Contributed by: Rachana Arya
Increasingly unhealthy lifestyles and adverse environmental conditions have contributed towards making India the world capital of liver diseases. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), it is the tenth most common cause of death in India. Doctors have time and again warned that liver disease is usually a “silent” condition, and its various forms can manifest without any symptoms at all.
Various myths surrounding the condition are rampant. These misconceptions are typically fueled by incorrect information from the Internet, which only raises anxiety and fear. The purpose of this article is to dispel some common preconceptions about liver health and throw light on the truths that refute them.
Myth #1: Only adults get liver disease
It may surprise you to learn that liver disease can set in childhood too. In very young children, it is most often caused by a genetic (inherited) liver problem such as biliary atresia. Recently, there have been incidents of Indian Childhood Cirrhosis, a progressive liver disease common to the Indian subcontinent. This is a fatal condition for children between one and three years of age. The disease, though, extremely rare in occurrence, is making a comeback.
Myth #2: Fatty liver condition only affects people who are overweight
We generally often equate fatty liver conditions with patients who are overweight or obese. However, people of any weight can get a fatty liver disease even if they do not have any other underlying health problems. Fatty liver can come from other metabolic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, cancer, obesity, and others. It can also result from living a sedentary lifestyle; not eating the right kind of foods or failing to exercise regularly.
Myth #3: Liver problems cause aches and pains
Part of the problem with liver disease is that it is silent and asymptomatic. Since the liver doesn’t have any pain nerves, people can have masses and yet not be in any pain. Hepatitis A, B, and C, and cirrhosis can sometimes be diagnosed maybe twenty or thirty years after they started. Sometimes patients living with chronic liver disease don’t even know they have underlying liver disease and by the time they do, it’s progressed to cirrhosis.
Myth #4: Only alcohol damages the liver
This is false! There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption inevitably does damage the liver. For patients in whom the causes are related to years of alcohol abuse, abstinence can indeed still help slow the progression of the disease. However, alcohol is commonly mistaken as the one and the only reason behind the toughening of liver tissue. The important thing to know here is that there are many other ways your liver can sustain damage. In general, thyroid disorders, an unhealthy diet, genetics, obesity, diabetes, drugs and toxins, autoimmune diseases, and high cholesterol can adversely impact the condition of your liver.
Myth #5: A fatty liver is no big deal
Many people with fatty liver don’t even know they have the condition. Sometimes, it causes no problems at all. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taken lightly. The condition needs urgent attention and should be evaluated thoroughly as advanced cases of fatty liver can increase your risk of more serious conditions including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and eventually liver failure.
Myth #6: Fatty liver is a disease of the West.
False! The incidence of fatty liver is increasing worldwide and in India too. Approximately 30% of Indians have fatty liver.
Myth #7: Coffee intake is not good for liver health
A large body of evidence indicates that the consumption of coffee can be beneficial provided you do not add sugar and do not drink over three or four cups per day. There is evidence of a reduced risk of cirrhosis linked to drinking moderate quantities of coffee. Regularly drinking moderate amounts of coffee may not only prevent liver cancer but can also slow the progression of liver disease in some patients.
Myth #8: A simple blood test can easily detect the presence of a liver disease
Routine blood tests are rarely adequate to determine if your liver is working correctly. Blood tests detect the underlying disease only in the later stage of the disease. Patients also need to be tested for special tests which can show signs of liver damage. Commonly used tests to check liver abnormalities are:
- alanine transaminase (ALT)
- aspartate aminotransferase (AST)
- alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
Depending on the above-mentioned tests, either higher- or lower-than-normal levels can be associated with liver disease. Importantly, some additional laboratory tests may be added to a liver panel if the doctor believes that the above tests are not a sufficient predictive of disease activity.
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