Though you go by your day unaware of its presence, your liver, lying just below your ribcage, lives out its days tirelessly, serving a vital role in metabolism and blood filtration. While the liver plays a crucial role in human health, we often take its tireless work ethic for granted.
Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease- a disease affecting a startling 1 in 4 Americans is a disease that puts this very important organ at risk of serious malfunction, to the detriment of the entire physiological system. And despite the commonality of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, most people living with the disease go without diagnosis for years; often, symptoms of the disease are so minute that they go undetected until the disease progresses.
Unfortunately, it’s the stealthiness of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that poses such a risk. Left unchecked, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can progress to a more serious disease, known as Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis, in which cirrhosis and scarring of the liver permanently affect liver function.
What is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease?
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a disease in which the overconsumption of carbohydrate causes increased fat deposits on the liver.
A normal, healthy liver should contain no more than 5-10% fat (as a percentage of the total weight of the liver). When carbohydrate consumption is higher than the generally accepted, healthy range (45-65% total Caloric intake), the additional carbohydrate is broken down and stored in the liver, with the excess being stored first as glycogen, and then as fat. Over time, the accumulation of fat on the liver may lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
While it would seem logical that only overweight or obese consumers would be at risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, this is not the case.
Often, relatively lean individuals are impacted by the effect of non-alcoholic liver disease, although being overweight or obese does increase risk for the disease. In addition to being overweight or obese, a personal or family history of insulin resistance, pre diabetes, Type II diabetes, high cholesterol, or high triglycerides increases an individual’s risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
While high consumption of simple/refined carbohydrates and added sugars increase the risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the overall quantity of carbohydrate consumption is a key risk factor.
Why is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease so difficult to detect?
While non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a serious condition, the relative lack of symptoms means that most consumers don’t undergo the tests necessary to detect the presence of the disease. The disease itself is diagnosed through a blood test, which will assess liver enzymes. Commonly, an ultrasound is then used to confirm a diagnosis, with the presence of additional fat on the liver serving as a hallmark of the disease.
How is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease treated?
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is treated with a number of lifestyle changes to reverse the disease and remove the build-up of fat from liver tissue. Removing excess fat is essential in order to restore healthy, normal organ function and prevent the progression of the disease. The most common lifestyle changes include diet and exercise strategies to promote weight loss and remove fat from the organ and surrounding tissues.
Typically, a minimum weight loss of 10% total body weight is recommended to remove excess fat from the liver, although more may be necessary depending on starting weight and the severity of the individual diagnosis.
Maintenance of a healthy body weight is the foremost important consideration for preventing the recurrence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, although dietary composition and exercise habits also play a pivotal role in preventing a relapse.