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Cirrhosis: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Cirrhosis
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What is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is a condition in which scar tissue gradually replaces healthy liver cells. Usually, it develops over a long period of time due to alcohol addiction or infection. In most cases, damage to the liver can’t be fixed, but if it’s caught early, it can be treated.

The liver, about the size of a football, makes digestive enzymes, filters toxins from blood, stores nutrients and sugar and helps fight off infections. Every time your liver is hurt, it fixes itself and develops hard scar tissue. When excess scar tissue forms, the liver can’t work properly.

The National Institutes of Health reports that cirrhosis is the 12th top cause of disease-related deaths in the United States (x). Men are more likely to develop the condition than women.

Cirrhosis Symptoms

During the initial stages of cirrhosis, there are hardly any symptoms. However, the symptoms begin to appear as the condition gets worse. The most common cirrhosis symptoms early on include weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting and nausea and abdominal pain.

At advanced stages of cirrhosis, with serious liver injury, one may experience confusion, memory loss, lack of concentration, sleep deprivation or mood changes. Easy bleeding and bruising are also very common at this time. One may also experience swelling in the ankles, lower legs or feet and bloating caused by excessive fluid buildup in the abdomen. Sometimes, a yellowish tint appears in the eyes and skin (jaundice) and urine darkens.

Another symptom is black, tarry stools or blood in vomit. This is due to the blood being unable to properly flow through the liver, which increases blood pressure in the portal vein (the vein that transports blood from the digestive tract to the liver).

The rise in blood pressure forces your blood through smaller, delicate blood vessels that line the gullet and stomach (varices). These may burst under increased blood pressure, resulting in internal bleeding, which can be seen in stools and/or vomit.

Over time, the dirt that a healthy liver would normally remove from your body may lead to multiple organ failure, causing death. In women, there’s often loss of menstruation. Men may experience loss of sex drive or develop gynecomastia (enlarged breasts) or testicular atrophy.

Not everyone with cirrhosis will experience all of the above symptoms. But if most of the symptoms are present, be sure to seek medical attention right away.

Causes of Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is commonly caused by:

  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • Genetic conditions
  • Long-term alcohol abuse
  • Toxic metals
  • Fatty liver disease

Hepatitis B and hepatitis C together are a top cause of cirrhosis (x). Other causes include:

Regular Excessive Consumption of Alcohol

The liver breaks down toxins, including alcohol. However, too much alcohol overworks the liver, and liver cells may eventually get damaged.

People who regularly drink heavily are far more likely to get cirrhosis than other healthy people. Usually, heavy drinking for at least a decade can cause cirrhosis (x).

There are typically three stages of liver disease caused by alcohol:

  • Alcoholic Fatty liver: This is when the liver accumulates fat
  • Alcoholic hepatitis: This happens when the liver cells swell
  • Cirrhosis: About 10-15% of heavy drinkers eventually develop cirrhosis (x)

Hepatitis

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne disease that may damage the liver, eventually leading to cirrhosis. It’s a common cirrhosis cause in the United States, Western Europe and many other areas of the world. Hepatitis B and hepatitis D can also cause cirrhosis.

Some Genetic Disorders

There are some hereditary conditions that may cause cirrhosis, including:

Wilson’s disease: Copper builds up in various body parts, including the liver

Hemochromatosis: Iron builds up in various body parts, including the liver.

Bile Duct Blockage

Some diseases and conditions, including bile duct cancer, or pancreatic cancer, may block the bile duct system, increasing the likelihood of cirrhosis.

Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis

In the early stages of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, there’s a buildup of excess fat in the liver. This causes scarring and inflammation, leading to the possibility of cirrhosis later on.

Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis is more common in people with diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high amounts of fat in the blood.

Autoimmune Hepatitis

In autoimmune hepatitis, one’s immune system wrongly attacks healthy body organs as if they’re foreign objects. The liver is sometimes attacked, and the patient may eventually develop cirrhosis.

Budd-Chiari Syndrome

In this condition, blood clots form in the blood vessel that transports blood from your liver, known as the hepatic vein. This results in liver enlargement and a formation of collateral vessels.

Other conditions and diseases that may lead to cirrhosis include:

  • Biliary atresia, or poorly developed bile duct system in babies
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis (scarring and hardening of bile ducts)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Galactosemia (inability to digest sugars in milk)
  • Glycogen storage disease (issues with the storage and release of energy required for cell function)
  • Schistosomiasis (a parasite often seen in some developing nations)
Cirrhosis Symptoms

Cirrhosis Remedies and Supplements

If your cirrhosis is detected early enough, damage may be lessened by treating the root cause or various complications that occur.

Doctors often combine different treatment methods, such as conventional and natural remedies. While cirrhosis has no cure, there is a wide range of management methods that can treat symptoms of cirrhosis.

Treatment for Underlying Causes of Cirrhosis

In the early stages of cirrhosis, it might be possible to reduce liver damage by treating underlying causes:

Treatment for alcohol addiction: People with alcohol-induced cirrhosis should try to quit drinking. If it’s difficult to stop drinking, your doctor can recommend an alcohol treatment program. If you’ve got cirrhosis, it’s imperative to stop drinking as alcohol is poisonous to the liver.

Weight loss: Liver disease as a result of obesity is currently the most common liver problem in the Western world. Research shows that obese people are 3 to 15 times more likely to develop liver disease than people with a healthy weight (x). That is because obesity changes the level of enzymes and fatty acids produced by your liver. If you have cirrhosis due to nonalcoholic fatty liver disorder, you can get healthier by losing weight and controlling your blood sugar levels.

Hepatitis medications: Medications can minimize further damage to the liver caused by hepatitis C or B through specialized treatment of these conditions.

Medications for controlling other cirrhosis causes and symptoms: Medications can slow the development of certain kinds of cirrhosis. For example, medication can significantly slow progression to cirrhosis in people who have primary biliary cirrhosis.

Other medications may ease certain symptoms, like pain, itching and fatigue. Nutritional supplements can be prescribed to treat malnutrition caused by cirrhosis and prevent osteoporosis (weak bones).

Treatment for Cirrhosis Complications

Your doctor can treat any complications associated with cirrhosis, such as:

Infections: You may receive antibiotics for infections. Your doctor may also recommend vaccinations for hepatitis, influenza, and pneumonia.

Too much fluid in the body: Medication to check fluid accumulation in the body and a low-sodium diet may help manage swelling and ascites. Certain procedures, including surgery, may be necessary to drain the excess fluid.

Portal hypertension: Certain medications for blood pressure may help control portal hypertension (pressure in veins carrying blood to the liver) and stop severe bleeding. Your physician will do an upper endoscopy regularly to check for varices (expanded veins) in the stomach or esophagus that might bleed.

If you have varices, you might need medication to lower your risk of bleeding. A procedure called band ligation can help stem the bleeding or cut the risk significantly if your varices are bleeding. In serious cases, you might need to have a tube placed in the vein to decrease blood pressure in the liver.

Increase risk of liver cancer: Your doctor may recommend periodic ultrasound exams and blood tests to test for liver cancer.

Hepatic encephalopathy: Your doctor may prescribe medications to help decrease toxin buildup in your blood caused by poor liver function.

Liver Transplant Surgery

In cases of end stage liver disease, when the liver stops working, the only option for treatment is a liver transplant. During a liver transplant, your liver is replaced by a healthy liver sourced from an organ donor. A living donor may also donate part of their liver for the transplant.

Candidates for a liver transplant have thorough testing to find out if they are healthy enough to get a good outcome after surgery.

Natural Remedies for Liver Cirrhosis

Avoid infections: If you have cirrhosis, you’ll find it harder to battle illnesses. Protect yourself by washing your hands regularly and avoiding sick individuals. Get vaccinated for pneumonia, influenza and hepatitis B and C.

Don’t drink alcohol: Steer clear of alcohol, whether chronic alcohol drinking is the cause of your cirrhosis or not. Drinking alcohol may damage your liver further.

Have a healthy diet: Malnutrition may occur in people with cirrhosis. You can treat this with a nutritious plant-based diet that contains a variety of vegetables and fruits. Choose lean protein, including fish, poultry or legumes. Avoid raw seafood.

Have a low-sodium diet: Too much salt may make your body retain fluids, causing swelling in your legs and abdomen. Season your food with herbs instead of salt. Choose low-sodium prepared foods.

Carefully use over-the-counter medications: Cirrhosis makes it harder for the liver to digest drugs. Therefore, talk to your physician before using any over-the-counter medications. Avoid medications like Aspirin and Ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil, etc). If you have liver damage, your physician may recommend avoiding Acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc) or taking low doses of it for pain relief.

Supplements for Cirrhosis Treatment

Spices, herbs and supplements like milk thistle, turmeric and probiotics can help produce good enzymes and bile, soothe the digestive system, lower inflammation and reduce intestinal gas.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is one of the best detoxifying herbs. It’s been used for eons to remove the buildup of toxins, alcohol, prescription drugs and heavy metals, as well as to cleanse the liver. Take 250 milligrams of milk thistle once daily, with or without a meal.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a strong anti-inflammatory that helps with digestion and restores proper blood sugar balance, thereby supporting liver metabolism. Take 1,000 milligrams of turmeric powder daily. You should take it with a meal or water.

Probiotics

Research also shows that probiotics may support liver health as intestinal microbiota play a crucial role in metabolic and detoxification processes (x). Leaky gut syndrome can make hepatic conditions worse and may change the way the liver functions.

In the future, probiotic foods and health-promoting microbial strains may be recommended to patients with liver disease to help reduce harmful interactions and re-establish the immune responses of the body.

Many of the supplements or foods mentioned above are also excellent sources of vital nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B-6 and potassium. Potassium-rich sources are particularly helpful as they help to bring down cholesterol, reduce systolic pressure and decrease triglyceride levels.

Limit Toxin Exposure

We all come into daily contact with various kinds of toxins through the products we use, foods we eat and air we breathe.

Try your best to avoid touching or breathing in toxins, especially by minimizing the amount of cleaning and beauty products you use. Chemicals contained in synthetic beauty products, cigarette additives, insecticides and aerosol products all damage liver cells.

The Bottom Line

Cirrhosis refers to a condition in which healthy liver cells are gradually replaced by scar tissue. It’s a progressive condition, developing slowly over several years. If it’s left untreated, the accumulation of scar tissue may eventually halt liver function.

The main reasons why cirrhosis develops include alcohol abuse, viruses like hepatitis, genetic conditions and fatty liver disease. Other factors like a poor diet and having high levels of cholesterol may also increase the risk for cirrhosis and cause liver dysfunction (x).

Cirrhosis symptoms occur due to the liver being unable to break down toxins, purify the blood, create clotting proteins and aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and fats. There are often no symptoms until the condition has advanced. Some symptoms include weakness, weight loss, itchy palms and feet, decreased appetite, jaundice and nosebleeds.

Cirrhosis treatment will depend on its underlying cause and how serious the disorder has gotten. Doctors often combine various treatment methods, including conventional treatments and natural remedies. When all treatments fail, a liver transplant is the last resort.

About the author

Mia Russell


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