Blacks are more likely to develop liver disease than any other race. If you’ve been diagnosed with hepatitis C, there is plenty you can do to stay healthy and lower your risk of developing serious liver disease. Like many diseases, hepatitis C is affected by the way we live — what we eat, how much we exercise, even how we deal with stress. The healthier you are overall, the better your body can deal with the virus. The less strain you put on your liver, the healthier it will remain.
That doesn’t mean you can get rid of the virus by living right or that people who develop serious liver disease as a result of HCV did something wrong and are somehow responsible. Many factors combine to determine the course of the disease. Here are the six most important steps to protecting your liver:
1. Eat well
Most of the substances we ingest eventually find their way to the liver. Part of its job is to remove toxins and metabolize substances for use by the body. So it makes good sense that eating a healthy diet will help keep your liver strong.
Most of the advice is valid whether you’re infected with HCV or not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet. A well-balanced diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables (five to nine servings a day), whole-grain breads and cereals, and lower-fat sources of protein, such as lean meats. Saturated fat, the kind found in meat and dairy products, has been shown to clog arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease.
Lately, scientists have discovered that trans fats (also called hydrogenated fats) may be just as bad or worse for the arteries. And some experts believe that these artificially made fats may be especially difficult for the liver to metabolize. To reduce your intake of trans fats, cut back on processed foods, which are the main source of trans fats. Examples include chips, cookies, and crackers.
Another important aspect of a healthy diet is eating just enough to maintain a healthy weight. Doctors are alarmed at the expanding waistlines of Americans: Overweight and obesity have been linked to a long list of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. There is some evidence that if you’re HCV-positive and overweight, shedding some pounds could help your liver.
A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition put 19 overweight people with hepatitis C on a 12-week diet and exercise program. The participants lost 13 pounds on average, about a pound a week. At the same time, several markers of liver health improved, including liver enzymes and the amount of scar tissue and fat in the liver.
2. Avoid alcohol
People with hepatitis C should eliminate alcohol from their diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several studies have shown that among people with hepatitis C, regular drinkers have higher levels of the virus than do non-drinkers. Studies also show that when people with HCV infection stop drinking alcohol, their virus levels decrease.
Recently, experts figured out why. In an experiment directed by Wen-Zhe Ho, MD, director of retroviral research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers discovered that alcohol causes hepatitis C viruses to multiply in the liver. The findings, reported in the journal Hepatology, show that alcohol increases the activity of a protein that triggers HCV to make new copies of itself. These new copies speed the progress of the infection and raise the risk of liver damage.
Some experts still debate whether it’s safe for people with HCV to drink small amounts of alcohol — a glass of wine or beer a day, for instance. Several studies suggest that the biggest danger comes from