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Liver Health

24 December 2019

Never mind drinking your liver to death – your festive eating habits can affect your liver too

Fatty liver disease is a ticking time bomb, say medical experts, and even if you never touch alcohol, your lifestyle and the food you eat can permanently damage your liver.

The festive season is upon us, and while we’re all ready to dig into an array of appetising holiday foods, we need to avoid diets that are high in fat and sugar, says Dr Jacques Badenhorst, a gastroenterologist based at the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town. 

Ever heard of fatty liver disease? If you have, did you also know that alcohol isn’t the only demon that can cause damage to the liver? 

“Even if you don’t touch a drop of alcohol, the food and lifestyle choices you make can lead to liver inflammation, cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver) and possibly even liver cancer,” warns Badenhorst.

Fatty liver disease: are you at risk?

It’s quite normal for your liver to contain some fat. However, if more than 5–10% of your liver’s weight is fat, then you have fatty liver disease or hepatic steatosis, said Dr Eduardo Gonzales, MD, to the Manila Bulletin.

However, many people think that fatty liver disease only develops in people who consume excessive alcohol, but there are actually two main types of fatty liver disease: alcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). 

“Fatty liver disease is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver, which can cause your liver to become enlarged,” explains Badenhorst. 

“Many people may not notice any symptoms, however, a large portion of people will go on to develop an aggressive form of fatty liver disease that is far more serious and can lead to cell damage, liver fibrosis or cirrhosis, and liver cancer.”

NAFLD is not related to alcohol use and this may come as a surprise – it is more common than alcoholic fatty liver disease. About 25% of people in the world suffer from this disease, although in most of them it doesn't get bad enough to cause liver damage. 

What brings about NAFLD?

Although experts do not know the cause, risk factors for the disease include:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes
  • High blood levels of cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Metabolic syndrome    
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • High levels of fats, particularly triglycerides, in the blood
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
  • Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)

“These health problems appear to promote the deposit of fat in the liver. For some people, this excess fat acts as a toxin to the liver cells, causing liver inflammation and NASH, which may lead to a build-up of scar tissue in the liver,” says Badenhorst.

Perhaps more concerning is that it’s a disease that typically has few symptoms. These include occasional fatigue and pain, loss of appetite or discomfort in the upper right abdomen. Many people who have it are unaware of the fact.

While NAFLD is generally a benign condition that is reversible if certain lifestyle changes are adopted, in many instances the disease progresses to inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). If unabated, it can lead to liver cirrhosis that is irreversible and usually progressive. Cirrhosis leads to fatal complications such as liver insufficiency and bleeding in the oesophagus, and also predisposes you to the development of liver cancer. In fact, 80% of all liver cancers are preceded by cirrhosis, adds Gonzales.

Stay healthy this festive season

The liver is hidden deep inside our bodies and most of us don't give it a second thought. However, at this time of the year, when we’re finding it hard to resist the temptation of festive foods, we need to bear in mind the importance of eating healthily.

“There is no medication that can prevent or reverse fatty liver disease. It comes down to making healthy lifestyle choices that reduce your overall risk for the disease,” says Dr Badenhorst. Lifestyle changes can reverse damage to the liver, or play an important part in slowing down the disease progression. The following can help reduce our risk:

Avoid added sugar

Cutting out added sugar is the main dietary strategy for treating NAFLD. 

Eat a well-balanced snack before festive meals

Eat a healthy snack before leaving home for the feast, and stay hydrated so that you don’t mistake thirst for hunger (avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks).  

Go organic

Yes, the liver plays an important role in digestion, but it also helps rid the body of toxins, including pesticides that are sprayed on conventionally produced foods. Try to reduce the burden on your liver by sticking to foods that haven’t been sprayed with these harmful chemicals.  

Maintain a healthy weight

Maintain a healthy weight, as weight loss can reduce fat in the liver, as well as inflammation and scarring. Check your blood sugar and blood pressure levels regularly and stay physically active.  

Image: iStock