Liver Health Column The Prairie Doc Dr. Kenneth Bartholomew

By Dr. Kenneth A. Bartholomew

The liver is one of the most amazing yet underrated organs in our body.

We can’t do without it, and unlike the kidney, we can’t bypass it with a dialysis machine.

Lose your liver and you lose your life.

The liver is essential for digestion, but it also detoxifies our blood, filtering, breaking down and eliminating chemicals that we cannot use. Although there are many toxins that can damage liver cells, it has an incredible ability to regenerate itself. It can suffer immense damage, almost disappear, 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 liver cells, and hepatitis, referring to the inflammation of these cells. Hepatitis can cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, liver cancer and death.

The classic forms of hepatitis (jaundice) are caused by the hepatitis viruses, A, B and C. Hepatitis C is particularly aggressive, but fortunately there is now a medicine that can kill this virus.

Toxins and chemicals can also cause hepatitis, the most common being the use of alcohol and acetaminophen (Tylenol). The combination of the two is particularly toxic. Other commonly used drugs that can damage the liver include aspirin, cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, anti-epileptic drugs like phenytoin (Dilantin), ketoconazole, certain antiviral drugs, and anabolic steroids. If you are taking these prescription medications, do not stop. Instead, talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

Many people are unaware that even certain herbs and supplements, when used excessively, can damage the liver. Comfrey, black cohosh, aloe vera, cascara, kava and chaparral are just a few. Even vitamins taken in quantity poisoned the livers of children who took them for candy.

Unfortunately, in our obese society, fatty liver disease is quickly becoming one of the most common forms of liver damage. Fatty infiltration of liver cells causes inflammation. NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) is the worst form. There is no medicine. The only known cure is significant weight loss.

A simple blood test can reveal if your liver enzymes are within the normal range or if they have inflammation. Liver may be underrated, but don’t ignore it. Schedule your annual exam and talk to your doctor about your liver. Catch problems early and you could prevent long-term complications.

Dr. Kenneth A. Bartholomew is a Prairie Doc columnist. He practices in Pierre and sits on the board of the Healing Words Foundation, which funds Prairie Doc programs. For free access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit prairiedoc.org.

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