By Dr. Jay P. Vanden Heuvel PhD, IMD, DHS
Many times, it takes what is currently in the news to wake everyone up to a health condition. Take the passing of singer George Michael 12/25/16. His cause of death was attributed to something called “Fatty Liver”. A hidden scourge often overlooked or missed because it is, like cardiovascular concerns, silent.
If you are not exactly sure what this new threat is all about, but all over the newsfeed headlines even now, it is because this condition was often only associated with alcoholism. Many folks dismiss this as only a drinking alcohol complication. If you are thinking that Fatty Liver is an alcoholics problem only, think again.
That is because this condition can arise without any alcohol intake what so ever. A condition that is getting MORE attention now is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD. It is estimated that one-third of American adults now have this. It is often overlooked or missed by physicians. Just what is this condition in perspective? As the name implies, it is when fat accumulates in the liver, for reasons other than alcohol abuse.
Type 2 diabetes (as we all have heard) is constantly in the forefront, and it should be. But did you know that NAFLD is three times more prevalent than type 2 diabetes? So why haven’t we been more aware of this? Again, most people show no symptoms at all until the damage is done. Even further, as many as 1-5 cases, left to progress, can result in something called “nonalcoholic steatohepatitis” or NASH., which can then lead to cirrhosis and even liver cancer.
Experts debate the causes of this 1-3 adult American issue. But metabolically – the risks are known for sure. Obesity, excess belly fat, high oxidized cholesterols, high triglycerides (fatty sugars), high blood pressure, and even internal visceral fat are a ‘fer sure’. Visceral fat, just one of the markers just mentioned, can be present even in skinny people. Most of the 90 million Americans with this silent problem, most likely don’t know it. Most people with NAFLD may not even develop complications from it. Many of these findings are directly linked to cardio-metabolic syndrome which is a subset of multiple risk factors such as those described above.
Currently, the relied upon test for screening this condition is a simple blood test looking for abnormal liver enzymes. Often followed by an ultrasound or MRI to rule out further damage.
Much of the science and current understanding of Fatty Liver relates to a poor nutrient dense and highly sugar laden western diet and of course, lack of exercise. Improving both of those, along with some supplements, is suggested. For example, studies show just losing 5-10% of body weight can reduce liver inflammation and fatty buildup in this organ. It would be wise to work with a lifestyle coach if you can, to help hold you accountable to a new lifestyle change and expertise in diet modification/supplements. Studies do show it is best to slowly lose that 5-10% body weight and visceral fat. Too fast or aggressive is contraindicated in weight loss here. Theory suggests the Liver is working overtime in reversal. So, go slow.
Dietary changes will help stem off this scourge. Use such changes like the Mediterranean plan or a Chinese type diet (high in veggies/protein – no dairy or simple carbs) It is just really including lots of veggies, good fats (think olive oil and Omega-3’s), lowering simple sugars, saturated fats, and increasing fiber, and even fermentation (i.e. green tea, sauerkraut, kombucha tea, etc.). Stay clear of added sugars (refined carbs), additives, preservatives, processed food (especially meats), and refined foods. There is no evidence any of these used by the food industry improve health.
Supplements become a targeted way of helping alter function of the liver in a positive way, mostly herbals (herbs are food and fiber). Many are touted for a reason such as Milk Thistle, Turmeric (Curcumin), Garlic, Green tea, Ginger, and even Dark Chocolate (catechin antioxidants). Traditional Chinese Medicine has been using herbal formulas for thousands of years with success in aiding a weakened liver.
The Liver itself, is the largest organ IN ther body. It has over 500 functions to perform every day. The Greeks called this organ the Liver which means, “to live”. So, anything we can add daily to potentially offset this current metabolic scorn makes sense. Again, dietary changes, exercise, and even supplements, can help reduce what so many are now only finding out, is all the news. It helps when you can become truly “informed”.
Take Milk Thistle as an example. Silybum marianum (Milk Thistle) is used throughout the world. It’s reputation for protecting the Liver has been confirmed by laboratory and clinical research for the last 30 years resulting in over 200 studies. The active constituent of this powerful herb is Silymarin. It is one of the most potent hepato-protective substances known. Trials included using it for alcohol and nonalcoholic cirrhosis including fatty liver deposits (International Journal of Integrative Medicine 1999 1(1): 29-43, and Nutrition Science News 1/1999) to site a few. I usually recommend a blend of Milk Thistle, Choline, Dandelion, Inositol, and N-Acetyl Cysteine for added benefits.
Another well documented and toughted Chinese remedy to consider is a blend of Bupleurum, Peony, Typhonium, Cinnamon, Dang gui, Fushen, Scute, Zhisi, Atractylodes, Ginseng, Ginger, and Licorice. Although many of these names of herbals may not be familiar, they have been used for thousands of years in Eastern Medicine. This blend, that I have been suggesting for over 25 years, not only protects the Liver but promotes healthy function. It also aids the gallbladder, spleen, and stomach. The blend is synergistic to promote better circulation in these areas and moderate inflammation (American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1992 20(3-4):257-264).
In conclusion, be smart about your foods. This applies to supplements too so ensure it is a quality source. After all, you don’t want to be putting in questionable foods or supplements when the Liver is already overworked and underpaid. Experts agree, that NAFLD is an epidemic and often goes un-diagnosed. If it progresses, the complications can be serious. Take the appropriate steps and action now to protect that Liver. As the Greeks so eloquently pointed it out, it means “to live”.