There was a time when fatty liver disease only hit adults in their later years who either had a condition such as hepatitis or alcoholism. In the last 10 years, however, there has been a terrifying rise in patients under the age of 20 with fatty liver disease.
While this is often closely tied to obesity, there is a significant increase in the number of people who look slim and trim from the outside yet have a liver that resembles that of an alcoholic.
This concept of being “Thin on the Outside and Fat in the Inside” even has its own acronym: TOFI.
Historically, the medical community saw fatty liver, which is different than cirrhosis of the liver, in life-long alcoholics. However, due to the rise of fatty liver in the general population the term ‘non-alcoholic fatty liver’ now has its own diagnosis.
Your liver is vital to your health and when it’s not functioning properly, a domino effect of inflammation and disease ensues. The liver stores small amounts of fat (that it creates from sugar) for ready energy, filters harmful substances out of your blood, metabolizes chemical compounds such as drugs and alcohol, and creates some of the clotting agents that prevent hemorrhaging.
The damage that occurs from long-term mistreatment from either alcohol or high sugar consumption will eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver. A buildup of fat deposits in the liver can be reversed; cirrhosis, on the other hand, is a permanent scarring of liver tissue that cannot be undone, and prevents the liver from functioning as it should, thereby reducing the quality and quantity of your life.
Luckily, fatty liver is your red flag that you need to stop and pay attention! Usually, with some simple lifestyle changes, you and your liver can enjoy a long and healthy life!
When we eat carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta, we are consuming sugar, which is made up of molecules of glucose and fructose. The glucose is mostly metabolized by insulin and is what your cells use for energy or it is converted to fat that is stored somewhere in the body. The fructose molecules head to the liver for metabolism, where some is stored as glycogen and the rest moves through a very complicated chemical process, throwing off some nasty chemicals byproducts.
In small amounts, your body easily manages fructose byproducts. However, in large amounts fructose creates a toxic environment in the liver and inflammation throughout the whole body. For example, one chemical byproduct created during fructose metabolism is uric acid that is responsible for the very painful condition known as gout. If you’ve known anyone who suffers from gout you know the misery it brings.
The increase in uric acid also has another effect; it can increase your blood pressure to dangerous levels and if you already have hypertension, the last thing you ought to be consuming is sugar. An unhappy liver means an unhappy body in general.
You may have a normal to slightly increased body weight but, if you have frequent, long-term consumption of sugar or consume large amounts of straight fructose (think sodas and sports drinks) you can create an environment in your body that will make you very sick, except you probably won’t guess at sugar being the cause.
Often, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has no noticeable symptoms. The diagnosis comes from blood tests and imaging procedures. If you pay attention to what you consume, you can determine if you’re possibly at risk. Take a moment to think about what you ate and drank today.
Write it down, have someone remind you of the stuff you’re forgetting, and then do this for a couple of days. Using your most objective mind, look through the list of foods and drinks you consume regularly. Don’t make excuses, or minimize (“Well, I only have a couple venti carmel lattes a week!”).
If you regularly consume soda, sugary coffee or tea drinks, sports drinks, bottled ice teas, you’re in danger of over consuming sugar. If you find that you eat processed food (anything out of a box or package) several times a day, everyday, you may be consuming too much sugar.
The first step in decreasing the amount of fat stored in your liver, and the nasty byproducts caused by sugar metabolism, is simply to reduce the amount of sugar you eat. The second is to exercise in order to burn more of the sugar that you do consume. Exercise is excellent at making your body more efficient at metabolizing most things, especially sugar.
One of the silliest things we as consumers have done is allow sports drinks to become the drink of choice for non-athletes. The invention of sports drinks was for athletes that needed to quickly replace the glycogen stores in their liver after long hard workouts.
What has happened is children and adults are downing sports drinks while laying on the sofa playing video games or watching television.
The stress that creates on the liver is enormous and, eventually, unforgiving — starting with fatty liver disease, progressing to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver and eventually to a non-functioning liver.
If you’re not sure where to start with adding exercise to your routine, check out my other blog posts for ideas. You can also talk with your doctor about how to make sure your liver is ready for the very long life you want to live.