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Why moderation should always be your guide

Egg nog, sherry, mulled wine, spiced cider: December has its very own drinks cabinet, and sampling it is one of the delights of the season.

Nevertheless, eating and drinking too much over the festive season can have a longer-term impact on the body than many of us might like to think, particularly on the liver. "There's been a big rise in middle-class, middle-aged women with liver disease because of the culture of drinking a bottle of wine a night," says Dr Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust. Rates of chronic liver disease have almost trebled in Scotland in the last 15 years, so it pays to know the risks and what you can do to minimise them.

"The risks at this time of year are particularly if you put on weight you can't lose, so you're developing more fat around your liver, or if you get more than a taste for alcohol," says Dr Langford. "Fatty liver disease is when the liver starts to get clogged up. The vast majority is due to unhealthy diet – overeating of carbohydrates and fat – particularly if you're not balancing that with exercise. We used to say that the main cause of liver disease is alcohol, but what's coming up behind and nearly equal with that now is fatty liver disease."

Dr Langford adds: "A huge misconception is that only alcoholics get liver disease: that really is a myth. If you're drinking more than the recommended maximum for women of two or three units in one day, there's a very high chance you'll be doing damage to your liver.

Among younger women, he warns of the danger of "pre-loading" – drinking at home before going out for the night – which research shows is more prevalent among women than men, and often involves spirits, which deliver a lot of alcohol quickly. This could be because of a tendency among women to meet up and get ready together for a night out. In this way, women can drink several times their recommended maximum limit before leaving the house.

Alcohol and weight gain are the principle causes of long-term liver disease, but acute liver disease, caused by viruses such as hepatitis B or C, could result from unsafe sex or drug-taking.

If caught early, liver damage is reversible, though major changes to lifestyle are usually required. If the damage is caused by hepatitis B or C, medication is available. However, most people with liver disease don't realise they have a problem until it is too late.

Dr Langford explains: "One of the biggest signs of liver problems is if you have any form of jaundice. It might just be a slight yellowing of the skin or the whites or your eyes, and for some people it may only last a day or two. Some people might put it down to a big weekend out, but it could be down to something far more sinister and should be checked out.

"You might have a slightly darker urine and a change in your bowel habits, such as blood in the faeces or faeces that float, showing that fat isn't being absorbed properly. If someone is worried, they need to go to their GP, and if the GP thinks they have got a problem, they should go either for blood tests or for an ultrasound of their liver."

For more information, visit www.britishlivertrust.org.uk

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