15 Early Signs Of Liver Damage & How To Strengthen Your Liver

Your liver is inarguably one of the most important, hardest-working organs in the human body. It performs more than 500 functions, and when it’s not able… Elizabeth Lilian - January 30, 2017

Your liver is inarguably one of the most important, hardest-working organs in the human body. It performs more than 500 functions, and when it’s not able to do so correctly, the effects can be seen and felt throughout your whole system. Every day, the liver aids the body by providing it with energy and nutrients, fighting off infections and toxins, cleaning the blood, manufacturing many essential proteins, regulating cholesterol, hormones, and more.

The liver can regenerate if it becomes damaged, by replacing old tissue with new cells. However, when liver disease occurs, it causes scar tissue to form and the liver slowly becomes incapable of creating new tissue. The scar tissue blocks the blood flow and slows the procession of nutrients, hormones and natural toxins. Liver damage causes issues with various bodily functions like metabolism, circulation, hormonal balance and digestion.

Liver problems can be caused by many things like hepatitis, gallstones, fatty liver disease, cystic fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Diagnosis is made through physical exams, blood tests, CT scans, ultrasounds, and biopsies. Liver disease has serious complications including kidney failure, diabetes, excessive bleeding, the risk of infection and excessive fluid in the brain.

Symptoms of liver disease are nonspecific. This means there isn’t a reliable symptom that indicates there’s anything wrong. An unhealthy liver affects the way our entire body works, so it’s important to know and recognize the early signs of liver damage.

1. Nausea/Vomiting

Feeling nauseous and vomiting can occur for many reasons, from things like motion sickness, early pregnancy, intense pain, emotional stress and gastritis to heart attack, concussion, brain tumors and some forms of cancer.

It’s important to pay attention to any nausea and vomiting you may suffer from. The timing of nausea can indicate the cause, for example, if it appears soon after a meal it’s likely to be some type of food poisoning.

Often, people ignore these symptoms as something less serious, but those with liver damage may be feeling this way due to their liver being incapable of correctly processing and eliminating toxins.

Constant vomiting can cause dehydration, which can become extremely dangerous. So if you’re suffering from nausea and bouts of vomiting, ensure you keep your fluids up by taking small, frequent sips of water.

2. Weakness/Tiredness

Weakness and tiredness are also known as fatigue and can be attributed to many things ranging from a bad night’s sleep to something more sinister. Fatigue is different from normal sleepiness, as it’s characterized by a physical and mental lack of energy and motivation and a decrease in the ability to exert oneself.

Though fatigue is the most common symptom of liver disease, it’s not yet known why. Experimental studies suggest that fatigue is the result of neurotransmission changes in the brain, which can occur when excess fluid collects in the skull – another early sign of liver disease.

Fatigue is a symptom of liver disease because a compromised liver will not be able to adequately provide energy to the body. The liver is the main factor in the prevention of fatigue, and those with liver damage will likely have a weakened immune system and uncontrollable stress, both of which can add to feelings of weakness and tiredness.

Many different factors contribute to fatigue, like drugs and alcohol, stress, depression, poor nutrition, dehydration, impaired immune system and certain medical treatments. For those with liver disease, fatigue is likely to be the most prevalent symptom.

3. Loss Of Appetite

Our appetite fluctuates from day to day, and if you’ve noticed a decrease in your appetite, there may be many different reasons. Aside from liver damage, causes include pregnancy, heart failure, HIV, hypothyroidism, certain medications like antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs, and kidney failure.

Malnutrition is a large concern for cirrhotic patients and those with other liver diseases and has been found to be common in as many as 80% of patients. This can be attributed to the loss of appetite, which can cause sufferers to unintentionally ingest low-calorie foods, or barely eat at all. Chronic liver disease can also cause sufferers to experience abdominal pain, bloating and cramps.

As a symptom of liver disease, this can be attributed to impaired digestion and poor nutrient absorption, as well as a deficiency in vitamins and minerals.

Loss of appetite may also be due to the presence of ascites, which is an abnormal accumulation of fluid that builds up in the abdominal cavity. Ascites can restrict the proper expansion of the stomach, leading to appetite suppression, as well as nausea.

4. Digestive Issues

The digestive system is the group of organs that work together to turn food into energy and nutrients. This system consists of the mouth esophagus, liver, stomach, gallbladder, small and large intestines, pancreas, anus, and rectum, and it’s responsible for aiding absorption of essential nutrients and getting rid of leftover waste products.

There are many different types of digestive issues, including heartburn, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), chronic constipation, diarrhea, gas, intestinal cramps and food intolerances. Gut dysfunction is a common symptom of cirrhotic patients. It’s potentially related to the disturbance of several important hormones such as glucose, insulin, and ghrelin (commonly referred to as the ‘hunger hormone’).

Overcoming digestive issues can be done by undertaking some lifestyle changes. These include eating smaller meals more frequently so you don’t overload your digestive system, including more fiber in your diet from foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains, and drinking plenty of water. Water aids digestive health by cleansing the entire gastrointestinal tract, and it allows easier absorption of nutrients by helping the body break down food.

The liver is an essential part of your digestive system and taking note of how your digestion is can be a great insight into your health. Gut dysfunction can have an impact on quality of life as well as nutritional health, and it’s important to notice and keep an eye on any abnormalities that occur.

5. Changes In Urine Color

Urine is the waste product made by the kidneys. It gets its pale-yellow color from a pigment called urochrome, and changes in color can be caused by many things like dehydration, foods like rhubarb, B vitamins, urinary tract infections and some medications.

Though it’s normal for your urine to change color every day, if you notice it to be darker orange, amber or brown, it can be a sign of early liver damage. If this is the case, a change in urine color can be due to the problems that occur in the bile ducts of the liver.

Normal urine is made up of urea, uric acid, and water, though some diseases like diabetes, kidney disease, and jaundice can cause other substances such as sugar and bile pigments to appear in the urine. Darker urine can occur with liver disease due to the liver being unable to properly process and eliminate those substances.

Early detection of liver disease usually means a more promising diagnosis, so if you notice sudden changes in the color of your urine, first try to rule out some other, less harmful causes. If it’s a darker color, try drinking more water to rule out dehydration. If this doesn’t fix the problem, consider certain foods you’ve eaten recently that may have caused the discoloration, or any new medications you’ve just begun taking.

6. Yellowing Skin

Yellow skin is usually an obvious sign that something is not quite right within the body. Medically referred to as jaundice, it occurs when the liver can’t break down bilirubin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that is formed by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. If the liver is damaged, it cannot break down this pigment, which leads to a build-up that eventually leaks out into the surrounding tissue.

There are three different categories of jaundice. These are pre-hepatic, hepatic and post-hepatic. When jaundice is caused by liver disease, it’s generally hepatic, and it occurs when the liver’s ability to metabolize and excrete bilirubin is compromised.

Hepatic jaundice can occur due to varying issues from non-threatening to potentially fatal, including malaria, sickle cell disease, acute or chronic hepatitis, drugs, and autoimmune disorders.

Symptoms of jaundice can include the very noticeable yellowing of the whites of the eyes (the sclera) and the skin, as well as itchiness, fatigue, abdominal pain, weight loss, fever, vomiting, dark urine and pale stools. Treatment depends on what’s causing jaundice, and in certain cases, it can be monitored and managed at home. It’s important to cease all intake of alcohol and other drugs if jaundice appears, as this can only worsen the problem.

7. Changes In Stool Color

The stool is the leftover waste product broken down by the digestive system. It consists mostly of undigested food, but also contains bacteria, dead cells, and mucus.

As with urine, stool can change color due to many various, harmless reasons. A healthy stool can range from light yellow to brown and almost black, without reason for concern. However, if you notice a change in stool color that appears to be red, maroon, black, yellow, or very pale, it can often be a sign of early liver damage.

When the liver functions well, it releases bile into the stool, which gives it a ‘normal’ brown color. Liver disease affects the production of bile, which causes stool to appear discolored.

Stool color can also change due to things like hemorrhoids, bleeding in the stomach or lower intestine and colon, certain vegetables with deep colors, food dyes, iron pills, weight loss medication and diarrhea. But it’s important to take note of any changes that occur suddenly or take a while to subside, and if these color changes occur frequently, consult your doctor or physician.

8. Changes In Abdominal Area

The abdomen is the space between the chest and the pelvis. It contains all the digestive organs of the stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and spleen. Changes or pains in the abdominal area can mean many things, like appendicitis, indigestion, constipation, intestinal obstruction, gastritis or ulcers, so it’s important to take note of any pains you may be feeling, whether small or large.

Generally, liver pain can be felt in the upper right side of the abdomen, underneath the ribs. Changes that occur as a result of liver disease may be attributed to the presence of ascites, which can create abdominal distension and usually happens once the liver begins to fail. Ascites form from a combination of elevated pressure in veins found through the liver and a decrease in liver function caused by scar tissue.

The most common cause of ascites is advanced liver disease, but it can also be due to salt and water retention, congestive heart failure and advanced kidney disease. Though there may often be no symptoms of ascites, symptoms can include sudden weight gain, distortion, difficulty breathing, lack of appetite, bloating, heartburn, nausea, and vomiting.

Treating ascites and other abdominal changes depend almost entirely on the underlying cause. When it is caused by cirrhosis, ascites can generally be managed by restricting sodium in the diet and prescribing a diuretic, like water pills. In much more severe cases, surgery or a liver transplant may be necessary to intervene.

9. Fluid Retention

The body regulates fluid through a complex process called homeostasis. To understand it easier, it’s best to think of it like this: a well-functioning body is able to balance all the fluids we receive from our food and drink, with all the fluids we excrete through the digestive system. When your body begins to function poorly it becomes unable to regulate water levels, and this can result in fluid retention.

Fluid retention is an excessive build-up of water and other fluids within the circulatory system, skin tissues or cavities in the body. Up to 70% of our body is water, as it makes up most of our blood, organs, muscles, and bones. It causes swelling which can be seen all around the body, however, it is mostly noticed in puffiness of the feet and ankles, as well as the hands, fingers, and eyelids.

Retention can occur in different parts of the body for different reasons. Some of these reasons include poor lymphatic drainage, changes in blood pressure, kidney problems, pregnancy, hormonal imbalances, food allergens, sluggish liver function and liver disease.

Fluid retention can be worsened by poor diet, lack of exercise and artificial sweeteners. When trying to find the cause, it’s best to begin by avoiding or limiting various foods that can exacerbate the problem. These include dairy, preserved meat, processed food, refined sugars, honey, and glucose. You can also eat less salt, avoid refined carbohydrates, and increase your intake of vitamin B6 and other minerals like magnesium and potassium.

10. Increase In Skin Sensitivity

It’s said that your skin is a window to your health, and as such, early signs of some internal diseases – including liver disease – can be recognized in changes to the skin. These can vary from itchiness, dryness, premature aging, wrinkles, and brown liver spots to hives, acne, and painful rashes.

Liver deficiency can cause the skin to bruise easily, or become extremely sensitive to the touch. Some might also notice increased visibility of veins in the skin. Your liver acts as the point of detoxification for everything that goes through your body, so when it isn’t working properly, toxins build up in your system and create free radicals that can damage skin cells. When damage occurs and it can’t filter these toxins as it normally would, it attempts to flush them out through the skin instead, which can also create skin problems like eczema and psoriasis.

Besides problems with skin sensitivity, a weakened liver may cause you to feel sluggish, with frequent headaches and a generally ‘foggy’ mindset. Improving your liver function can make a remarkable difference to your overall health and well-being, and can dramatically decrease the chances of liver disease.

A healthy liver can mean an increase in energy levels, clearer skin, fewer infections, stronger immune system, less digestive problems, fresher breath, better oral health, and a positive mood.

Some ways to strengthen your liver function include:

  • Abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes
  • Avoiding processed foods, dairy, and products that contain refined sugar
  • Starting a low-sugar, low-toxin diet filled with foods high in fiber and antioxidants
  • Using liver-boosting supplements like milk thistle, basil and dandelion root
  • Eating liver-cleansing foods like garlic, turmeric, grapefruit, broccoli, avocado, and lemon
  • Replacing coffee with green tea
  • Limiting animal proteins and salt intake
  • Eating foods rich in vitamin C
  • Exercising as often as possible
  • Drinking plenty of water

11. Sensitivity to Medication

Patients with liver disease have been known to show sensitivity to certain types of medication such as opioids. Normally opioids just relieve pain, but for people with liver damage, they tend to do a lot more. The pain relievers can deteriorate mental function making them feel dazed, confused and less alert.

The sensitivity is said to be caused by the liver’s inability to either inactivate the drug or change the drug to an active form. The effects of the drug are increased when the liver fails to inactivate the drug. On the other hand, a drug can be ineffective for treatment if the liver can’t change it to its active form. This makes it harder for the body to transport the drug.

Liver disease tends to change the effects of the drugs on the body. It can change how much is absorbed by the intestine, how quickly the drug is metabolized and how quickly its transported throughout the body. An unhealthy liver could also affect how quickly the drug is eliminated from the body. It’s important to note that only certain drugs will have an effect on the body, not all drugs will cause issues. The sensitivity to medication is dependent on the extent of the liver damage. Different patients can exhibit different forms of sensitivity to medication.

As of now, doctors don’t know how a certain drug will affect a patient. It’s best to always go to the hospital if a certain medication is having more adverse effects than you expected. Liver disease can be treated when caught in its early stages.

12. Memory Issues

It’s hard to think that the liver plays a role in the proper functioning of your brain, but it does. Liver failure can cause hepatic encephalopathy. This is a condition that affects the nervous system and is caused by a buildup of toxins in the bloodstream, blockage of blood supply to the liver or a Hepatitis B infection. It can occur suddenly or develop gradually over time.

Your liver helps filter out toxic substances from your body. The toxins can be obtained in different ways such as from the medicine we consume or the food we eat. A healthy liver would normally make these toxins harmless. A damaged liver can cause these “poisons” to build up in the bloodstream, thus making you ill. A high amount of toxins can have an adverse effect on the body. The accumulation can affect the proper functioning of your brain causing difficulty in concentration, memory loss, and confusion.

There are other factors that could trigger a decrease in brain function (more so with a damaged liver). Low fluids/water levels in your body, too much protein, low levels of potassium/sodium, sedative medicine and infections can trigger memory issues. Hepatic encephalopathy can be corrected and is normally a short-term problem.

You’d just need to keep an eye on your diet and stay away from alcohol and certain types of medication. You should also try your best to keep yourself hydrated at all times. A lack of treatment can turn this disorder into a chronic problem that gets worse over time.

13. Sleep Disturbances

Some might consider this a minor problem, but its effects are huge. Sleeplessness/Insomnia can reduce your quality of life tremendously. One of the common signs of liver disease is insomnia/sleep disturbances. Many patients find it hard to sleep or tend to sleep for too long.

It’s not quite clear what causes sleep disturbances. People with varying forms of liver damage experience different types of sleep disturbances. There are some people that experience hypersomnia, the condition of excessive sleeping, while others experience insomnia. One theory to explain sleep disturbances is that liver disease alters the way the body produces melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) and affects the level of histamine. This change thus causes the body to have irregular sleeping patterns.

It’s also speculated that the damage also causes a disruption in the brain’s chemical pathways, thus altering sleep patterns. The related diseases caused by liver damage such as Type-2 diabetes and obesity can also cause insomnia. The interferon treatment used for viral Hepatitis B and C also tends to cause insomnia in some individuals. Sleep apnea is also faced by people with liver damage. Sleep apnea is a condition where you experience irregular breathing while asleep. Your breathing starts and stops erratically.

You can battle insomnia by sticking to a bedtime routine. Waking up and sleeping at the same time every day can help in some way to combat the problem. It’s also best that you avoid alcohol and caffeine in the late afternoon to evenings. You could also prep your room for sleep by making it dark and quiet.

14. Vitamin Deficiencies

Vitamin Deficiencies are to be expected for people with liver disease. The most common form of deficiency is Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in the absorption of calcium. It’s important for the growth and maintenance of strong, healthy bones.

Liver damage could cause a deficiency because of a number of reasons. A loss of appetite is one of them as people with liver disease don’t feel the need to eat. It’s mainly because of the digestive issues associated with the disease. The lack of desire to eat is also attributed to ascites which causes a reduced expansion capacity for the stomach.

Liver disease can cause bacterial overgrowth, villus atrophy and some small intestine diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease. The combination of these issues can cause a lack of proper nutrient absorption by the body and impaired digestion. The body is not always to blame as there are times when a low-calorie diet is a problem. This diet maybe because of lack of appetite or because of advice from the physician. Doctors tend to prescribe a low protein/calorie diet to help prevent hepatic encephalopathy. The intentions are good, but the diet recommendation tends to cause some adverse effects.

You can keep this at bay if you go for a more balanced diet. Be sure to include vitamin D rich foods such as eggs, fish, and fortified milk. Consuming a better diet can help in bone health and your overall body health as well.

15. Muscle Loss

Another sign of liver damage is muscle loss. Granted, this is one of the signs that tend to show up later as the disease worsens. The condition is called sarcopenia. It’s the loss of skeletal muscle normally caused by malnutrition. It is normally shown by patients with liver disease. You see the liver is partly responsible for the overall energy that your body needs. You use this energy to walk and move, thus keeping your muscles healthy.

People with liver disease tend to have a loss of appetite, thus leading to a lack of proper nutrition. The loss of appetite could be due to increased nausea, the reduced nutrient intake ordered by the doctors or reduced intestinal absorption. Your body does need energy. In dire need, the body tends to go after the fat in your body and once that’s done it goes after the muscles.

Studies have shown that there is a strong link between malnutrition and sarcopenia. The presence of malnutrition does not always lead to sarcopenia, but there is a great correlation between them. This makes many scientists believe that there might be a link between the two, especially for patients with liver damage.

There are few steps you can take to make things better. Proper nutrition is the number one thing, you need to control what you eat. Make sure you’re eating every few hours or at a certain interval. You don’t have to eat much, even a small amount can make a difference. Doing this helps provide your body with nutrients that it can use to generate energy.

Some ways to strengthen your liver function include:

  • Abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes
  • Avoiding processed foods, dairy, and products that contain refined sugar
  • Starting a low-sugar, low-toxin diet filled with foods high in fiber and antioxidants
  • Using liver-boosting supplements like milk thistle, basil and dandelion root
  • Eating liver-cleansing foods like garlic, turmeric, grapefruit, broccoli, avocado, and lemon
  • Replacing coffee with green tea
  • Limiting animal proteins and salt intake
  • Eating foods rich in vitamin C
  • Exercising as often as possible
  • Drinking plenty of water