(Jamaica Gleaner) Tuesday | November 17, 2015
Someone once said, “Life depends on the liver.”
The liver is the biggest, heaviest and most complex internal organ in the body with many important functions. It makes bile for breaking down dietary fats, it absorbs and converts blood glucose into glycogen, produces urea (the main impurity in urine), makes certain important proteins like albumin, filters out and neutralises harmful substances like alcohol and drugs from the blood, stores vitamins like vitamin A, D, K and B12. The liver is also responsible for producing about 80 per cent of the cholesterol in your body.
Normally, the liver can handle a lot of abuse and has a tremendous ability to regenerate itself after damage and stress. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of a liver problem that researchers say is now the most common liver disorder in developed countries. It is estimated to affect almost a quarter of the American population. It is called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The name speaks for itself: an accumulation of fat in the liver, occupying over 10 per cent of the organ, in people who do not abuse alcohol. This distinction is important as in the past, a fatty liver was typically associated with alcohol abuse.
As the levels of obesity escalate, medical experts now recognise that we are facing an epidemic of NAFLD. The disease can strike anyone, but certain groups are at high risk:
In The obese: 90 per cent of obese individuals are at risk of damaging their liver with fat, especially where the excess fat is stored around the waistline. Fat around the waist (truncal obesity) is not just stored under the skin. It surrounds and infiltrates the abdominal organs, particularly the liver, where fat globules actually enter the liver cells and damage them.
In The diabetic: 50 per cent of diabetics have NAFLD, and just about all obese diabetics will have this problem. Elevated levels of insulin in the blood and insulin resistance are strongly associated with both Type 2 diabetes and obesity. The common bedfellows play a major role in fatty liver disease.
In The elderly: The prevalence of this condition rises with age, and recent studies show that over 65 per cent of persons over age 80 have NAFLD. Unfortunately, obese children may already have fatty livers.
In High cholesterol: A very high percentage of individuals with elevated levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides have excess fats damaging their livers. But don’t rush off to take cholesterol-lowering drugs, as they will injure your liver even more. Treat the cause, not the effect.
A person with the risk factors mentioned above can detect a fatty liver with a simple abdominal ultrasound examination. Like diabetes and high blood pressure, this liver condition is often initially silent, only to cause life-threatening problems many years later.
In some cases, patients may have only non-specific complaints like low energy, fatigue, malaise and mild upper abdominal pain. Laboratory tests for liver function may or may not reveal any abnormality. Later in the progression of the disease, signs of inflammation of the liver (hepatitis), cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer may develop.
Treatment and prevention
Conventional medicine does not have a specific drug or treatment for this problem. However, the condition can be largely prevented and often reversed by simple nutritional and lifestyle modification.
Losing weight with a nutritionally sound weight-loss programme will result in a significant reduction of excess fat in the liver. I have found a low carbohydrate, cellular nutrition-type programme very effective in this regard.
Reversing abdominal obesity is an essential part of any treatment plan.
Soy products contain a compound phosphatidylcholine, which research has shown helps to halt the progress of liver damage in NAFLD.
Controlling blood sugar levels is also very important in managing this problem. A diet low in simple carbohydrates along with supplements like chromium and the omega-3 fatty acids greatly improves blood sugar control. Regular exercise will amplify the benefits.
Antioxidant supplementation with vitamins A, C, E, selenium, alpha lipoic acid, coenzymeQ10, green tea and glutathione is important in protecting liver cells from ongoing damage.
Detoxification programmes will help relieve the toxic burden on an already compromised liver. The herbs, milk thistle and aloe vera are particularly useful in this regard. Alcohol and other liver toxins must be absolutely avoided.
So, if you are ‘fluffy’, have a spare tyre, a love handle or a beer belly, this is a warning sign that you are on your way to developing a fatty liver.