What Self-Care Looks Like When You Have Hepatitis C
Bath bombs and massages are lovely. But self-care takes on a far different meaning when you’ve got a serious health condition. If you’ve just been diagnosed with hepatitis C—the chronic liver infection caused by the hep C virus (also known as HCV)—you'll likely start treatment ASAP, and chances are you’ll be cured within eight to 12 weeks. But during that time, especially if treatment is delayed—maybe you’re pregnant, working on getting clean first, or don’t have health insurance—there's a more specific form of self-care to improve your quality of life.
Stop Drinking Alcohol
A hep C diagnosis means no beer, wine, or liquor (at least until you’ve been treated—more on that in a sec). Why? Hepatitis C causes inflammation in the liver. Over time, this inflammation can lead to serious liver damage and scar tissue buildup. Alcohol likewise inflames the liver, so when you drink and have hep C, scar tissue amasses even faster and ups your risk of eventually developing liver cancer, says Nikolaos Pyrsopoulos, M.D., a professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at New Jersey Medical School. Once treatment is complete, you can ask your doctor if it’s safe to reintroduce alcohol.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
This is smart for many reasons, but a big one is to help prevent nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition where fat builds up in your liver and can cause inflammation and damage, just like hepatitis C. “Oftentimes, people with hepatitis C also have NAFLD, compounding the effects on the liver,” says Raymond Chung, M.D., director of the Hepatology and Liver Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Since being overweight is a known risk factor for NAFLD, liver specialists stress the importance of maintaining a healthy weight to avoid developing another liver-damaging condition on top of hep C.
Step Away From the Supplements!
There’s no shortage of supplements out there claiming to “support liver health” or even “detox” the liver. We get it: Sounds tempting—why not give 'em a try? The problem is that supplements aren’t regulated the same way medications are, meaning they may contain ingredients that actually do more harm than good. It’s best to only take medications or supplements that your doctor has approved to prevent accidentally making things worse.
Manage Stress (as Much as Possible)
You know what’s stressful? Someone telling you that you have a virus that may lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis), liver cancer, or possibly needing a liver transplant. That’s why your mental health is a key a priority during this time. Dr. Pyrsopoulos suggests first talking to a liver specialist. “Getting all the information and learning about treatments can be reassuring,” he says. Then, turn to tried-and-true stress-reduction tactics like meditation, exercise, spending time with loved ones, or whatever activity brings you a sense of calm.
Get Weekly Exercise
Yeah, working out can help you maintain a healthy weight, but the mental health benefits may be even more valuable right now. “Exercise decreases depression risk and increases the feel-good hormones in the body that help us cope with stressful situations,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos says. Unless you’ve settled on a specific exercise routine with your doctor or have other health conditions to consider, people living with hep C get the same advice we all do: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (brisk walking or using an elliptical trainer) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (running or swimming laps) per week, plus strength training two or more days per week.
Seek Out a Support Group
Wrapping your head around a new diagnosis can be overwhelming. Support groups offer a safe space to connect with people who just get it and are eager to share candid information about what living with hep C is really like. Where to start: The American Liver Foundation has support groups all around the country, and The National Hotline for Help and Support for Hep C (877-HELP-4-HEP) can refer you to support groups near you. The Hepatitis C Mentor and Support Group also provides a list of resources for people seeking a hep C community.
Establish a Good Sleep Schedule
As if you need another reason to prioritize sleep, the hep C virus and its medications may make you feel more tired than usual. Quality sleep is also helpful for managing stress and supporting a healthy metabolism, Dr. Chung says. “Upsetting the body clock with things like late nights or overnight shifts have been shown to disturb the metabolism and generally put people at a higher risk for obesity.” Practicing good sleep hygiene—shutting down electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, avoiding caffeine after 1 p.m., and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day—can help you catch more quality shuteye.
Check Your Grocery List
There’s no specific way of eating proven to change the course of hepatitis C, Dr. Chung says. But feeding your body a diet rich in whole, healthy foods is important for—again, ding ding ding!—maintaining a healthy weight. It doesn’t need to be complicated: Focus on eating more of the good stuff (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, low-fat dairy, and nuts) and cut back on saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars. If you need help figuring out how to reach specific weight-loss goals, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian.
Ask for Help When You Need It
Going it alone can be overwhelming—and paralyzing. Whether you could use support handling the anxiety of a hep C diagnosis, or are trying to stop using drugs or alcohol, there is absolutely someone ready to listen. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a confidential, free national helpline (1-800-662-4357) that provides referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups. You can also search treatment facilities on the SAMHSA website or do an Internet search for a therapist or counselor near you who specializes in mental health or substance abuse.