A condition characterized by fat accumulation in liver cells, Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD, is diagnosed when the fat content in the liver exceeds 5% of its volume. It’s similar to a condition that occurs with chronic alcohol consumption, known as alcoholic fatty liver disease, but due to its close link (and identical risk factors) to metabolic syndrome, it is now referred to as Metabolic Fatty Liver Disease.
Fatty liver disease exists on a spectrum of severity, ranging from reversible fat accumulation to inflammatory hepatitis, fibrosis, and scarring (cirrhosis). NAFLD is a term used to describe the early stages of the condition and is associated with a 70% higher overall mortality rate. While the more advanced stage of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is characterized by liver inflammation, damage and increased risk of developing liver cancer.
The fat accumulation overtime can lead to damage and dysfunction of liver cells. This can slow down the many important jobs of the liver like detoxification, hormone balancing, energy production and fat digestion. In addition there’s a worsening of insulin resistance leading to even more glucose issues and more difficulty losing weight.
Most patients with type 2 diabetes have fatty liver. Screening blood tests including cholesterol and liver enzymes (like alanine aminotransferase) are often the first indicators of this condition. Diagnosis is confirmed with imaging like ultrasound or biopsy.
Insulin is an important hormone from the pancreas most known for its role in blood glucose balance. But insulin also plays a major role in storage of fat in the liver and the production of cholesterol. When insulin levels get too high for too long, say from high intake of refined sugar, it signals the liver to store more fat. Over time, the cells can become resistant to the constant demands by the insulin. This drives the pancreas to produce even more insulin than before.
Although obesity is associated with fatty liver, fatty liver occurs in lean individuals as well.
Often weight gain around the middle is a sign of insulin problems, regardless of total body weight or BMI (a measure based on height and weight).
Other risk factors of fatty liver include PCOS, low thyroid function, Celiac disease, use of certain medications like corticosteroids, methotrexate and some genetic factors. Lifestyle factors like diet, movement, nutritional deficiencies are also major drivers of chronic inflammation and insulin issues. To make matters worse, common environmental toxins like glyphosate, persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals place added pressure on the liver. Lastly, gut flora imbalances and leaky gut can overwhelm liver function and lead to liver cell damage and increased risk of fatty liver.
To improve insulin health, reduce chronic inflammation and reverse fatty liver, here are 5 steps you can take:
- Choose liver balancing foods like cruciferous vegetables & whole root vegetables, squashes, fruits and grains instead of refined juice, sugar and flours.
- Avoid foods high in fructose: ie. sodas, agave syrup, high fructose corn syrup and excessive intake of fruit juice/fruit smoothies.
- Avoid foods high in unwanted chemicals like glyphosate, heavy metals and PCBs: ie. farmed salmon and soybean oil
- Movement is a natural way we express ourselves (consider how children walk or talk). According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Liver stagnation can develop overtime when we suppress our innate need to express ourselves. Choose body movements/activities that help to relieve stress – you’ll feel brighter and you’ll be supporting your Liver too.
- Fasting can help to normalize insulin levels and improve gut health. Start by making sure your overnight fast is at least 12 hours long. Then work with your naturopathic practitioner to determine how to optimize your eating/fasting time further to optimize insulin, reduce leaky gut and improve liver health
Learn more about how healthy bile and gallbladder function is also important in preventing and reversing fatty liver.
Thankfully the liver has a huge capacity to heal and recover – and diet and lifestyle changes are the most powerful tools to promote positive changes. As herbs, probiotics, vitamins and minerals can also be helpful, your naturopathic practitioner will determine the combination of therapies most suitable for your individual needs.
Let us know, what steps are taking for your liver health today?