Fatty liver disease is a serious health condition marked by fat accumulation in the liver. It is often associated with alcoholism and obesity; however, fatty liver disease doesn’t discriminate.
Types of Fatty Liver Disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease, or alcoholic steatohepatitis, is the result of years of alcohol abuse damaging the liver. If caught in the early stages, abstaining from alcohol can help the liver clear out the fat and resume normal function. If not treated and excessive alcohol consumption continues, then cirrhosis (chronic liver disease which results in the loss of liver cells and irreversible scarring of the liver) is a likely consequence.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects an estimated 80 million to 100 million Americans, and many of them don’t even know it. NAFLD can manifest as simple fatty liver with little or no liver cell damage, or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which can cause liver cell damage, inflammation, and fibrosis (scarring) of the liver.
Metabolic Duties of the Liver
The liver is the largest organ in the body and has an impressive list of duties. Its most important job is the detoxification and purification of blood. The liver also helps in processing and metabolizing the food we eat. All nutrients go through the “central processing plant” of the liver to be broken down, converted, stored, or repackaged for delivery to other tissues and organs, depending upon the body’s current needs. The liver also produces bile, which is secreted into the small intestine after you eat a meal and promotes the absorption of fats.
One of the liver’s primary responsibilities is to regulate blood glucose levels. During digestion, the carbohydrates you eat are digested down to their simplest form. The liver takes up the absorbed carbohydrates and converts then either to glucose or to glycogen (basically a compact package of connected glucose molecules) for storage. The storage of glycogen in the liver dampens the increase in blood glucose concentration that would otherwise occur after eating carbohydrate. When glucose is no longer being absorbed, the liver releases the stored glycogen into the blood as glucose to keep the blood concentration constant. When stored glycogen is all used up, the liver makes new glucose, mostly from amino acids released from muscle. In a variety of clinical states, most prominently diabetes, the liver fails to do its job of regulating blood glucose levels.
The Emergence of Fatty Liver
The liver clears fatty acids from the blood and stores them as triglycerides (the storage form of fat). Normally only a small amount of triglycerides are stored in the liver. A healthy liver repackages the triglycerides into another type of fat (very low density lipoproteins, VLDL) and secretes it back into the blood to be delivered to fat cells for storage. An increased storage of fat in the liver occurs in situations of impaired liver health, such as in individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol or who are obese. Even the process of normal aging is associated with increased liver fat. Excess fat in the liver is a sign of metabolic dysfunction.
Fatty Liver Symptoms
It is hard to know if you have fatty liver. The problem is that there are often no symptoms in the early stages of fatty liver, and getting your liver fat measured is expensive and involved. Sometimes a routine check-up will reveal elevated liver enzymes in the blood, which is a general indication that the liver isn’t working up to its full potential. But you can have fatty liver disease even with perfectly normal liver enzymes. Symptoms that may appear as the condition progresses include fatigue or vague abdominal discomfort. If your liver is enlarged, you may feel pressure in or near its location, or your doctor may be able to detect a problem during a physical exam. If your liver becomes inflamed, this condition leads to poor appetite, weight loss, and abdominal pain. Compromised liver function can result in physical weakness and mental confusion, and ultimately hepatitis and scarring of liver tissue. While liver cells can regenerate to some extent, repetitive damage usually ends in liver failure.
Fatty Liver Treatment
Fatty liver leads to metabolic abnormalities, including diabetes, and can progress to more serious liver diseases, including cirrhosis. Fatty liver disease is difficult to treat with traditional medicine. The most commonly prescribed pharmaceutical is fenofibrate, which is effective but results in adverse side effects in more than 10% of people who take it, and much more in older individuals. There are alternatives.
1. Regular consumption of an essential amino acid supplement is a proven natural and effective treatment for fatty liver. A clinical trial in older individuals found that essential amino acids were equally as effective as fenofibrate and caused no adverse responses (unlike fenofibrate). Other nutritional factors, including nicotinamide and caffeine, can work in concert with essential amino acids to reduce liver fat to a greater degree than when essential amino acids are given alone. Take a look at the results of the study below.
2. If you are overweight and diagnosed with fatty liver disease, it would behoove you to lose weight regardless of your pharmaceutical or supplementation treatment. Weight loss helps lower fat in the liver, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of scarring.
3. Implement lifestyle changes; for instance, if you are a heavy drinker seek the professional support you need to help treat your addiction. Limit salt and sugar intake, and bump up your consumption of fruits and vegetables. If you have chronic liver disease you are more vulnerable to infections. Ask your doctor about vaccinations for hepatitis A, B, the flu, and pneumococcal disease.