What is Liver Cirrhosis?
Let’s start of by discussing what the liver is and what it does. The liver is a large organ that is part of the digestive system in the body. Some of its functions are making many important substances that help to digest food and clot blood, controlling the amounts of sugar, protein, and fat in the bloodstream, storing vitamins and minerals, filtering poisons from the blood, and breaking down alcohol and many kinds of drugs.
Liver cirrhosis, or cirrhosis of the liver, is something that occurs after years of chronic liver disease. Cirrhosis is a replacement of liver tissue by fibrosis and regenerative nodules. Fibrosis is the formation or development of excess fibrous connective tissue, known as scar tissue. Regenerative nodules are lumps that form after damaged tissue is regenerated.
It is obvious when looking at the functions of the liver that the body cannot survive without it. The scaring and regenerative nodules can also cause high blood pressure in veins that take blood from the intestines through the liver. This high blood pressure can lead to severe bleeding in the digestive tract, among other problems.
What are some symptoms of liver cirrhosis?
Some people with liver cirrhosis may not show any signs. Other patients may have nonspecific signs that don’t point to the liver as the cause. People with common symptoms may experience:
- Yellowing of the skin, known as jaundice. This is due to an accumulation of bilirubin in the blood.
- Tiredness and weakness
- Nosebleeds and easy bruising
- Weight loss
- Belly pain or discomfort
- Loss of appetite
- Fluid buildup in the legs and the belly
- Bleeding in the stomach or in the esophagus
What are some causes of liver cirrhosis?
Alcohol is the most well known cause of liver cirrhosis and is very common, especially in the Western world. High levels of alcohol consumption on a regular basis for ten years or more will damage liver cells. Five or more drinks a day for a man and three or more drinks a day for a women is considered to be a high level.
Chronic viral hepatitis can cause cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can develop in 10-20% of people with long-term viral hepatitis, usually types B or C. It usually takes 20 years or longer for a patient that has chronic hepatitis for to develop cirrhosis, but the time may be shortened if the person is also a heavy drinker.
Fat build up in the liver is another culprit. This condition is known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Fat builds up in the liver and eventually causes scar tissue. This is commonly seen in people with diabetes, protein malnutrition, obesity, coronary artery disease, and people who have been treated with corticosteroid medications.
Immune problems such as autoimmune diseases can also cause cirrhosis of the liver. The immune system will sometimes attack the liver and cause inflammation that leads to cirrhosis.
Autoimmune hepatitis is one of these diseases. It is commonly found in women. This disease causes inflammation and destruction of liver cells, which leads to cirrhosis. Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is another liver disease caused by an abnormality in the immune system. This is also found mostly in women. With this disease, bile ducts become inflamed and destroyed. This blocks the normal flow of bile into the intestines. Destruction then spreads to liver cells. When liver cells are destroyed, scar tissue forms, leading to cirrhosis.
Blocked Bile Ducts
Blocked bile ducts are another factor that can lead to liver cirrhosis. Ducts that carry bile out of the liver can become inflamed and blocked. This may be caused by a problem with the immune system, but the exact cause is unknown.
Inherited diseases can also lead to cirrhosis. Wilson’s disease, cystic fibrosis or hemochromatosis can all cause cirrhosis. Alpha1 antitrypsin deficiency is another inherited disease that can cause liver damage because protein collects in the liver when it shouldn’t.
Infants can be born with problems that will lead to cirrhosis.
Some babies can be born without bile ducts. This is known as biliary atresia and will eventually lead to cirrhosis. Other infants have been born without vital enzymes that are needed to control sugars. This leads to a buildup of sugar in the liver and eventually to cirrhosis.
Less common causes of cirrhosis are drug reactions, prolonged exposure to toxins, and chronic heart failure. Infection of the liver by a parasite can also lead to cirrhosis and is the leading cause of the disease in parts of the world, particularly Northern Africa.
What puts me at risk for cirrhosis of the liver?
Alcohol is a huge risk factor for liver cirrhosis. Between 75 and 80 percent of all cirrhosis cases could have been prevented if the person had limited their alcohol consumption. As few as 2-4 drinks per day can lead to liver damage.
Certain medical conditions can put people at risk for liver cirrhosis. These conditions are hepatitis B, C, or D, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, secondary biliary cirrhosis, hepatic congestion, certain inherited disorders and autoimmune hepatitis.
Age is another factor. The older a person gets, the more likely they are to develop cirrhosis. This is because the liver has been working longer and harder than a liver of a younger person.
Chronic exposure to environmental toxins such as arsenic has been known to cause liver cirrhosis. Other factors are:
- Severe excesses of vitamin A
- Repeated episodes of heart failure with liver congestion
- The parasitic infection schistosomiasis
- Severe adverse reactions to certain prescription drugs
How can I prevent liver cirrhosis?
If a person has certain liver conditions, there is no way to guarantee the prevention of cirrhosis. There are a few things that can be done to make cirrhosis less likely. Here a few things that can be done whether you have been diagnosed with a liver disease or not.
- See a doctor regularly. Many causes for cirrhosis are treatable with early intervention
- Follow a healthy lifestyle
- Limit alcohol consumption. If you drink every day, don’t drink more than one glass. If you have been diagnosed with a liver disease, do not drink at all.
- Receive a hepatitis B vaccine.
- Avoid high-risk sexual behavior to minimize the risk of contracting hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is spread through unprotected sex and multiple partners as well as nasal cocaine and sharing infected needles when using drugs.
- Be careful when using chemicals. If you handle chemicals such as cleaning products and pesticides on a regular basis wear protective clothing and a face mask.
- Try to keep your weight in the normal range. Being overweight can make liver diseases worse.
It is much easier to prevent a liver disease than to heal one. Take care of your body and watch what you put into it and your chances of getting a liver disease and ultimately cirrhosis are lessened.
How is liver cirrhosis diagnosed?
If you see a doctor and they suspect you may have a liver disease, the doctor may order blood or imaging tests to figure out what is causing the liver disease and what stage it is in. If your doctor suspects cirrhosis, he or she may do a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy consists of the doctor using a needle to take a sample of the liver tissue for testing.
How is liver cirrhosis treated?
There is no treatment that can cure cirrhosis. Sometimes, however, further damage can be prevented or delayed with treatment. If cirrhosis is severe enough, a liver transplant may be needed in order to keep the patient alive. Transplants are expensive and hard to do, so to be a candidate for a transplant you must be living a healthy life and you must have ceased all alcohol consumption, among other things.
Treating liver cirrhosis naturally
If cirrhosis is caused by alcohol, cutting off alcohol consumption is the best treatment. Anyone with liver cirrhosis or damage should be very careful about the kinds of medicines and substance they put into their body as well, because the liver is the organ that filters toxins out, and if cirrhosis is occurring, filtering harsh toxins may make the liver worse.
Treating liver cirrhosis with herbal remedies
Celery seed is a common herb used to treat cirrhosis. It has been proven to protect the liver from toxins and help prevent further scarring and damage. The seed has side effects however. It may cause bleeding and muscle contractions in the uterus, so pregnant women should not use it. It can also cause the skin to become very sensitive to UV rays. If taken in large quantities, it can be toxic to the kidneys. It is available fresh for about $12 for a 16 ounce bag or as a supplement for about $6 a bottle.
Dandelion tea is another way to naturally help a liver with cirrhosis. It is a natural diuretic and drinking it two times a day can help with the excess fluid build-up that is caused by cirrhosis. It also heightens bile flow. The tea can cause some mild side effects such as gastric discomfort, and allergic reactions. Because it heightens bile flow, if cirrhosis is caused by blocked bile ducts, it should not be taken. It is available at health food stores or online for anywhere from $4 to $40 dollars depending on what quality of tea is desired.
Green tea is another natural supplement that can be taken to help with liver cirrhosis. It should be taken as many as five times a day to help prevent the spread of cirrhosis and replenish vitamins that the liver needs. It is rich in vitamin K, which is important for the liver, especially in early stages of liver disease. The tea contains caffeine, catechines and tannic acids which have all been liked to pregnancy risks and drinking tea in large amounts may cause neural tube birth defects in babies.
The tea has about half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, but to drinkers that are sensitive to caffeine, it can cause restlessness, irritability, sleeping problems, heart palpitations, upset stomach, and a loss of appetite. Tea can also cause the body to not absorb iron efficiently which can lead to anemia. Green tea is available commercially at pretty low prices and may be a good thing to take on a regular basis if the benefits outweigh the risks.
Milk thistle extract has also been known to prevent and treat liver conditions. It helps protect the liver from further damage from viruses, toxins, certain drugs, and alcohol. Side effects of milk thistle extract include upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and skin rashes. It is available for various prices, most under $50.
Turmeric is another thing that can be used to help the disease. It is a spice that adds a peppery flavor to foods. It protects the liver by aiding in elimination of harmful substances. There are no known side effects to turmeric. It is available in capsule form for around $10 or in powder form for around $4.
What are medicinal treatments for liver cirrhosis?
Medicines that are prescribed to a person with liver cirrhosis work to prevent further damage. No treatment can cure of repair scarring that has already happened. Corticosteroids and ursodiol are two drugs commonly prescribed to people suffering from liver cirrhosis.
Corticosteroids have been shown to reduce inflammation and can be helpful to patients whose cirrhosis was not caused by alcohol. Common side effects of corticosteroids are mood changes, weight gain, edema, and sleep loss. It is available generically at a pretty fair price.
Ursodiol can be used to treat those with biliary cirrhosis. The drug can replace lost biliary acids. While side effects are rare, they include things like abdominal pain, back pain, bronchitis, constipation, coughing, diarrhea, gas, headaches, indigestion, joint and muscle pain, nausea, sinus inflammation or infection, sore throat, upper respiratory tract infection, viral infection, or vomiting. Ursodiol can be bought at fairly low prices and may be a good therapy for those with liver cirrhosis.