Elevated Liver Enzymes: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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Illustration of elevated liver enzymes

1Overview

The liver is an important organ in the body. It regulates most chemical levels in the blood and excretes bile, a product important for digestion. In fact, all the blood leaving the stomach need to pass through the liver.

The liver is the largest internal organ. It is large that is situated on the right side of the abdomen. It weighs around three pounds and it’s protected by the rib cage.

Did you know that the liver has more than 500 important functions? Some of its functions include the production of bile, which aids in carrying away the waste and helps in the breakdown of fats during digestion, production of cholesterol and other special proteins, and the production of some important proteins for blood plasma.

The liver also helps convert the extra glucose into glycogen, which is stored in the liver and later converted back into glucose as needed. The liver is also responsible for the regulation of amino acids in the blood, processing the hemoglobin, regulating clotting of blood, converting ammonia to urea, removing infections from the bloodstream and clearing bilirubin.

The liver may also suffer from problems related to health. When there are elevated liver enzymes, there is an ongoing inflammation or damage to the cells in the liver. When the liver cells get injured or inflamed, they leak excessive amounts of some chemicals, particularly liver enzymes. As a result, the markers for these enzymes in the blood become increased, as shown in blood tests.

The liver enzymes that can be elevated include:

  • Aspartate transaminase (AST)
  • Alanine transaminase (AST)
  • Alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
  • Gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT)

Usually, elevated liver enzymes may be detected during a routine blood testing. Most of the time, these liver enzymes are only temporarily elevated. They do not signal a serious or chronic liver problem.

2Symptoms

The individuals with elevated liver enzymes may not have any symptoms. If the liver enzymes are elevated due to liver disease, the early symptoms are associated with the inability of the liver to function properly.

The common signs and symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nose bleeding
  • Jaundice
  • Weight loss
  • Anorexia
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Nausea
  • Lowered sex drive

As the condition gets worse, the following symptoms may emerge:

  • Jaundice
  • Vomiting blood
  • Dark and tarry stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Tendency to bleed easily
  • Inflamed legs or edema
  • Ascites or the accumulation of fluid

3Causes

Many diseases and conditions can contribute to elevated liver enzymes readings.
The doctor needs to identify the exact underlying cause of proper intervention. The common causes of elevated liver enzymes include:

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition that can produce elevated liver enzymes. The disease is common and those who have it may have no symptoms at all until they have their blood tested for liver enzyme levels. There is no standard option of treatment for the condition but mostly, reducing the risk factors and lifestyle changes may help prevent the progression of the disease.

Alcoholic liver disease – Alcoholic liver disease involves the injury to the liver due to excessive and prolonged alcohol abuse. Alcohol contains acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical produced when alcohol is broken down. People who drink heavily and excessively may have elevated liver enzymes.

Liver damage caused by medicines – Many medicines have been linked to liver damage and increased liver enzymes. The most common drug associated with elevated liver enzymes is acetaminophen or Tylenol. Some drugs prescribed to contain cholesterol can also cause liver problems and elevated liver enzymes.

Viral hepatitisViral hepatitis such as hepatitis Ahepatitis B, and hepatitis C may lead to elevated liver enzymes. Some of the infections are lifetime and untreatable. Hence, prevention is important. Vaccines are available for some types of hepatitis.

Hemochromatosis – Hemochromatosis is a congenital and genetic disorder of iron metabolism. This happens when the excess iron is deposited in the liver, leading to damage to the liver cells. This may lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency – Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency is an inherited disorder that can eventually lead to liver damage and liver cancer. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin is a protein responsible for protecting the lungs. If there is a deficiency, it could also lead to liver damage and elevated liver enzymes.

Wilson disease – Wilson disease is a rare inherited disorder of copper metabolism. Just like hemochromatosis, the copper is deposited in vital organs like the liver, brain, and eyes. This is life-threatening and may cause cell damage.

Mononucleosis – Mononucleosis is a disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It is called the “kissing disease” because it’s usually transmitted via the saliva. One of the complications of this infectious disease is liver inflammation or hepatitis, which leads to the elevation of liver enzymes.

Cytomegalovirus – Cytomegalovirus infection (CMV) is a common viral infection.
For people with low immunity, being infected with the CMV may lead to the inflammation of the liver or hepatitis.

Autoimmune hepatitis – The immune system may mistakenly target and kill the liver cells. This condition is called autoimmune hepatitis and this may lead to liver damage and inflammation. In time, it may lead to the elevated levels of liver enzymes in the body.

4Treatment

The treatment of elevated liver enzymes depends on the cause of the condition. If the doctor sees that the condition is caused by nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or metabolic syndrome, it is important to watch the diet, lose weight, control the cholesterol levels, stopping alcohol intake and living a healthy lifestyle.

Here are ways to reduce or lower the liver enzyme levels:

Stop drinking alcoholWhen there is an ongoing liver problem, it is hard for the liver to process any more toxins in the body. Alcohol will be hard work for the liver and can pose further damage to the lover. If you have elevated liver enzymes, abstain or stop drinking alcohol and allow the liver cells to recover.

Stop taking all non-prescription medicines – If the medicines are not prescribed, like those which are purchased over-the-counter, they should be stopped when there is an increase in the liver enzymes levels in the blood. The drugs that can pose more damage to the liver include ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen.

Avoid exposure to toxins in the environment – Since the liver acts as the filter of almost all toxins that enter the body, environmental toxins like sunscreens, chemical cleaners, perfumes, detergents, personal hygiene products, disinfectants, secondhand cigarette smoke and paint fumes, can add a burden to the liver’s activities. If there is current liver damage, inflammation or problem, stay away from these toxins.

Avoid eating processed foods – Processed food and other pre-packaged products contain refined sugar and excess sodium or salt. These also contain preservatives and other chemicals that can add burden to the liver. To reduce the liver’s burden in processing the foods people consume, reduce or better yet, avoid eating processed foods, particularly for those with elevated liver enzymes.

Eat whole foods – To reduce the burden of the liver in processing chemicals and its other functions, eating organic, whole and healthy food choices that have no preservatives. Whole or organic foods may help promote the health of the liver and prevent liver damage. It can also prevent further damage and can lower elevated liver enzymes.

Always remember that the liver has more than 500 functions and if you do not take good care of it, it may lead to further damage, elevating the liver enzymes.

Take fish oil for better liver health – Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which includes foods like tuna, sardines, and salmon, can help improve liver function and reduce elevated liver enzyme levels. Triglycerides can be lowered with the help of fish oil. Too much triglyceride can lead to serious complications, particularly liver inflammation.

Detox the liver naturally – Some natural herbs like milk thistle and dandelion can act as natural liver detoxifiers. They can help detoxify the liver and protect the liver against harmful toxins. These herbs can help reduce inflammation and liver overwork.

Drink liver supplements – There are over-the-counter liver supplements that can support liver function, detoxify it and promote its health. These supplements can be taken to promote liver health and reduce damage or inflammation.

Reduce red meat consumption – Red meat is high in protein and is very hard to digest. The liver has to deal with the excess protein and fat to properly digest red meat, particularly beef. To reduce elevated liver enzymes, it is advisable to stay away from eating red meat and substitute meat with easier foods that can be digested, like chicken or fish.

Work with a nutritionist – Working with a nutritionist if you have elevated liver enzymes is important because he or she knows which foods will help you manage the condition and address the problem.