3 Surprising ways you harmed your liver this summer
Posted on 3 January 2019
It’s not just excessive alcohol that can damage this vital organ. Lack of exercise, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and a poor diet can put you at risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
While it’s normal to have small amounts of fat in your liver, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease means there is fat in more than 5% of your liver cells. As Dr Michael Hunter, a gastroenterologist at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, cautions, this can result in serious complications such as inflammation of the liver (steatohepatitis) and can lead to permanent damage (cirrhosis) over time.
Dr Hunter adds that despite its severity, NAFLD usually doesn’t cause any symptoms in the early stages. “In fact, you probably won’t know you have it unless it is diagnosed during tests carried out for a different reason,” he says. “Occasionally, symptoms might include a dull pain over the lower, right side of your ribs, extreme tiredness and unexplained weight loss.”
So what negative lifestyle choices are you making at the moment that might increase your risk of developing this disease?
You’re overweight – and you don’t exercise
If you are carrying too many extra kilograms and you’re more likely to be found on the couch than the tennis court, your pancreas won’t be able to produce enough insulin to keep your levels of blood sugar and blood fat (cholesterol) under normal control. As Dr Hunter explains, NAFLD appears to develop when the liver, which normally helps to process and regulate the amount of sugar and fat in the blood, becomes overwhelmed and starts storing excess fat in its own liver cells.
You have Type 2 diabetes
Diabetes does not cause fatty liver disease but the two diseases tend to occur in the same people because the same conditions cause both problems. “People with diabetes also have obesity and insulin resistance, and so the fatty liver is thought to be part of that,” says Dr Hunter.
You’ve got a sweet tooth
Added sugars (found in chocolates, packaged foods, store-baked goods, ice cream and sweetened sodas) can contribute to high blood sugar levels and increased fat in the liver. In addition, if your diet is very high in carbohydrates and proteins, you might have high levels of triglycerides (bad cholesterol). These are stored in the fat cells and can be deposited in the liver. Insulin resistance can lead to increased triglycerides and increased uptake of fatty acids in the liver, causing further accumulation of liver triglycerides.
As Dr Hunter explains, sugar triggers fat production in your liver (a natural process called lipogenesis).
Fructose, the most dangerous sugar that gets directly transported to your liver, actually upregulates lipogenesis. The increased fat production that occurs when we consume copious amounts of sugar explains why these simple carbohydrates, especially fructose, can become the primary cause of liver disease.
Avoiding foods high in fructose and corn syrup can help keep the fat in the liver to a minimum. The good news is that a mild case of fatty NAFLD can be reversed if you make important lifestyle changes.