Stages of Liver Disease

The Healthy Liver

The liver is our largest internal organ and it has 500 different roles and functions, including the breakdown of food into energy and helping the body get rid of waste products and fight infections - particularly in the bowel. And yet, when your liver is damaged, you generally won’t know about it – until things start to get serious. This is because the liver doesn’t have any pain receptors. Liver functions include: 1. Processing digested food from the intestine 2. Controlling levels of fats, amino acids and glucose in the blood 3. Combating infections 4. Clearing the blood of particles and infections, including bacteria 5. Neutralising and destroying all drugs and toxins 6. Manufacturing bile 7. Storing iron, vitamins and other essential chemicals 8. Breaking down food and turning it into energy 9. Manufacturing, breaking down and regulating numerous hormones including sex hormones 10. Making enzymes and proteins which are responsible for most chemical reactions in the body, for example those involved in blood clotting and repair of damaged tissues.

The Fatty Liver

Except for the brain, the liver is the most complex organ in the body. Its functions include: 1. Filtering toxins from the blood 2. Aiding digestion of food 3. Regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels 4. Helping to fight infection and disease The liver is very resilient and capable of regenerating itself. Each time your liver filters alcohol, some of the liver cells die. The liver can develop new cells, but prolonged alcohol misuse (drinking too much) over many years can reduce its ability to regenerate. This can result in serious and permanent damage to your liver. ARLD (Alcohol-related liver disease) is very common in the UK – the number of people with the condition has been increasing over the last few decades as a result of increasing levels of alcohol misuse. Drinking a large amount of alcohol, even for just a few days, can lead to a build-up of fats in the liver. This is called alcoholic fatty liver disease, and is the first stage of ARLD. The fatty liver disease rarely causes any symptoms, but it's an important warning sign that you're drinking at a harmful level. Fatty liver disease is reversible. If you stop drinking alcohol for two weeks, your liver should return to normal

The Liver Fibrosis

Fibrosis occurs when excessive scar tissue builds up faster than it can be broken down and removed from the liver. Chronic infection with hepatitis C or hepatitis B virus (HCV or HBV), heavy alcohol consumption, toxins, trauma or other factors can all lead to liver fibrosis. Only in rare instances is liver fibrosis the primary problem; more often, it is secondary to some other liver disease such as cirrhosis. Normally, the body’s response to injury is the formation of scar tissue. In the case of fibrosis, the healing process goes haywire. When hepatocytes (functional liver cells) are injured due to a virus, alcohol, toxins, trauma or other factors, the immune system goes to work to repair the damage. During the fibrosis process, the injured hepatocytes cause substances to be released into the liver causing the build-up of the scar tissue. In the early stages of liver fibrosis, few people experience symptoms because the liver functions relatively well. Fibrosis is the initial stage of the formation of scar tissue in the liver. An individual may have no symptoms and live a normal, sometimes very active life, for decades, and remain unaware that he or she has liver disease. As scar tissue builds up, due to inflammation and the continuance of liver injury, it connects with existing scar tissue, which can eventually disrupt the metabolic functions of the liver. If the disease progresses, it can lead to cirrhosis, a condition in which the liver is severely scarred, its blood flow is restricted, and its ability to function is impaired. If poked, a healthy liver is very soft. A liver that has developed fibrosis is firmer, and if the condition progresses to cirrhosis, the liver can become almost rock-hard.

Liver Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is the result of long-term, continuous damage to the liver and may be due to many different causes. The damage leads to scarring, known as fibrosis. Irregular bumps (nodules) replace the smooth liver tissue and the liver becomes harder. Together, the scarring and the nodules are called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can take many years to develop and can do so without any noticeable symptoms until the damage to the liver is very serious. The build-up of scar tissue can interfere with the flow of blood to your liver and stop it from functioning properly. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. How common is cirrhosis? No one knows for sure how many people in the UK have cirrhosis as most people do not know they have it until the condition becomes serious. However, there is no doubt that the number of people with the condition continues to increase. Every year over 4,000 people in the UK die from cirrhosis. Around 700 people have to have a liver transplant each year to survive. Who is at risk of cirrhosis? Cirrhosis can affect anyone – men and women, young and old. People most at risk of cirrhosis: 1. Drink too much alcohol 2. Have a long-term liver infection, such as Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C 3. Have inherited liver disease, such as Haemochromatosis 4. Have an immune system problem that leads to liver disease 5. Are clinically overweight or obese and have a fatty liver Alcohol and cirrhosis Almost everyone who drinks too much alcohol will suffer some liver damage, but this does not necessarily turn into cirrhosis. As many as nine out of ten people who drink to excess will develop a fatty liver, with one in ten progressing to cirrhosis. In general, the more you drink, the greater your chance of developing alcohol-related hepatitis or cirrhosis. A poor diet may make the problem much worse. Obesity is now the second biggest cause of Cirrhosis in the UK. All types of alcoholic drinks can lead to liver disease. If you have cirrhosis – whether it is caused by alcohol or not – you should not drink alcohol at all.
The Liver Life Project