What is fatty liver disease?
When the liver becomes damaged, a buildup of fatty deposits forms. Although usually associated with excessive intake of alcohol, fatty deposits in the liver have now become associated with a new epidemic unrelated to alcohol-nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The condition ranges in severity from minimal liver function impairment to more advanced liver damage. NAFLD is estimated to affect more than 20 percent of Americans, making it the most common liver disease in the U.S. Roughly 2-3 percent of those with NAFLD develop non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a complication of NAFLD that can lead to cirrhosis and eventually liver failure.
What causes a fatty liver?
The biggest culprit is excess body weight. NAFLD develops in more than 70 percent of people who are 10 percent above their ideal body weights and in 100 percent of obese individuals. Other factors that impair liver function and are associated with NASH include nutritional abnormalities, drugs, and occupational exposure to toxins. Inflammation appears to be the common denominator in most cases. Not surprisingly, being overweight or obese is associated with insulin resistance and systemic inflammation.
The primary goal in most cases of NAFLD is improving insulin sensitivity through diet and supplement use, and losing any excess weight. Weight loss is the most effective treatment for NAFLD in overweight individuals. The second phase of treating NAFLD naturally involves the use of liver-protective nutrients and herbs for enhanced bile and fat flow.
Foods that nourish the liver
Eliminating high-glycemic foods is a critical first step for preventing and treating NAFLD.
It's also important to increase your intake liver-friendly foods, including:
- sulfur-rich garlic, onions, and eggs;
- fiber-packed pears, oat bran, apples, and legumes;
- cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage;
- artichokes, beets, carrots, and dandelion;
- turmeric, cinnamon, and cilantro.
What are lipotropic nutrients?
Betaine, choline, methionine, vitamin B6, folic acid, and vitamin B12 are important "lipotropic agents"-compounds that promote the flow of fat and bile to and from the liver. These nutrients have a "decongestant-like" effect on the liver and enhance liver function and fat metabolism. Lipotropic formulas are also thought to boost levels of two important liver substances: SAMe and glutathione.
Supplement formulas that contain lipotropic agents are very useful in enhancing detoxification reactions and other liver functions. Look for a lipotropic formula that contains 1,000 mg of betaine and choline, and 1,000 mg of methionine and/or cysteine. Alternatively, you can take 200-400 mg daily of SAMe.
Carnitine Supplements for Liver Health
Carnitine is a substance made by our bodies, but we don't manufacture enough at times. NAFLD may be an example of such a condition. Carnitine plays an extremely important role in the utilization of fatty acids in the liver, as well as mitochondrial function-the energy-producing compartment in cells. Low levels of carnitine in the liver may increase susceptibility to NAFLD. And carnitine supplements have been shown to significantly inhibit, and even reverse, alcohol-induced fatty liver disease.
Herbs for the Liver
There is a long list of plants that help improve liver function, including turmeric, dandelion, burdock, and artichoke. But the most impressive research is on silymarin, an extract of the herb milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Silymarin enhances the liver's detoxification processes and helps to boost the liver's stores of glutathione-a key antioxidant involved in liver function that is low in NAFLD patients. In clinical studies, dosages of 140-210 mg of silymarin, three times daily, produced the best results. Use only a standardized extract of milk thistle.
Editor's Note: To download a PDF chart with glycemic index ratings for various foods, visit glycemicindex.ca/glycemicindexfoods.pdf.
Drugs linked to fatty liver disease
- Antiviral drugs (nucleoside analogues)