You likely don’t give much thought to your liver, but here’s why you should.
The liver has a very important job to do, but usually does it without much recognition. This very complex organ works behind the scenes to regulate around 500 vital functions in the body, such as filtering toxins from the blood, aiding digestion of food, regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and helping to fight infection and disease.
Although most people never give the health of their liver a second thought, especially if they don’t drink a lot of alcohol, they should. That’s because conditions that affect liver health and can even lead to irreversible liver damage, such as fatty liver disease, may occur even if you don’t consume alcohol.
What is Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty liver disease, also called hepatic steatosis, is a condition in which you have excess fat in your liver cells. It is often associated with heavy alcohol use. But although most people think liver disease primarily affects people who drink excessively, a variation of this disease – referred to as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – develops due to reasons unrelated to alcohol.
It is estimated that NAFLD affects around 25-35% of adults, making it the most common chronic liver condition. That’s nearly triple the number of adults with type 2 diabetes. It’s also estimated that almost 10% of children ages 2-19 have this condition due to childhood obesity.
Controllable risk factors for NAFLD include:
- Obesity/excess belly fat
- High LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol
- High triglycerides
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes
Fatty liver disease may also be caused by heavy alcohol use, referred to as alcohol-related fatty liver disease (ALD). When the liver filters alcohol to remove it from the body, some of the cells die. Over time, excess alcohol use may impact overall liver function and the liver’s ability to regenerate new cells. This may lead to a fatty liver diagnosis, or more serious liver conditions such as an enlarged liver, hepatitis or cirrhosis.
What can you to do keep your liver healthier?
The good news is that most risk factors for NAFLD and ALD are controllable. That means that making positive lifestyle changes may improve the overall health and function of your liver. This may help you avoid a diagnosis of fatty liver disease or may keep the condition from progressing further.
Here are some ways to improve your liver health:
- Food – Follow an eating plan that closely mimics the Mediterranean Diet and is focused primarily on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, lean meats, fish and healthy fats. This way of eating is also connected to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Be mindful of food choices that are high in saturated fat (butter, full-fat dairy, fatty meats and fried foods) and added sugars (sweetened drinks, cookies, candy, ice cream, etc.).
- Activity – Be as physically active as you can each day. Regular activity may lower bad cholesterol, while raising good cholesterol. It also aids in blood pressure management. Additionally, exercise can help people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes better control blood sugar. Physical activity also helps with weight management. Losing 3-5% of your body weight can reduce fat in your liver, while losing 7% has been shown to decrease inflammation.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is not recommended for individuals who already have a chronic liver condition. For others, experts recommend capping alcohol intake at one drink for women and two drinks for men in any day alcohol is consumed. One ‘drink’ is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Unfortunately, how often and how much many people drink has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although one report showed that adults drank just one more time per month, the amount consumed per occasion went up to an average of five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women. Cutting back on alcohol is one of the best things you can do for your liver.
Fatty liver disease is often referred to as a ‘silent’ condition because there are usually no symptoms until the disease has progressed to more serious stages, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis or even liver failure. If you’re concerned about your liver health, ask your doctor to order blood work to evaluate your liver function – and make healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing fatty liver disease.
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Date Last Reviewed: April 15, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD