Every day is filled with choices that might affect your health. When you’re living with hepatitis C, some of those choices take on greater importance. Infection with the hepatitis C virus, or HCV, taxes your liver and immune system on a daily basis and can affect other body systems. Your lifestyle choices can help counteract — or worsen — some of these effects on your body. Making healthy choices with respect to your diet, exercise and substance use may help limit the negative effects of hepatitis C on your body and reduce your risk for severe complications.
Lighten Your Liver Load
Your liver processes just about everything you put in your body — good or bad. Your liver is under daily siege when you have hepatitis C, so anything you can do to lighten the load is potentially helpful. Avoiding alcohol, which is metabolized in your liver, is recommended, as both alcohol itself and its breakdown products are toxic to liver cells. Doctors have long known that people with hepatitis C who drink heavily develop more severe liver scarring compared to those who abstain. More recent research, however, indicates that even moderate drinking — roughly one drink per day — may be harmful. The authors of an April 2013 study report published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that moderate drinking increased the risk of death in people with hepatitis C. Given these findings, not drinking any alcohol is the safest choice if you have hepatitis C.
Other substances to avoid that may damage your liver include:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol), unless prescribed by your doctor
- certain herbs, such as kava kava, germander and chaparral
Because many prescription medications can have negative effects on your liver, make sure any doctor prescribing medication knows that you have hepatitis C.
Provide Healthy Fuel
There is no special diet for people with hepatitis C — but that doesn’t mean what you eat isn’t important. Your liver processes most of the nutrients absorbed from your food and helps regulate your body’s metabolism of proteins, fats and sugars. HCV disrupts some of these functions, making you vulnerable to metabolic complications of the illness. People with hepatitis C have an increased risk for prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. HCV infection can also cause excess fat accumulation in your liver, which increases your risk for rapid liver damage.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes all food groups and the appropriate amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates helps support your liver and immune system. Avoiding excessive amounts of sugar and fat — especially animal fats from foods like cheese, butter and meat — can help keep your metabolism balanced. Talk with your doctor if you have cirrhosis, diabetes or are carrying some extra body weight as you may need a special nutrition plan. Dietary adjustments may also be needed if you’re starting antiviral treatment.
Many people with HCV experience stress, anxiety and/or depression in addition to physical symptoms like tiredness, body pain and sleeping difficulties. Any of these can sap your energy and leave you on the sidelines. While exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing, it could be your ace in the hole. Both your body and mind respond positively to physical activity. Additionally, exercise supports healthy metabolism and body weight, important factors in your liver and overall health. Choose activities you enjoy. Whatever keeps you moving — whether it’s dancing, jogging, playing tag with the kids or another activity — can help you live better with hepatitis C.
Because hepatitis C is a contagious disease, you might worry about passing the illness to others. But some simple precautions can reduce both the risk and your concern.
- Do not share drug injection equipment.
- Don’t share personal-hygiene items that may be contaminated with blood, such as toothbrushes or razors.
- Cover open cuts or sores with a bandage.
- Clean any blood-contaminated surfaces with a bleach solution.
Hepatitis C does not spread through casual contact like hugging, kissing, shaking hands or eating with others. But it is possible — although uncommon — to transmit HCV through sexual contact. Transmission is more likely if you have multiple sex partners or have HIV. The risk is lower for couples in long-term, monogamous relationships. Using condoms reduces the risk of spreading hepatitis C through sex. Talk with your doctor if you have specific concerns about HCV transmission.