Fact Checked By Michael Kuefner, PhD (BMS)
August 30, 2021
Inflammation of the liver is commonly associated with a variety of liver diseases and is considered by many scientists as the main driver of hepatic tissue damage (1).
Liver inflammation can be triggered by various liver diseases including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and can lead to the progression and onset of serious complications like severe fibrogenesis or liver cancer.
These pathologies are highly prevalent across the globe (2).
For these reasons (along with many others) liver health is paramount to our ability to live healthy lives.
But how can we prevent our liver from entering this inflammatory state and steer clear of these diseases?
This article will cover this information and provide a background on everything that is liver inflammation – What it is, things that cause it, our body’s innate ability to deal with it, and the changes you can make in your daily life to treat and prevent it.
What is liver inflammation?
Liver inflammation is frequently referred to as hepatitis, is a reaction that occurs in response to acute and chronic liver diseases.
The most common of these diseases are (3):
When not treated or dealt with, these diseases lead to chronic inflammation of the liver and this creates a liver-damaging cascade.
This ‘cascade’ consists of a few key mechanisms.
Firstly, increased fat infiltration and storage into the hepatocytes, or liver cells; a process that is quickly followed by elevated amounts of oxidative stress which further damages the tissue.
Let’s pause for a second.
The human body is a magnificent piece of work – we have innate systems and checkpoints in place to fight infection and adapt to external and internal stressors.
One of the most important of these?
Our immune system – a system highly involved in liver diseases, and the crux of liver inflammation.
As the liver is exposed to increasing amounts of fat and oxidative stress, our bodies respond by ‘turning on’ this immune system, creating an inflammatory response used to eliminate foreign substances that aren’t really supposed to be there.
When this happens, scarring of the liver occurs as our body attempts to ‘replace’ the damaged tissue caused by fats, oxidative stress, and other foreign particles/substances like microbes.
Importantly, the prolonged occurrence of this eventually leads to liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, and in the worst-case, cancer (4).
Cells in the liver have a specialized role in inflammation
Our liver contains specialized cells known as Kupffer cells, and recent evidence suggests they may even be self-renewing (5).
Likewise, Kupffer cells play a central role in liver inflammation in the following ways:
1. Activate the immune response
Kupffer cells can sense when our hepatocytes are injured. In response to this injury, they become activated and express cytokines and signaling molecules in an attempt to alleviate liver cell damage.
2. Cell plasticity
Depending on the state of the liver, Kupffer cells can activate pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory pathways to provide a sort of ‘balance’ (6).
3. Detect and eliminate ‘danger’
The liver is a central hub for metabolism and nutrient breakdown in our body, and because of this, it is exposed to a variety of (and many times harmful) particles such as pathogens.
Kupffer cells can sense and remove these pathogens and potentially dangerous molecules with specialized receptors.
Overall, Kupffer cells play a key role in both protecting the liver from harmful outside particles, and in providing an anti-inflammatory effect in response to inflammation.
However, in response to chronic, long-term inflammation commonly caused by NAFLD or alcohol abuse, our body’s innate ability to deal with the immense damage that results isn’t enough.
And this is when those serious health complications – such as liver fibrosis as cancer, can surface.
Preventative strategies have been discussed at length in scientific literature to reduce inflammation in the liver and improve overall liver health.
Next, we’ll outline some of the ways you can mitigate liver inflammation and reduce your risk for common liver diseases like NAFLD or alcoholic liver disease.
Generally speaking, the first preventative measure to take is to look at your diet. Diet to prevent fatty liver disease or mitigate its symptoms, along with improving overall liver health typically include the following:
1. Little Amounts Of Processed Foods – including refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and trans and saturated fats
2. Limit Alcohol Consumption
3. Fruits And Vegetables
4. High-Fiber Foods – including whole grains, avocados, or legumes
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Specifically, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) Pre-clinical and clinical research has found that increased consumption of DHA and/or EPA may be useful in the treatment of NAFLD, regulate fat metabolism, and reduce inflammation (7).
Apart from dietary changes, research suggests some herbal supplements can promote a healthy environment in the liver.
Perhaps the most studied of these supplements is Milk thistle, also known as silymarin.
This herb is commonly used in supplements as an extract and contains bioactive compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities.
We have recently published a brief article on the beneficial effects of milk thistle and why it should be considered for liver health, and I highly recommend you check it out if you’re interested (8).
In short, Milk thistle prevents the formation of free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, a factor highly involved in the stress response in the liver.
The herb may also suppress the liver’s innate immune response to prevent inflammation as well.
Outside of Milk thistle, other herbal supplements have been suggested to improve liver health and alleviate liver inflammation.
The most studied and best characterized by scientific research include beetroot/ beetroot extracts, artichoke extracts, and chicory root.
Let’s briefly sum this up
To conclude, liver inflammation is caused by pathologies like NAFLD or alcoholic liver disease, and if left untreated can result in chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation results in liver scarring, tissue damage, and eventually more serious complications like fibrosis or cancer.
Making simple dietary changes can be very beneficial to the liver, specifically concerning oxidative stress and inflammation.
Following the dietary recommendations in this article is a good place to start.
Finally, some herbal supplements have shown promising benefits to improve liver health in both pre-clinical and clinical research, including milk thistle, beetroot, and artichoke extracts.
Be sure to check for these if you’re searching for a liver support supplement.
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