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How a Healthy Liver Functions, and Why Transplants become Necessary

separator The liver is one of the largest organs in your body. It’s on your right side, behind the lower part of your ribs. Some of the liver’s functions include:

  • Storing vitamins, sugars, fat and other nutrients and converting them into energy, which you need in order to live
  • Creating the right balance of chemicals in your body, such as bile, which is essential for the digestion of fats
  • Removing alcohol and other toxic substances from the blood and breaking them down so that the body can get rid of them
  • Removing waste products from your blood

The liver is a filter, in a way, that plays a major role in helping your body to function well. But as you probably know, there are some serious conditions that damage the liver. Over time, the liver functions less and less well, and often, a liver transplant becomes necessary.

Liver transplants sometimes the best hope
There are currently more than 17,300 Americans waiting for liver transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. There have been nearly 2,800 transplants performed so far this year. Obviously, there aren’t nearly enough organs for people needing transplants.

Patients must receive livers from a donor with a matching blood type. Blood type also accounts for the amount of time patients spend on a waiting list. For example, the median waiting time for patients with type AB blood is 232 days, while patients with type O have a median wait of 1,1544 days. That’s because O is the most common blood type, and there are more people with type O who need livers.

Common conditions leading to need for liver transplants
Cirrhosis: This isn’t an actual disease. Cirrhosis is the buildup of scar tissue that results from damage caused by conditions such as hepatitis B and C, drinking too much alcohol, exposure to some drugs and other toxic substances, and other chronic liver diseases. As the scar tissue continues to grow, the liver becomes less and less able to function. In fact, many people with long-term cirrhosis of the liver eventually develop liver cancer.

Hepatitis C: This is the most common cause of chronic liver disease, liver cancer, and cirrhosis and the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States. About 4 million Americans are infected with the hepatitis C virus. Many patients don’t experience symptoms from hepatitis C, but 20 to 30 percent of people who have the virus do go on to develop progressive liver disease, cirrhosis and liver failure. The hepatitis C virus is spread by sharing needles with someone who is infected with the virus, by having a blood transfusion from an infected person (this is rare in the U.S. today, because of screening processes), and by having sexual contact with someone who is infected. Essentially, the hepatitis C virus is spread much like the HIV virus. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis B: This disease is spread by having sexual contact with an infected person, by sharing needles with an infected person or by having fluid to fluid contact with an infected person. For example, if you get a tattoo from an artist who doesn’t have clean needles, you could contract hepatitis B if a previous customer had the condition. There is now a vaccine for hepatitis B, which has become part of the immunization schedule for babies. The vaccine is also recommended for people in high-risk groups.

Good nutrition essential for those with liver diseases
If you have liver disease, one of your goals should be to place as little strain on your liver as possible. One way to do this is to follow a nutrition plan that’s designed specifically for people with liver problems. Avoiding alcohol is one of the most important aspects of this kind of plan. You also want to make sure you get just the right amount of protein and carbohydrates.

Be sure to work closely with your doctor or dietitian to set up an eating plan that will help you liver function as well as possible.

The American Liver Foundation; The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; The United Network for Organ Sharing.
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