Is Liver Regeneration Possible After Acute Liver Damage?

The liver makes up 3% of the human body. As one of the most significant organs, it plays a crucial role in your overall well-being. Some essential functions of the liver include:¹

  • Detoxification—the liver breaks down and eliminates harmful substances in your body

  • Bile production—the liver produces bile that helps in vitamin and fat digestion

  • Energy storage—excess glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver for future use

When your liver is damaged, your body is deprived of most of these functions, putting you at higher risk of severe health complications. As such, it is important to know the conditions and substances that can damage your liver and how to promote liver regeneration in the event of damage.

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What causes liver damage?

Various conditions and substances can damage your liver and eventually scar it. Scarring causes your liver to work twice as hard (if not more) to perform its normal functions. The most common causes of liver damage are the following:

Alcohol

Alcohol is the number one cause of liver damage. Consuming alcoholic beverages gives your liver enzymes a hard time breaking down the alcohol. 

In high quantities, alcohol overworks your enzymes to the point they cannot break down any more alcohol in your system. Over time, the undigested alcohol damages your liver and causes liver inflammation.

Medications and supplements

Some antibiotics and pain relievers can lead to acute or severe liver damage when taken in high doses. These medications often contain an active ingredient that causes adverse hepatotoxic reactions.

A good example of such medications is acetaminophen (a painkiller for headaches and colds). Research shows that this medication can cause direct acute liver injury and permanent liver damage if overdosed. Other examples include antibiotics and cholesterol medication.²

Autoimmune conditions

Several autoimmune conditions can cause liver damage, but the three most prominent are autoimmune hepatitis (AIH), primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), and primary biliary cholangitis (PBC).

AIH often shows no sign of liver damage until the damage is already done, while PSC and PBC patients might not exhibit symptoms before liver failure.

Fat accumulation

Two types of fats can damage your liver—alcohol-induced fats and non-alcohol-induced fats. Alcohol-induced fats come from drinking too much alcohol, which inhibits fat breakdown in the liver and, in turn, causes fat accumulation.

Non-alcohol-induced fats, on the other hand, build up in your liver from consuming processed foods containing hydrogenated ingredients. Both types can cause liver cirrhosis and death from total liver failure.

Which signs indicate your liver is damaged?

The signs of liver damage are not always evident until the last stages of liver failure. Some may show no signs at all. If by chance, your liver does show signs of damage, symptoms may include the following:

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Pain on the right side of the abdomen

  • Insomnia

  • Sudden weight loss

  • Disorientation

  • Yellow skin and eyeballs (jaundice)

  • Swollen belly and legs

  • Bad breath

  • Tremors

Remember these signs. It’s essential to spot any symptoms of liver damage early to take the required steps to avoid liver failure. 

Seek medical attention immediately if you notice any persistent signs of liver damage, especially pain in the upper right abdomen. Doing so could prevent further damage that can become quickly life-threatening.

Can your liver grow back?

Yes, your liver can grow back after being damaged. The concept of liver regeneration was first discovered in 1990 when two researchers performed a liver regeneration test on rats. Results from the experiment showed that the liver could grow back during the early stages of liver damage.

Much of the liver’s regeneration abilities have to do with it being a quiescent organ (one cell is responsible for developing other cells). When damage occurs to a quiescent organ like the liver, the one cell responsible for cell production stops being the sole facilitator of growth. Instead, other cells join in, divide, and grow to cause rapid regeneration of the organ.

In the liver, this happens in three stages, starting with the initiation stage, where cells prepare to divide. It is then followed by the proliferation and termination stage when the liver is almost back to its original size. The cells must be activated under the right conditions for the liver to regrow.

How to help liver regrowth

First, let’s get one thing clear. The term “regeneration” refers to growing back an organ after it’s been wholly damaged or lost, like in the case of a lizard’s tail. Unfortunately, it cannot happen to the liver.

The better term for it would be “liver regrowth.” However, we’ll use both terms—regeneration and regrowth—for continuity. With that said, if you’ve been asking, “Does your liver grow back?” here are ways to help activate the liver regeneration process in your body.

Reduce alcohol consumption

If you want to grow back your liver, minimize your alcohol intake or eliminate it from your life completely. Alcohol is toxic to the liver, especially if you consume four or more alcoholic beverages simultaneously within the same week.

By cutting back on alcohol, your cells have ample time to reverse its deadly effects and regenerate your liver to its original state. But how much alcohol should you cut back on, and for what period?

The recommended maximum daily alcohol intake for men is two drinks, while women should have a maximum of one drink daily. In terms of volume, it depends on the type of alcohol you’re consuming as follows:

  • 12 ounces for beers with 5% alcohol

  • 8 ounces for malt liquors with 7% alcohol content

  • 5 ounces for wines with 12% alcohol content

  • 1.5 ounces of liquor with 40% alcohol content

If you have severe alcohol-related liver damage, the best course of action is not to drink at all.

Manage your weight

Alcohol isn’t the only thing that can cause fat accumulation in the liver. Your liver can also develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition related to excess fat in the body often associated with obesity and poor diet. In severe cases, NAFLD can lead to liver inflammation and cirrhosis.

You can stop and reverse the trans-fat buildup in your body by shedding weight gradually. Research shows that losing 7% to 10% of weight could improve liver function and reduce the amount of fat in the liver.³

To that end, some of the things you can do to manage your weight include the following:

  • Stay physically active—Do at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise four to seven days a week of brisk intensity

  • Eat a balanced diet—eat healthy fats, green vegetables, and fruits like beet and grapes

  • Eat appropriate portion sizes—consume little bits of food numerous times during the day rather than large amounts all at once

You should also work with your doctor to reduce weight through weight loss programs.

Monitor medication use

Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen should be monitored closely upon use, especially if you drink alcohol or have a liver condition like hepatitis. 

According to research, taking more than 5,000 to 10,000 milligrams of acetaminophen could damage your liver and lead to organ failure.⁴

The best thing to do is take the medication as prescribed and not more. If you have a liver condition, mention this to your doctor before filling out the prescription. Alternatives such as NSAIDs can be effective but have side effects. 

Prevent the risk of liver infections

Liver infections cause liver inflammation that could lead to liver damage, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. While hepatitis A often resolves on its own, hepatitis B and C should be prevented before they cause irreversible liver damage over time. 

To prevent getting hepatitis B and C, you must:

  • Get vaccinated

  • Avoid personal item sharing (e.g., razors, nail clippers)

  • Practice protected sex

  • Avoid reusing needles

  • Sterilize any sharp equipment that comes in contact with your body (e.g., shaving machines)

Get regular medical checkups

Going for regular checkups is essential for liver regrowth and overall well-being. A routine checkup could reveal conditions you need to be aware of early on. 

For liver damage, checkups are vital since signs may not be evident until later when the damage is extensive. You should also see a doctor if you notice any symptoms of liver damage or have a liver infection. This will help your doctor plan a suitable treatment for your liver to rest and rejuvenate over time. 

Remember, the earlier the treatment, the less time it takes for your liver to grow back.

Does the liver regenerate after severe damage?

Not every form of liver damage is reversible. Repeated liver damage can cause the liver to form scar tissue. The extensive spread of the scar tissue in the liver results in the death of healthy tissue and renders it unable to regenerate. At such a point, you have a condition called liver cirrhosis.

Liver cirrhosis is the seventh most fatal condition worldwide. It occurs in four stages, as follows:

  • Stage 1: Liver damage in Stage 1 is slow and minimal. You have a great chance of surviving if you’re diagnosed with Stage 1 liver cirrhosis.

  • Stage 2: At this stage, damaged tissues have already started becoming stiff, becoming rigid bands known as fibrosis. Fibrosis slows down blood flow in the liver.

  • Stage 3: In Stage 3, fibroids merge and begin to disrupt normal liver functioning, including storing nutrients or breaking down fat. Cirrhosis at the third stage often leads to spleen, kidney, and heart problems.

  • Stage 4: The liver cannot detoxify the blood, and symptoms of liver damage are evident. You have little chance of survival at this stage and could even go into a coma.

When is liver transplant an option?

Liver transplants are a treatment reserved for people with end-stage chronic liver disease. Such people have severe liver complications that cannot be reversed unless by replacing the entire kidney.

You can get a partial liver from a living donor. This type of transplant is far better than waiting for a deceased person’s liver since the number of people who want a liver transplant far exceeds the number of donors available. 

Both liver transplants have a high success rate, and most people who undergo them get at least five more years to live.

The lowdown

The liver is an essential organ in the body. Without it, detoxification, nutrient storage, and digestion would be impossible. 

Various factors can stress or irritate your liver and impact its functionality. Common culprits include alcohol, some medications, and food types.

If you notice signs of liver damage, you should take the necessary steps to prevent further damage and help your liver grow again. Some crucial steps include minimizing alcohol consumption, managing your weight, and monitoring the medications you take. 

You should also go for regular medical checkups. Doing so might help your doctor detect and treat liver damage early and increase the chances of a positive outcome. If your liver is damaged beyond liver regeneration, don’t be afraid to seek a liver transplant.

Frequently asked questions

Which types of foods are good for the liver?

You can include a variety of foods in your diet to keep your liver healthy and functional. These include coffee, grapes, blueberries, tea, cruciferous vegetables, fatty fish, nuts, and beets.

What can I do if I struggle to reduce or quit alcohol consumption?

If you’re struggling to cut back on alcohol, talk to your doctor about joining a recovery program and taking medications to help reduce your cravings.

How often should I get a liver test or examination?

No specific guidelines outline the frequency or age at which you should go for liver examinations. However, you should go for one if you show symptoms of liver damage or are consuming too much alcohol or medications.

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