Fatty Liver Disease:
5 Lifestyle Choices Can Help Prevent it
Your liver is an amazing machine. The largest solid organ and largest gland you have, your liver performs over 500 essential tasks every day to keep your body operational. Some major functions include: producing bile to break down fat, cholesterol and some vitamins, helping blood cell formation; helping blood cells clot (stopping excessive bleeding); helping break down and absorb fat, protein and carbohydrates from food, storing vitamins, not to mention filtering toxins and waste from our blood and acting as a vital component of our immune system!
Unfortunately, humans are not very kind to our livers. We abuse them on a daily basis, often to our own detriment. Fortunately, the liver is so vital, it is the only internal organ with the capacity to regenerate itself. This means if we don’t do too much damage, our liver can recover - at least in part. The liver of a healthy person can repair minor issues quite quickly (weeks). However, as we age and our liver is subjected to more damage, this capacity to repair and recover is greatly reduced and, in some cases, eliminated completely.
Due to its complexity and numerous functions, there are multiple problems your liver can encounter. The most common are cirrhosis (scar tissue), hepatitis (infection), alcoholic liver disease, fatty liver disease and liver cancer. While there are others, these are responsible for most liver issues.
For this article I will focus on the least well known (yet equally dangerous) of these, Fatty Liver Disease. This condition is technically known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD and is a progressive disease that is found in people who drink virtually none to total abstention from alcohol.
NAFLD occurs when fat accumulates in the liver cells. If your diet contains more fat than your body can handle, it slowly builds up in the liver. You are considered to have a fatty liver when fat makes up at least 5% of your liver. Genetics, medications and diets high in fructose (sugar) are contributing factors, however, it is primarily a lifestyle disease - directly attributable to unhealthy lifestyle choices. It usually occurs in the obese (1 in 3 adults are obese with an additional 1 in 3 at risk of obesity). Once there is a buildup of fat, your liver becomes vulnerable to further injury. As the condition progresses it can lead to cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver), and liver failure. Both are potentially fatal.
Some conditions are often found alongside NAFLD. These are diabetes (elevated blood sugar), hyperlipidemia (elevated fat in the blood), insulin resistance and hypertension (high blood pressure). Scientists are not sure if these contribute to NAFLD or merely accompany the disease.
The most frightening information about this disease is that children are not immune. Fatty liver disease is the most common cause of liver disease in children, being diagnosed in Canadians as young as 4. Almost 10% of children are believed to have NAFLD, due in large part to the exponential increase in childhood obesity rates. The chance of developing NAFLD increases with age, so obese children are at extreme risk as they grow into teens and young adults.
Good health is one of the greatest assets we have, which we don't truly appreciate until it is compromised. Since NAFLD is primarily a lifestyle disease, teaching children to make healthy lifestyle choices is one of the greatest gifts you can give, best done by the example you set.
Eat Right – Your liver is responsible for digesting fats from your food. Consuming too much fat can overwork your liver, not allowing it to simultaneously perform other functions. Diets high in fat are directly responsible for NAFLD. Eating a well-balanced diet with moderate fat and low sugar content will not cause your liver to be overworked. Eat high fibre foods and add fibre to your diet each day. Fiberrific can be added to any soft food or drink without affecting the taste or texture.
Drink Right – Liver health (and overall health) is dependent both on what you do drink and what you don’t drink. Remember, one of your liver’s jobs is as a filter. Beyond the obvious drinks to avoid (alcohol) you also have drinks that contain toxins (artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives). These drinks bombard your liver with toxic chemicals, such as acetaldehydes and free radicals, causing your liver to be overworked just trying to keep up. Your best bet for hydration is pure clean water. Avoid sweetened drinks (natural and artificial) and energy drinks.
Stay Clean – Drugs, both pharmaceutical and illicit, need to be metabolized to work. The vast majority of drug metabolism occurs in your liver. Metabolization is often complex, stressing your liver and creating toxic byproducts that your liver must also handle. Always ensure your doctor knows everything you are taking to avoid any dangerous drug interactions. Try to use only the drugs your doctor prescribes and avoid all others. If you are taking a drug long term, discuss it with your doctor to see if there are lifestyle choices, gentler or natural safer alternatives. All of which help reduce stress on your liver. For example, over the counter anti-inflammatories, might be replaced by safer natural alternatives - such as turmeric root.
Stay Lean – NAFLD usually occurs in the obese. Try to keep your weight in check and avoid excessively enjoying weight-gaining foods. Limit your intake of sugars, fats and processed foods while exercising regularly to keep your weight in check. See your doctor on a regular basis and be sure to have your blood work and weight checked at least once annually. Talk to your doctor openly about any concerns you may have.
Supplement Well – There are supplements that can help support your liver and improve overall liver health.
A well balanced multivitamin/ multimineral will be rich in antioxidants supporting your liver in its metabolizing functions.
Milk thistle is rich in Silymarin. It is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It works by drawing toxins out of the body and protecting the liver from damage. Milk thistle can promote regeneration in the liver, helping to decrease, and in some cases reverse, damage to the liver.
Dandelion Root is rich in a multitude of vitamins and minerals. The nutrients in dandelion help to clean toxins from the liver and balance fluid levels. Dandelion boosts the liver’s ability to eliminate toxins as well as helping with blood sugar balance and relieving indigestion.
Learn to love your body, and your liver. A little conscientious thinking and TLC will allow your liver to efficiently work 24 hours a day 365 days a year, making life better by keeping you healthy.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.