The term “epidemic” gets tossed around quite a bit these days by internet fearmongers… but here’s a modern disease that fits that description perfectly.
It goes by the rather unwieldy name of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, abbreviated as NAFLD. This devastating condition is rapidly becoming the most common liver disease worldwide. The prevalence of NAFLD in the general population of Western countries is 20–30 percent.1
Take a moment to let that sink in.
We’re talking about one in four people.
This sobering bit of info is from Liver International, a leading journal on liver disease.
The fact is livers in the Western world are in terrifyingly bad shape.
And despite the public’s concept of liver disease, such as cirrhosis, being almost entirely due to excessive boozing, the reality is that in modern times, alcohol exposure is not the leading cause of liver dysfunction and failure.
“In modern times, alcohol exposure is not the leading cause of liver dysfunction and failure.”
No, what’s devastating our livers is the same thing that will render as many as one in three Americans Type 2 diabetics by the year 2050: overconsumption of carbohydrates, such as sugars (especially fructose) and grains.
All of this is, obviously, really bad news.
So I’ll get to the good news soon, I promise!
But in the meantime, here’s a little info on what the liver is and how it’s absolutely vital to overall health.
I Love My Liver
It may seem ridiculous to be a “fan” of a bodily organ, but I’ve always admired the liver.
Tucked into the lower side of the chest cavity, this seemingly featureless mass of purplish flesh is nothing less than the gatekeeper of dozens of processes that are vital to human health.
A healthy liver:
- Manages the components of blood, keeping fat, sugar and protein at optimal levels
- Filters out toxic byproducts of metabolism, such as bilirubin and ammonia, and toxins from the outside, such as drugs and alcohol
- Stores and precisely doles out nutrients, such as vitamin A and iron, at precisely the rates and amounts that the body needs
- Makes cholesterol, a vital organic molecule (one of the downsides of a low-cholesterol diet is that it forces the overworked liver to overproduce this necessary substance).
Even if we as human beings don’t give two hoots about the quality of what we eat, the liver, like a good parent, always cares, and works hard to make sure that we absorb the good stuff and excrete the bad stuff.
But diligent as it is, like a real parent, it’s not omnipotent or immortal.
Liver Abuse Is Real
Overconsumption of carbohydrates, which has become an epidemic in the modern world, doesn’t just lead to obesity and metabolic syndrome (a precursor to Type 2 diabetes).
Under all of that belly fat, livers can accumulate excess fat as well. Rather than surrounding the liver, it is, in a sense, “marbled” with fat, and these veins and pockets of adipose tissue can wreak havoc with the liver’s work.
As an Italian study concluded:
NAFLD is highly prevalent in the general population [and] is associated with many features of the metabolic syndrome.2
Just as some fat in the body is normal, so is up to 10 percent fatty tissue in the liver. But NAFLD is defined by fatty tissue above that amount that happens without major alcohol consumption.
(Throw lots of alcohol into the high-carb mix and it just gets that much worse, that much faster.)
One classic sign that you probably have NAFLD is being obese — the prevalence is 80–90 percent in obese adults.1Other signs can include fatigue, confusion, jaundice and swollen legs.
The long-term result of untreated NAFLD is often something called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, abbreviated as NASH. This is severe inflammation and swelling of the liver that can lead to liver failure, or liver cancer, which, over time, results in a prolonged, awful death.
These liver problems are typically diagnosed with some combination of blood tests that look for liver enzyme levels and imaging tests such as ultrasound, which can show fatty deposits.
The most detailed test is also the most invasive — a biopsy performed by inserting a needle through the abdomen and into the liver.
Not a fun afternoon.
Finally, the Good News
Enough gloom and doom! Among the liver’s many virtues (I told you I loved the slimy thing!) is its extraordinary resilience. The Mayo Clinic’s Center for Regenerative Medicine states it unequivocally:
The liver has the greatest regenerative capacity of any organ in the body.
Recovery from NAFLD is quite possible.
One study found that after following exercise and diet programs for an entire year, an incredible 90 percent of 293 patients — all of whom had the advanced NASH form of the disease — resolved that NASH condition.3
Another 45 percent had lessening of fibrosis — the scarring that accompanies NAFLD. In other words, their livers returned to function nearer or within the “normal” range.
Which can be called a cure.
The liver is so astoundingly resilient because back in the caveman days, hungry people would eat nearly anything, including toxic plants and animals.
“As much as half of an adult’s liver can be removed surgically and it will grow right back.”
Our livers evolved to “take one for the team,” sacrificing tissue to confine the toxin before it could do more damage or kill us. Then, over time, it would regrow.
That’s why as much as half of an adult’s liver can be removed surgically and the wonderful organ will grow right back.
The steps to prevent or recover from NAFLD or even NASH are straightforward:
1. The first step in regenerating a diseased, fatty liver must be reducing consumption of fructose. Every cell of the human body can use glucose, but fructose can be metabolized only by the liver, putting a huge strain on the organ. The worst dietary source of fructose is high fructose corn syrup, the cheap sweetener typically used in soft drinks. Even consuming one can daily is associated with an increased incidence of NAFLD.4
2. Beyond that, reduced consumption of carbohydrates in general is vital. The conditions known as NAFLD are closely associated with Type 2 diabetes for a reason — both are disorders of carbohydrate overload. Moving your diet in the direction of my my high-fat, real-food diet is one way to address the condition.
3. Intermittent fasting — such as eating only within a six-hour “window” between noon and 6 p.m., and fasting on water for the remaining 18 hours — has been shown to reverse symptoms of NAFLD.5
4. Exercise is also a vital component of reversing NAFLD.6
One More Thing
As I’ve stated before in these pages, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases all have in common overconsumption of carbohydrates as a main or major contributing cause.
To this rogue’s gallery of terrible diseases let us now add nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and its closer-to-death associate nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
All of these modern scourges can be turned back with a diet like my high-fat, real-food diet or an overall lower-carb regime like the one advocated by Dr. Eric Westman of Duke University to reverse Type 2 diabetes.
Throw in some modest exercise, such as a daily 30-minute walk and/or low-impact weight training, and these “diseases of civilization” can be effectively banished from your life.
- Bellentani S. The epidemiology of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Liver Int. 2017
- Bedogni G, Miglioli L, Masutti F, Tiribelli C, Marchesini G, Bellentani S. Prevalence of and risk factors for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: the Dionysos nutrition and liver study. Hepatology. 2005
- Vilar-gomez E, Martinez-perez Y, Calzadilla-bertot L, et al. Weight Loss Through Lifestyle Modification Significantly Reduces Features of Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis. Gastroenterology. 2015
- Ma J, Fox CS, Jacques PF, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverage, diet soda, and fatty liver disease in the Framingham Heart Study cohorts. J Hepatol. 2015
- Available at: http://liverlearning.aasld.org/aasld/2014/thelivermeeting/60940/undefined. Accessed March 2, 2017
- Golabi P, Locklear CT, Austin P, et al. Effectiveness of exercise in hepatic fat mobilization in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: Systematic review. World J Gastroenterol. 2016