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Your liver is an organ located on the upper right side of your abdomen, just under the rib cage. It performs an essential role in digestion and filtering toxins from the bloodstream.
Liver diseases such as fatty liver disease and cirrhosis can greatly affect its ability to perform these functions and cause detrimental effects all over the body. Abusing alcohol can make you more susceptible to liver disease, and so can obesity, type two diabetes, and certain other health conditions.
The most common symptoms of liver disease include:
Yellowed eyes and skin (jaundice)
Pain and swelling in the abdomen
Swelling in legs and ankles
Loss of appetite or weight loss
The short answer is yes, liver diseases such as fatty liver disease and cirrhosis can negatively impact gut health. In patients with fatty liver disease, it has been found that there is a 13% higher risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome. As well as this, patients with more severe conditions, such as cirrhosis, can experience a range of bowel problems and changes in the stool.¹
Changes include pale stool due to a lack of bile salts, which usually give your stool its dark color. Another related bowel problem is black, tarry stool, which generally only happens in the severe and late stages of liver disease and is caused by blood in the gastrointestinal tract. If you experience black, tarry stools, seek medical help immediately.
Cirrhosis is caused by long-term liver problems and scarring of the liver. It can eventually lead to liver failure and other life-threatening complications. Caused by other liver conditions, cirrhosis is usually severe. It can be managed by treatment and sometimes prevented from worsening, but it is hard to reverse.
Cirrhosis can cause problems with your bowels; around 80% of patients with cirrhosis report relevant gastrointestinal symptoms. In order from most common to least common, these symptoms include:
Bloating of the abdomen (49.5%)
Pain in the abdomen (24%)
Gut problems can also contribute to malnutrition, which worsens liver disease. Up to 80% of cirrhosis patients have been found to experience malnutrition in some studies.²
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a buildup of fat in the liver that has not yet caused severe inflammation or scarring. It can be treated through lifestyle changes in most cases.
A fatty liver can be caused by excessive alcohol consumption. However, it can also affect those who do not drink excessively. This is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and has been associated with a higher risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Irritable bowel disease is not fully understood. It is a long-term condition that causes abdominal pain, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, or constipation. It is a difficult disease to treat and can cause great discomfort.
If you have fatty liver disease and are experiencing some of these gastrointestinal symptoms, seek advice from a medical professional, as you are more at risk of developing IBS.
Other liver diseases can have similar effects on the bowel. Vomiting and nausea are often reported in patients with liver disease. Blood in your vomit or stool may also be a sign your liver is not working properly — if this occurs, seek prompt medical assistance.³
Liver disease can be caused by multiple different factors, and treatment will often depend on these. Overall, there is no specific medication for treating liver disease or protection. Additionally, there is no strong evidence for using liver detoxes or cleanses.
For some, lifestyle changes will be beneficial. For non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, usually associated with obesity and diabetes, healthcare providers recommend losing 3–5% of your body weight to improve symptoms. It is recommended to do this in a slow, controlled process to avoid worsening symptoms, which can happen with rapid weight loss.
There are multiple ways to improve your liver health or prevent it from being damaged in the first place. Most of these involve reducing the number of toxins the liver has to filter from your bloodstream.
Minimizing alcohol consumption can reduce the liver's workload and increase the longevity of the organ. Excessive alcohol use can be hugely damaging to the liver, especially if it is already suffering.
Washing produce can also help minimize toxins, as pesticides may be present on their surface. Avoiding products that contain an excess of chemicals and toxins can also help reduce your consumption of toxins.
Making sure you have good hand hygiene is also important to reduce the spread of contaminated foods with hepatitis A and E. Getting vaccinated against hepatitis A is also recommended.
Obesity is a key factor in developing fatty liver disease, so exercising and eating a healthy balanced diet can help reduce the risk. Thirty minutes of exercise a day and a well-balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables can help with this. A medical professional or dietician can help you find a diet and exercise plan that works for you.
Hepatitis B and C increase your risk for liver disease. You can avoid contracting these by getting vaccinated against hepatitis B, avoiding contact with infected blood and body fluids, not using shared needles, and practicing safe sex.
If you have any concerning symptoms, contact your local medical professional. Liver disease is best caught early as the later stages are much more severe. If you are experiencing black, tarry stools or blood in your vomit, seek immediate help.
Liver disease can have many negative effects on bodily functions, including bowel movements. The best way to assist your bowel movements is to focus on lifestyle changes that improve liver function. These include exercise, weight loss, and minimizing alcohol consumption, among others.
Stool can also be a powerful tool in diagnostics. If you notice a different color or texture, it is a good idea to consult a medical professional about what may be causing this.
Fatty liver disease can occur mildly, with reversible symptoms. If left unmanaged, however, it can progress to worse stages that cause irreversible damage to your liver.
This could lead to severe liver disease, liver failure, and liver cancer and increase your chances of developing heart disease. Your medical professional should be able to assess how serious your disease is and what treatment it requires.
Your liver is located in the upper abdomen on the right-hand side, just under the ribs. Pain from fatty liver disease can feel like a dull throbbing sensation or sometimes sharp pain. It can also create a feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen due to the enlargement of the liver and the retention of fluids the disease creates.
Symptoms - Cirrhosis | NHS
5 reasons you may be at risk for liver disease | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Cirrhosis | NHS Inform
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) | Mate tikotiko | Health Navigator
5 ways to be kind to your liver | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Liver disease | The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand
Fatty liver disease | Health Navigator