human pincushion (this wasn’t exactly on my bucket list!). It had been close to a month since I was admitted into the hospital, and Christmas was only a few days away when I found out I would soon be sent me home. My family and I were ecstatic.
This next stage was tremendously difficult. I was taking a ton of medication, going for frequent blood tests and still feeling extremely lethargic, sleeping most of my days away. The side effects of some the meds were terrible. I seemed to struggle with either sleepless nights or vivid nightmares. I also felt the need to eat anything and everything day or night (I even stopped wearing my retainer to bed because I was scared I was going to eat it in my sleep!).
To this day, I continue to battle other side effects, such as hair loss, rashes, dry skin, unpredictable appetite, restlessness, and more. I live in the constant fear of developing osteoporosis, leukemia, cancer or of course, needing a liver transplant.
I will admit that life sucked! I was allowed back at school when I felt well enough. Little did I know that the school and teachers were all informed of my illness. It wasn’t long before kids started to look at me weird. After a while, I got into a routine, kept moving forward and did my best in school. Yes, I felt “different”. I never wanted to have sleepovers or go out with my friends—I was too tired and just found it more comfortable and less stressful to be at home with my family.
A year or so after being diagnosed, I began to feel more ownership over my illness. I even gave a speech in front of hundreds of women at a business awards evening, in which I also sang a couple songs and played guitar. My message to the crowd was to accept the things you cannot change, to be thankful for all that you have, and above all, to follow your dreams!
This is the same advice I would give to any child or teenager who is going through liver disease. Sometimes, a disease can make you feel different and alone. But, this experience will only make you stronger. I choose to see my illness in a positive light. Without it, I wouldn’t have experienced the countless opportunities to educate and inspire anyone inside or outside of my community, and of course, I wouldn’t have been able to raise the awareness of liver disease.