You may be aware that it’s important to keep your heart healthy, but your liver is also a vital organ you can’t live without. According to the British Liver Trust, liver disease is the fifth biggest killer in England and Wales after heart, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease. So it pays to keep your liver as healthy as possible.
Along with being overweight (which can lead to non-alcohol related fatty liver disease) and the hepatitis viruses, alcohol is arguably the biggest risk to your liver. That’s why drinking in moderation is generally accepted as the most important lifestyle change you could make for your liver. Your liver is the only organ in the body that can get rid of alcohol, and it works very hard to do so (a hangover, for instance, is what happens when your liver has taken a bashing from too much alcohol).
The problem is that liver disease can creep up on you without you even noticing it. That’s because the signs of liver damage aren't usually spotted until the disease is in an advanced stage. It’s a lot easier to determine whether or not you have a problem with drinking. So if you can answer 'yes' to any of the following questions, consider asking your GP for help:
- Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- Have other people annoyed you by complaining about how much you drink?
- Have you ever felt bad or guilty about how much you drink?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to cure a hangover or steady your nerves?
What’s your risk?
Regularly drinking too much can lead to liver disease, but there are other factors that can also increase your risk, including:
The experts aren't all agreed on this, but there is some evidence that you could have a higher risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease if someone in your family has also been affected by it.
Some studies suggest that people of African origin are more susceptible to liver disease than caucasians.
Women have a higher risk for alcohol-related liver damage than men – one study suggests the risks is almost 50 percent higher. That's because a woman's liver can't detoxify alcohol as efficiently as a man’s.
If you're overweight or obese and a heavy drinker, you could have an increased risk of liver disease.
How to keep your liver healthy
Staying within the recommended limits for safe drinking is essential for your liver. This means not regularly exceeding three to four units of alcohol a day if you’re a man, and two to three units if you’re a woman.
You can find out more about how many units are in alcoholic drinks by visiting www.drinkaware.co.uk.
Here are some tips on how to drink less alcohol and other ways to love your liver:
Take regular breaks
The NHS recommends taking a break from alcohol for 48 hours after a heavy drinking session to allow your body to recover. Also try to have regular alcohol-free days by avoiding the pub or drinking at home by going to places that don’t sell alcohol, such as the cinema.
Count your units
It's easy to lose track of units, so keep a drink diary to help you work out how much you're drinking. Alternatively, you could download the Drinkaware Track and Calculate Units App to keep an eye on your alcohol consumption.
Alternate alcohol with soft drinks
It may seem obvious, but if you pace yourself by drinking each drink more slowly and having a soft or low-alcohol drink in between each glass of alcohol, you could cut down your alcohol intake considerably.
Know your binge triggers
Try to figure out what makes you drink more – just being aware of why you drink might help you drink more sensibly and even avoid the situations that make you want to overindulge.
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that smoking harms the liver's ability to process alcohol, so if you smoke, think about giving it up. If you need help, there’s lots of support available, such as the NHS Smokefree programme.
Some experts also believe a diet high in fruit and veg – which contain disease-fighting substances called antioxidants – may help protect against liver disease. For more information, read our guide on How to make your diet healthier.
It’s important to understand the impact alcohol can have on your health. Just remember, even if you’ve been doing Dry January, your liver needs to be looked after all year round.