6 Ways You're Destroying Your Liver That Have Nothing to Do With Alcohol
There's a reason all those fad cleanses and detoxes are bullshit; your liver already does a pretty good job of filtering out all the bad stuff from your body. But since the valuable organ acts as your blood's Brita filter, it inevitably encounters all the crap you subject it to.
Of course, alcohol is your liver's No. 1 enemy. You already know this (and yet, still choose to ignore it every weekend), so there's no point in guilt-tripping you even more. Unfortunately, there are other vices -- along with some supposedly healthy habits and supplements -- that could be doing damage to an organ you need to survive. It's called a "liver," after all.
Eating too much processed food
Look, not all processed food is bad. In general, though, if it comes in a package, it's probably not something you should be eating all the time. Not only is this true for weight-loss and longevity efforts, but also your liver health.
"We all need to try to limit our processed foods," says Dr. Sonja Olsen, gastroenterologist and hepatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. "These are full of fats and preservatives that causes oxidative damage to the liver." Loading up on too many calories from fat and carbs can contribute to fatty liver disease, which is as bad as it sounds and certainly not worth indulging those persistent oatmeal cream pie cravings.
Refusing to exercise
Add "helps your liver" to the already-long list of all the wonderful things exercise does for your body: stabilizes your mood, helps you sleep, saves you money, keeps your brain sharp. It turns out that your liver plays a pretty important role in processing the food you eat -- and working out can help that along.
"Exercise makes our body more efficient at utilizing our carbohydrates," Dr. Olsen says. "It also reduces the amount of carbohydrates that we need to store in the liver." Working out can help relieve some of the stress placed on your liver when fat is stored there, Dr. Olsen adds.
Keeping that spare tire or beer belly
Although not exercising and eating processed food can contribute to being overweight in addition to an unhealthy liver, obesity has its own specific negative impact on the organ. Obesity is closely linked to severe fatty liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a condition in which too much fat builds up in the liver, causing inflammation and damage. It has also been tied to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, and affects up to 80% of obese people. If left untreated, NASH can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, or liver failure -- all of which can happen in people who completely abstain from alcohol.
The scariest part about fatty liver disease is that it's relatively symptom-free and therefore goes undetected. Many people don't realize they have it until it reaches more advanced stages. Since being overweight can damage your liver just as much as alcohol, it's important to maintain a healthy weight for a healthy liver.
Too many over-the-counter pain relievers
Acetaminophen, which you may know as Tylenol, is a popular pain reliever and fever reducer. Some people swear by it, popping it at the first sign of a headache, muscle pain, or fever. But you can have too much of a good thing; since it's metabolized by the liver, it can be toxic in high doses.
"If you take enough of it, it will cause liver damage," Dr. Olsen says. "This amount varies depending on how much alcohol you drink, and it is important to read labels because acetaminophen is hidden in a lot of combination pain medications." Cough and cold medicines, sinus medicines, and others can also contain acetaminophen, so double-check ingredients and dosage instructions.
And if you think popping a Tylenol after a night of drinking will stave off a hangover, the opposite is true -- the pain reliever mixed with booze is like a double whammy to your liver. You're better off not mixing pain relievers and alcohol at all, but if you must, pick aspirin or ibuprofen.
Using weight-loss supplements
Losing weight is a pain in the ass, so it's easy to be lured in by the quick-fix promise of a supplement. But not only are these usually a waste of time and money, they aren't regulated by the FDA, which means they can be harmful -- especially to your liver.
Even supplements that claim to be herbal and all-natural can cause liver damage; a 2011 review found that several OTC weight-loss supplements were associated with liver toxicity, including green tea extracts, LipoKinetix, and Hydroxycut. If the results seem too good to be true, they probably are.
"It's important to know that not everyone will have a bad reaction to these products, but liver inflammation is often asymptomatic until there is significant liver damage. And by that time, the situation can be quite severe," Dr. Olsen warns.
Taking certain prescription medications
Just like OTC pain relievers, some prescriptions are also metabolized in the liver, and can lead to liver damage if you take too much. These include certain anti-seizure drugs and antibiotics, Dr. Olsen says. Medicines containing sodium valproate, an anticonvulsant used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, are the most toxic to the liver, followed by carbamazepine and then phenytoin.
Levofloxacin and moxifloxacin, popular antibiotics used to treat sinus and respiratory infections, have also been found to cause liver damage in some patients.
"It is important to pay attention to how you feel, and to have your blood checked if you start a new medication," she says. Sound advice for the health of all your organs, not just your liver.
While booze is still the OG liver-killer, keep in mind some of these others... especially if you're tempted to reach for the Tylenol after a rough night.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.