For some years now, health care practitioners have been noticing a new pattern: Liver disease is unquestionably on the rise.
Liver disease is a well-known problem among certain groups of individuals, such as those who’ve contracted hepatitis or have a history of alcohol addiction. And patients who use a number of prescription and even over-the-counter medications have long been cautioned to have regular liver evaluations, as these drugs have the potential to build up and harm the liver over time.
But those high-risk individuals are not the only ones showing up in the latest generation of liver disease patients. In fact, a condition known as fatty liver has become common across a broad, diverse swath of the human population—but particularly among people of Western cultures.
And that’s no coincidence. The modern American lifestyle is very much to blame in the swelling number of new liver disease cases diagnosed in recent years. Don’t be part of this statistic!
What’s a liver, anyway?
At about the size of a football, your liver is your biggest internal organ. In fact, only the skin is more massive in size!
The liver’s job is pretty big, too. Situated in the upper right abdomen, the liver is a built-in detoxification system for the blood and other fluids that circulate, working to removing waste, damaged cells, heavy metals, and other excessive or dangerous materials.
Filtration is just one of the liver’s jobs. The liver also helps to store a variety of nutrients from your diet, and it produces several compounds that are essential to other body functions.
Like the brain, heart, and lungs, under normal conditions, the liver never really stops working. But a person with compromised liver function will soon be feeling the effects. Symptoms of liver trouble might include anything from increased changes in appetite or increased risk of infections to pain, swelling, or mental effects like confusion.
So what is “fatty liver”?
Fat can be stored almost anywhere in the human body, including in the liver. A certain amount of fat storage in the liver is perfectly normal, but too much creates problems. That excessive stored fat damages surrounding healthy liver cells. The liver can and does repair itself by growing new cells to replace shed, damaged ones, but there’s a limit to how much repair the organ can take before it begins to form scar tissue. That’s what’s known as cirrhosis—the stiffer, less-effective liver tissue affected by scarring that forms after repeated repairs. Unfortunately, about a fifth of cases of fatty liver disease eventually progress to cirrhosis.
Scientists have known for generations that alcohol abuse can lead to cirrhosis. But as nonalcoholic cases have become more common, medical researchers have begun to find links between cirrhosis and an assortment of other conditions, too, from chronic inflammation to a lack of diversity in the gut biome.
Who’s at risk?
Anyone has the potential to develop fatty liver, but you’re in the greatest risk category if you have a family history of liver disease, are over 40, have high cholesterol or high blood triglyceride levels, are obese, or have a metabolic disorder such as diabetes.
Lifestyle factors play a huge part in fatty liver risk, too—and here’s where the good news lies! If cirrhosis has not already begun, fatty liver is a treatable, sometimes even reversible condition. That means YOU have a lot of control over your own wellness. Here’s how:
- Talk to your doctor.
Some of the signs of liver disease, like weight changes, fatigue, or fluid retention around the abdomen, can be subtle or easily mistaken for less serious conditions. Don’t try to figure it out on your own. Ask your doctor about screening, especially if you have risk factors.
- Make smart food choices.
Fill your plate often with a broad variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Add to that sensible amounts of low-gluten whole grains, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats, and you’ve got a diet that will treat your liver—and every other body system!—right.
And don’t forget to drink plenty of water, too. Not only does water aid the liver and kidneys with their job of keeping your systems clean, it also refreshes tired muscles and skin, allows the brain to stay alert, keeps living cells plump and vibrant, and aids digestion.
- Avoid excesses.
Yes, we do have vices—and several of them are particular damaging when it comes to liver health.
- Too much added sugar: Sugar is a known trigger for inflammation. Avoid excess sugar by choosing whole, unprocessed foods rather than packaged items. Whole foods contain natural, easily digestible sugars but also other filling nutrients, like water and fiber. Try a pear or banana instead of a candy bar. Really!
- Too much alcohol: Although nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the more common rising disease we’re discussing, there’s no question that alcohol raises risks. Limit your consumption to one serving per day. And for individuals with other risk factors for fatty liver, less—or none—would be wise.
- Too much weight: Remember that fat accumulates in the liver. Also, being very heavy stresses the heart and joints, which in turn increases inflammation.
- Too much inactivity: Exercise helps your liver in several ways: It burn calories to minimize excess fat storage. Exercise is a great stress-buster, too, which reduces cortisol and the inflammation it can trigger. Also, sweating is another way your body releases waste. Perspire to lighten your liver’s task list!
True, fatty liver and other forms of liver damage are not always preventable. Some of the other undesirable effects of Western attitudes and just plain modern living come our way without our consent, too. But in many more cases, we CAN have a say, reverse the consequences, and claim positive results. I wholeheartedly believe it is worth the effort. I’m looking for ways to incorporate simple, yet mindful and meaningful changes. Won’t you join me?