What are the causes of liver dysfunction?
Some of the causes of liver issues include:
- Autoimmune conditions
- Alcohol use
The above causes may lead to a number of health conditions that are a direct cause of liver dysfunction. These conditions include:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Wilson's disease
- Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- The accumulation of fat in the liver (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease)
- Liver cancer
- Bile duct cancer
- Liver adenoma
Here’s how the above conditions and activities may lead to liver dysfunction:
Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV), which in turn may lead to liver disease. The most common way to contract HAV is through consuming food and/or water that is contaminated with the feces of someone who is carrying the virus. Those who are not vaccinated are more likely to contract the virus.
Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). HBV is the cause of one of the most serious forms of liver infection in the world. The most common way to contract HBV is through coming into contact with infected bodily fluids including blood and semen. Unprotected sex, drug use and childbirth are some of the ways that HBV can be passed from person to person.
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV can lead to the death of liver cells. This may lead to inflammation and fibrosis (scarring). The most common way to contract HCV is to come into contact withHCV infected blood. Sharing needles during drug use is one of the most common ways of contracting HCV.
Autoimmune hepatitis is a form of liver dysfunction that occurs when the immune system turns against the cells of the liver. The direct cause of autoimmune hepatitis is unknown but it is a relatively common cause of liver inflammation and disease.
Primary biliary cirrhosis
Primary biliary cirrhosis is another form of autoimmune liver dysfunction that occurs when the small bile ducts of the liver begin to slowly deteriorate, leading to the build up of toxins and bile in the liver.
Primary sclerosing cholangitis
Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) is a condition that may cause long-term liver dysfunction that occurs over a significant period of time. PSC occurs when the bile ducts of the liver become inflamed which leads to scarring and a reduced ability for bile to drain from the gallbladder. Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) may lead to dysfunction, scarring and/or failure of the liver.
Hemochromatosis is a genetic condition that occurs when major organs in the body absorb and store too much iron. If you are living with hemochromatosis, it is likely that your liver is storing the most iron, which may lead to liver issues. Over a significant period of time, hemochromatosis may lead to cirrhosis (liver scarring), damage and even liver failure.
Wilson’s disease is a genetic condition that may lead to liver dysfunction. Wilson’s disease causes the body to retain an excessive amount of the mineral copper. The liver may not release copper into the bile if they have Wilson’s disease, if copper continuously builds up in the liver, it may begin to damage the organ.
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AATD) deficiency is a rare genetic condition that may lead to liver dysfunction. Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a vital protein produced by the liver to help protect the lungs. A deficiency may lead to severe liver damage as well as lung damage, and currently there is no cure for the condition. AATD occurs when there isn’t enough ‘normal’ alpha-1 antitrypsin protein being produced by the liver. The role of alpha-1 antitrypsin protein is to travel through the blood to protect a number of other organs including the skin and lungs. If someone is suffering living with AATD, large amounts of abnormal alpha-1 antitrypsin protein (AAT) builds up in the liver and the liver cannot break down the protein, leading to damage and scarring over time.
Liver cancer occurs when liver cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA.
Over time, the mutation and uncontrolled growth of new cells may lead to a tumour forming on the liver. The direct cause of liver cancer is often unknown. There are some well-established risk factors for liver cancer include chronic infections such as HBV and HCV, cirrhosis, certain inherited liver disease, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and excessive alcohol consumption.
Bile duct cancer
Bile duct cancer is a rare cancer, it is also called cholangiocarcinoma. It generally only affects those over the age of 65.
Bile duct cancer occurs when the cells that line the bile duct become mutated, which leads to uncontrolled cell growth. This may lead to the growth of a tumour or mass.
The function of bile ducts is to connect bile to flow from the liver, through the pancreas and to the gut. Bile is an essential part of digestion. Someone who is living with bile duct cancer is likely to suffer from liver damage.
Liver adenoma is also known as hepatic adenoma, it is a condition that can result in liver dysfunction. It is more likely to affect women than men, especially those who are consistently taking a high dose estrogen-based oral contraception and following pregnancy.
Hepatic adenoma is a benign liver tumour (non-cancerous mass).
Liver adenoma may affect liver function if it ruptures, this could cause internal pain and bleeding. A ruptured adenoma may require emergency medical treatment. In other rare instances, untreated adenomas may become cancerous.
Chronic alcohol abuse
Chronic alcohol abuse may lead to liver dysfunction. The liver is the main organ in the body for ethanol (a form of alcohol) metabolism. Chronic and/or excessive alcohol consumption may lead to lesions on the liver.
Heavy and consistent alcohol consumption may first lead to a condition called steatohepatitis. Steatosis is also known as “fatty change” when the cells or organs within the body begin to abnormally retain lipids. If excessive alcohol use continues, this condition may progress to cirrhosis which is further described as the deterioration of cells, inflammation and further thickening of damaged tissue.
Non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) may lead to liver dysfunction. We previously spoke about alcohol related steatohepatitis, a condition that is similar to what someone would experience if they had been abusing alcohol for a prolonged period of time.
NAFLD is a similar condition but doesn’t necessarily result from alcohol abuse. NAFLD may be caused by other conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity.
NAFLD affects liver function, as it refers to the build-up and accumulation of fat on the liver. NAFLD is becoming increasingly common in developed countries. In the United States, 25% of chronic liver disease is related to non-alcoholic fatty disease.
NAFLD may lead to inflammation, cirrhosis and liver failure.
How to reduce your risk of liver dysfunction
There are certain things you cannot control when it comes to liver dysfunction. There are elements of your genetics and family history that you cannot out-run. There are some elements of your health habits however, that can be tweaked to promote healthier liver health and reduce your risk of living with liver dysfunction.
Here are some steps to reduce your risk of living with liver problems:
- Reduce your alcohol intake
- Get vaccinated
- Use condoms and avoid unprotected sex
- Be aware of the dangers of needles
- Don’t exceed recommended medication doses
- Maintain a healthy weight
Reduce your alcohol intake
Whether your drink a little or a lot, there is always room for improvement. Educate yourself on alcohol intake, consider having an alcohol-free month at least once per year and seek help if you suspect that you have issues around alcohol.
If you haven’t already received the hepatitis A and B vaccinations, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated immediately. You are at an increased risk of contracting HAV and HBV if you haven’t received vaccinations.
Use condoms and avoid unprotected sex
Never have unprotected sex with someone you don’t know. Before removing barrier protection with a long term partner, it is crucial that you both receive a full sexual health checkup. A number of infections may be contracted through unprotected sex, including hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which could leave to serious liver function issues.
Be aware of the dangers of needles
Whether you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, or whether you are a past or present user of intravenous drugs, educate yourself on the dangers of unsterilized needles. Many dangerous viruses, including hepatitis, may be contracted through infected bodily fluids, especially blood.
Don’t exceed recommended medication doses
Don’t exceed recommended medication doses. Remember that your liver plays a vital function in processing by-products of what you consume, whether that is alcohol or prescription drugs. Never take medication that you don’t need to take, never exceed recommended medication doses and never mix medications and alcohol.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese may lead to the build up of fat on the liver over time. It is one of the most common causes of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Maintain a healthy weight for good liver health.
This might seem like an overload of new information but to keep it simple, remember that some liver conditions arise from genetic conditions or cell changes that are not within our control, but there are also better lifestyle steps that can be taken on a regular basis to ensure good liver health.
Do you want to find out more about your liver function?
Why not take a liver function test today? With easy to understand results within one week and clinical support at every step of the way, it’s never been easier to know your health with LetsGetChecked.
Written by Hannah Kingston | Medically Reviewed by Dr. Susan O’ Sullivan