June 28, 2021

How Can Your Lifestyle Affect Your Liver Health?

By Shivani Chinnappan, SWHR Programs Coordinator

The liver does a lot of work to keep our body healthy. From promoting blood clotting to breaking down toxins, this vital organ filters 1.4 liters of blood a minute! While the liver is constantly aiding processes that maintain our health, we seldom think about how to keep our liver healthy. In fact, liver disease-related deaths in the United States steadily increased from 2009 to 2016. Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes women can make to proactively enhance their liver health.

Our diet has an immense impact on liver health since the liver helps process what we take into our bodies. You can protect your liver by practicing better eating habits, such as eating fiber-rich whole grains, choosing more lean meats, and avoiding excess saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. Interestingly, coffee appears to have positive effects on liver health, with studies linking the beverage to lower risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and to potential benefits for those with hepatitis C, a virus that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. However, the reasons behind these potential benefits are not yet know.

Dr. Michelle Lai, a liver specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, is co-author of the book, The Liver Healing Diet. “A big component of what I talk about with my patients is stress,” she said. “Many people cope with stress by eating unhealthy foods.” This results in an additional toll on the liver when the body is already under stress. Practicing good nutrition can lead to less stress on the body down the line.

Exercise is another modifiable lifestyle factor that can influence liver health. Experts suggest a combination of aerobic exercise and weight training. Aerobic exercise can strengthen the cardiovascular system, which supplies blood to the liver. Weight training can increase lean body mass and metabolism, which can prevent a buildup of excess fat in the liver (also called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease). Exercise can also help circulate more anti-inflammatory agents in the body, which help maintain liver function. Setting gradual goals is important — if you have a pre-existing liver condition, start slow with three 10- to 20-minute workout sessions, and then build to five or more days a week. “Start by setting achievable goals, but keep moving that goalpost,” says Lai.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges for liver health, Lai noted, with increased stress impacting people’s diet and exercise regimens. She said she also saw more patients, especially women, with alcohol-related liver disease. In one survey published in the Journal of Gynecology and Women’s Health, almost two-thirds of women reported drinking more during the pandemic, including increases daily drinking, drinking earlier in the day, and binge drinking.

When it comes to lifestyle interventions, Lai said women tend to face more challenges. “Most commonly I hear with my women patients, ‘family comes first,’ and they don’t have a lot of time for self-care,” Lai said. “Their priorities are family, work, and then their health gets pushed to last.” She urges women to take care of themselves, so they can have longer, healthier lives filled with more time for family and other responsibilities.

Continued research on the effectiveness of lifestyle interventions for maintaining liver health and treating liver disease is critical to improving patient outcomes. In particular, research that specifically looks at sex-based and gender-based outcomes can help formulate more tailored treatment plans for patients. Taking initiative to create spaces for this work is also key. Lai mentioned that Beth Israel’s GI team has hopes to create a GI Women’s Center. The goals of the center would be to provide more tailored care, support more research into Women’s health in GI, and train young specialists into gender-specific issues in GI.

Our lifestyle habits largely shape the biological health of our body, including our liver. Although it’s easy to slip into unhealthy habits in times of stress, it’s often in those moments that the body could use help with proper nutrition and exercise. With a healthy liver, we can achieve a longer, more sustainable quality of life.

Read more in SWHR’s #LiverHealth4Women blog series:

SWHR’s blog series on women’s liver health is supported by a grant from Intercept Pharmaceuticals Inc. SWHR maintains editorial control and independence over blog content.