Fatty liver is the build up of excess fat in the liver cells. While is normal for your liver to contain some fat, if it amounts to more than 10% of your liver's weight you have fatty liver and this can develop into more serious complications.
Fatty liver disease is quite common in Western countries, affecting around one in every 10 people. It is caused by a build up of fats in the liver, which replace the healthy tissue and trigger enlargement of the rest of the liver cells. The organ then becomes slightly enlarged and heavier due to this additional fat.
What are the symptoms?
Fatty liver (also known as steatosis), may cause no damage, but sometimes the excess fat leads to inflammation of the liver and results in a condition called steatohepatitis, causing liver damage. Sometimes, inflammation from a fatty liver is linked to alcohol abuse; this is known as alcoholic steatohepatitis. Otherwise, the condition is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, abbreviated as NASH.
If the disease gets worse, you may experience fatigue, weight loss, abdominal discomfort, weakness, confusion, jaundice (when your skin or even eyes start to become yellow), and sometimes fever. NASH can lead to permanent liver damage. The liver may enlarge and, over time, liver cells may be replaced by scar tissue. Immunity is often impaired and levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood become elevated. Weight loss appears to be a problem and excess weight commonly accumulates around the abdominal area. Headaches and migraines are also another common symptom, and some sufferers may present with Type 2 diabetes. Fatigue and just generally feeling unwell are other warning signs.
Recent studies show that an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine and other changes in the intestine may be associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Some researchers now suspect this may play a role in the progression of NAFLD to NASH.
Discomfort over the liver is often noted, particularly when palpated during an examination, and gallstones composed of cholesterol and bile salts could be present along with elevated levels of liver enzymes. An inflamed liver may become scarred and hardened over time resulting in cirrhosis, a serious condition often resulting in liver failure.
How does the excess fat get into the liver?Transfer of fat from other parts of the bodyIncrease in the extraction of fat sent to the liver via the intestineAlcohol consumption over many yearsAgeingPoor liver function where the liver cannot break down and remove fat at a fast enough rate DiabetesWhen triglyceride or cholesterol levels are highBeing overweight (when too many calories are eaten the liver can't process and break down fats efficiently).Rapid weight loss and malnutritionCertain illnesses, such as tuberculosis and intestinal bypass surgery for obesity Viral attack to the liver (hepatitis) which could then interfere with overall liver function and possibly contribute to fatty liver, especially with a poor dietSome pharmaceutical medications such as corticosteroids, statins and other drugs that interfere with liver function (it is best to find out all side effects of any drug you are prescribed)Autoimmune or inherited liver disease
However, some people develop fatty liver even if they have none of these conditions.
Why is a healthy liver vital?
The liver is the largest organ in the body. In Oriental medicine it is considered the hottest organ in the body and resonates to a Yang or male energy. The emotions of anger and aggression are stored at the cellular level of the liver and, if allowed to accumulate here, can have a negative impact on its overall performance.
The liver is our filtering and detoxifying "factory". It has a huge job to do with more tasks than other organs in the body. When it is congested with excess fat it cannot filter, cleanse and detoxify the bloodstream efficiently. So the blood becomes overloaded with toxins and fat and carries these deposits around the body as it attempts to feed and nourish all the cells of your body, such as tissues, organs and muscles. This picture alone should allow you to see how disease, including autoimmune disorders, can manifest!
Your liver is responsible for metabolising fats, hormones, any foods, substances, drugs and chemicals that you ingest and also has the task of neutralising or converting them into other forms by special enzymes. This includes the air you breathe and the emotions you "digest".
Bile produced by the liver is stored in the gallbladder and then used to help break down dietary fats. A healthy liver is able to regulate fat metabolism and burn it by moving excessive fat out of the body through the bile into the gut. A healthy liver can achieve weight loss and maintain a balanced weight easier. But if you have a fatty liver you may find it harder to lose weight despite all diets. This is because it is storing more fat when in fact it needs to burn off the fat! When it is overloaded with fat, it simply cannot function properly, as it becomes completely clogged up with excess fat in the cells. This is when serious health disorders can manifest.
Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K need bile in order to be absorbed by the body.
The liver both stores and produces blood sugar. Your liver converts carbohydrates into glucose for instant available energy and then converts glucose into its storable form (glycogen). When the blood sugar levels drop (a condition called hypoglycemia), glycogen is then converted back into glucose. The liver acts as the body's glucose (or fuel) reservoir, and helps to keep circulating blood sugar levels and other body fuels steady and constant. The need to store or release glucose is primarily signalled by the hormones insulin and glucagon.
When you're not eating, such as when you are asleep or between meals, the body has to make its own sugar. The liver supplies sugar or glucose by turning glycogen into glucose in a process called glycogenolysis. The liver also manufactures sugar or glucose by harvesting amino acids, waste products and fat by-products. This process is called gluconeogenesis.
Please don't think you must consume cane sugar or large amounts of fructose (from fruit, honey and corn syrup etc), as this can affect your liver's ability to work efficiently. Cane sugar in particular is toxic. Natural fruits are the best option whenever you need something sweet.
The liver changes ammonia (a toxic byproduct of protein metabolism) into urea, which is then excreted in the urine.
Amino acids from protein foods are sent to the liver to produce body proteins such as hormones. Your liver is involved in constant hormone metabolism and assists in maintaining hormonal equilibrium.
A healthy liver also means a strong healthy immune system.
Next month we'll look at treatments, including natural therapies, for Fatty Liver Disease.
Sydney-based Lyn Craven is a practitioner of naturopathy, nutrition, medical herbalism, Bowen therapy, Reiki energy healing and meditation, and is a corporate health presenter/consultant with 19 years' experience in natural therapies. www.lyncravencorporatehealth-naturopath.com
Disclaimer: Information presented in this column is not intended as medical advice but to advance the understanding of holistic nutrition and lifestyle and its place in a balanced approach to health. Readers are encouraged to be guided by their own healthcare professionals.
Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804